Changing the culture: the University’s inconvenient truth


Emily Haas, Contributing Writer

Campus initiatives

Our environment is changing, and the pursuit of sustainability is not only important, but essential. There are currently three different branches dedicated to sustainability on campus: the Office for Sustainability, the University’s Center for Sustainability and the Environment (BCSE), and the President’s Sustainability Council (PSC).

The Office of Campus Sustainability focuses on implementing programs and initiatives on campus, and is headed by Debbie Namugayi. The BCSE focuses on the academic aspect of sustainability and includes the Renewable Energy Scholar program, along with research internship opportunities. The BCSE also hosts speakers discussing topics on the environment. The PSC acts as the University’s leadership team with the primary responsibility being developing and implementing the University’s Sustainability Plan.

Many initiatives have been implemented to make campus more sustainable. For example, all of the items that students leave behind in their rooms at the close of each semester consistently end up in the trash to be transported to landfills. Many of the items students deem as trash are actually desirable to individuals in surrounding communities.

To combat students’ wasteful habits, nonprofit vendors and rescue workers come to sort through the trash to benefit some cause. This initiative has had different names over the years, ranging from “Trash to Treasure” to “Sustainable Move-out.” Nonetheless, the event will occur again this year.

The Bison and Bertrand Library Café encourage a Reusable Mug Program, which allows students to purchase a sticker to place on their own 16-ounce mug and entitles them to a discounted coffee refill price. Additionally, students have the option of purchasing a reusable to-go container in the Bostwick Marketplace for $5.00, available for purchase from the Bostwick cashiers.

The University has also led initiatives in awareness and education, including lectures by various staff members to fraternities about the importance of recycling in their houses. Residential advisors are trained about the importance of encouraging residents to recycle on their halls. Posters have been placed on recycling bins and trash cans informing the campus what can and cannot be recycled.

The unfortunate truth

All of these initiatives are innovative and effective, in theory. The problem is, most of them are not working.

“The community, in general, does not seem to have the waste-reduction culture that needs to be in place,” Director of Operations Merritt Pedrick said. Although students, faculty, and staff members may support the presence of sustainability on campus, the culture is not on board. While some initiatives have been achieved and are presently having a profound impact, such as tray-less dining and double-sided printing, the majority of environmental initiatives that require individual decision or effort have not been acted upon by the student body.

Sustainability Coordinator Debbie Namugayi held a similar position at the University of Maryland before coming to the University. The Sustainability Outreach Team she worked with in Maryland had a very strong presence on campus. To this point, Namugayi said “the sustainability program at Maryland has been in practice for ten years. I have been here for 7 months. We still have a lot of room to grow.”

It is not really clear why the community is not more sustainability-oriented. “There are many who believe in sustainability practices and do a really good job with it, but there are some who just don’t care. It has to be pretty much across the board for it to work well,” Pedrick said.  This really hurts when it comes to recycling, because if an individual carelessly throws trash into the recycling bin, the whole load must be thrown in the trash, even if there were items in the load that could have been recycled before they were contaminated.

In 2017, 21.17 percent of waste at the University was recycled and ranked 134 out of 190 competing universities last year in RecycleMania, an eight week competition for highest recycling rates and waste reduction against more than 300 schools. Waste produced on our University’s campus is significantly higher when compared with other universities. During RecycleMania in 2017, the average amount of waste per person for 8 weeks was 91.8 pounds, putting the University in 92nd place out of 98 competing universities. Last year, the University produced 1148.7 tons of waste, and with only a 21.17 percent recycling rate, a lot of that waste was sent to landfills.

The recycling rate is also on a decline: in 2015, the University’s recycling rate was 28.57 percent.

“The most important of the 3 R’s (reduce, reuse, recycle) is to reduce,” Namugayi said. Waste reduction really is the first step towards a more sustainable campus. Changing the culture of overconsumption can first be achieved through implementing more mindful consumption behavior. University sustainability initiatives will not make a difference unless the culture of negligence towards sustainability changes.

“We are trying initiatives that other students at other universities have suggested and have had minor successes but for the effort involved and with the minimal success that we get it’s just not sustainable for us. I attend recycling conferences with other staff members. When I talk with other schools, it seems like they just have to suggest an idea and it takes off, particularly through the student involvement. That just doesn’t happen here. I’m hoping someday that does come around. We’re going to keep trying,” Pedrick said.

What students can do

The University hopes to achieve carbon neutrality by 2030. Instead of waiting until it is essential that we reduce less, students need to start practicing the sustainability initiatives already in place now. The inconvenient truth of the University is that the campus culture does not really embrace sustainability, and that needs to change.

There are endless ways students and faculty can become more sustainable in their daily lives and can become more involved in sustainability efforts here on campus. Some of these include using reusable take-out containers, participating in the Reusable Mug Program, donating or reusing intact dorm items at the end of the year instead of throwing them away, trying producing zero waste for a day, making an effort to recycle what can be recycled, and walking to class, just to name a few. Students can also participate in RecycleMania.

University students, faculty, and staff can make a difference everyday by cutting down on waste and recycling as much as possible. Last year’s results demonstrated that we are one of the most wasteful schools in the competition, producing enough waste to fill the Sojka Pavillion floor 18 feet deep in one semester. Creating a more sustainable University needs to be a collective effort, and shifting the culture begins with each individual.

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