Sometime during last semester, as I stood in line for the microwave in the Sunshine Cafeteria, I caught myself observing the various behaviours of students passing through. Mostly they gathered napkins, pumped ketchup, filled paper cups with sriracha—nothing exciting. But then, as I started watching the cutlery bins beyond the tills, a troubling pattern emerged. What I noticed was the astonishing number of people who, given the option between a metal utensil and a plastic one, chose plastic, even if they had decided to eat their lunch inside the cafeteria. At first I thought that maybe I had too quickly jumped to a conclusion, that I had observed far too few people to make any kind of serious judgement. But, as my shepherd’s pie spun in the microwave and students continued flooding past, the disturbing trend repeated itself again and again.
This got me thinking about sustainability on campus. More specifically, it got me wondering whether students and policy makers at UBCO are doing enough to reduce the amount of waste produced on campus every day.
Just recently, staff at the Sunshine Cafeteria posted signs above their cutlery bins stating that the plastic forks, spoons, and knives offered to students are biodegradable. Intrigued, I took a plastic fork for closer examination. The fork’s manufacturer turned out to be Dixie, a company well known for their single-use dinnerware and plastic cups. I visited Dixie’s website to learn more about this product, and though I could not find the materials used to produce the fork, I did find, in an answer to a frequently asked question, a statement that reads: “Dixie products are not suitable for home composting.” Disappointed, and not satisfied, I dug a little deeper. Then, through an online product information record provided by a bulk supplier of Dixie products, I discovered that Dixie-brand forks are in fact composed of polypropylene, a commonly used plastic that is absolutely not biodegradable. Still not wanting to jump to any conclusion, I decided to send an email to UBCO Dining for an explanation. Perhaps those forks were just old stock that needed to be used up. Maybe they were just temporary stand-ins for the more eco-friendly cutlery soon to be unveiled. I hoped this confusion could be cleared up with a simple explanation via email. Unfortunately, however, almost two weeks have passed since I enquired to UBCO Dining and I have received no response.
But Sunshine is not the only high-waste hub on campus.
Earlier this summer, Starbucks announced that they would be improving their sustainability by eliminating plastic straws from all their locations by the year 2020. And according to Starbucks manager Kate Thompson, that process of elimination has already begun at our campus’ location. Thompson says that while plastic straws are still currently in use, customers can request the new straw-less lids, which are fully recyclable. She also points out the fact that customers can get reusable plastic straws when they purchase select reusable Starbucks mugs.
Unfortunately, however, when it comes to Starbucks’ waste on campus, straws are only one part of a bigger problem. Anybody who has walked the halls of the arts building mid-afternoon, before the custodians have had a chance to change the overflowing garbage bins, can attest to the startlingly high number of coffee cups that pass through our campus. An obvious solution to this problem is to start encouraging students to order coffee in porcelain mugs, but since our Starbucks does not exist within its own enclosed space, baristas are not allowed to provide washable mugs, even if customers request them. This means that, unless students bring mugs from home, every coffee ordered from Starbucks must come with its own disposable paper or plastic cup, and all that waste has to go somewhere.
Fortunately, UBC Sustainability is working to ensure that those recyclable cups actually get recycled. Their new, plainly labelled garbage, compost, and recycling bins make it nearly impossible to mistake garbage for recycling, or vice versa. But for the bins to make a real difference, students will have to do their part and think twice before discarding waste.