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Observer Editorial: Dive deeper into going green

| Friday, September 25, 2020

The return to our campuses came with many changes, one of the most notable being the new take out requirement at all dining halls and on-campus eateries. All food is packaged in single-use containers. All utensils are designed and distributed to be thrown away. Individually packaged bags of carrots and cling-wrapped donuts wait to be picked up and tossed.

This reliance on single-use materials might be the safest way for institutions to ensure the cleanliness and safety of all those involved in the food distribution process. But at what cost?

Recycling is often touted as one of the best ways to “go green” — but the process is more complicated than it seems. The reality is that 91% of plastics aren’t actually recycled. In the past 60 years, 8.3 billion tons of plastic have been produced, 9% of which has been recycled, 12% burned and 79% placed in landfills.

Additionally, the only types of material that can be recycled are clean recyclables, which are completely free of food or other residues, even if the material is plastic, aluminum or cardboard. Because of this difficulty in implementing clean recycling, Notre Dame has placed a “temporary pause” on campus recycling programs, Saint Mary’s has started only recycling cardboard and Holy Cross does not recycle at all.

At the encouragement of students, Notre Dame Dining has taken measures to find more sustainable practices across campuses to lessen the production of waste. Notre Dame has stopped distributing food in plastic containers and no longer provides to-go bags, and Saint Mary’s restarted its composting program — both encouraging steps toward a more sustainable campus.

Caitlin Jacobs is the associate program manager at Notre Dame’s Office of Sustainability. Jacobs primarily works on student outreach and looks for new ways to encourage the community to be eco-friendly.

The Office typically works to see where Notre Dame’s waste really goes after leaving campus. This plan was upended when coronavirus safety measures were taken.

The Office of Sustainability partnered with Campus Dining to provide every Notre Dame student with a dining plan with two sets of reusable silverware, Jacobs said. Assembling every kit by hand, Jacobs hopes this will be the first step of many in helping students find ways to live more sustainably on campus.

“We wouldn’t be doing that if we didn’t feel very strongly that this is something that needs to happen,” Jacobs said. “The amount of waste needs to change and students are asking for that.”

The Office’s work with Campus Dining is a promising step, but the responsibility to follow through with sustainable living falls on every single one of us. Our administrations can provide eco-friendly options; however, the rest of the tri-campus community must commit to using these options.

SGA Food Sustainability Chair Grace Floerchinger said Saint Mary’s Student Government Association and the Food Committee are partnering to bring reusable utensils and to-go bags to Noble Family Dining Hall, though they have yet to purchase the materials. A survey will be distributed throughout the community to gauge the likelihood of students using these replacements for the plastic containers that have been used since the start of the semester.

The overflowing towers of cardboard to-go boxes stacked on top of the campus’ garbage cans have become a familiar sight.

“There’s just so much plastic,” Floerchinger said. “It’s very alarming.”

Though recycling might not be the best option given how frequently recycled materials are disposed of improperly it is a good first step toward sustainable living. Recycling on campus needs to be an option, and there must be clear instructions for those looking to recycle.

Additionally, we implore our institutions to release comprehensive, transparent information about recycling programs and provide guidance about the best recycling practices on campus. This information is crucial for encouraging students to be able to make sustainable choices regarding their plastic usage. Knowing where waste goes will also encourage the community to think about waste production and find new ways to cut back.

These next steps become more of a shared responsibility. Invest in a reusable water bottle, and be sure to fill it up before starting the day. Take that reusable bottle to the dining hall, and pass on the disposable cups. Purchase the giant carton of Goldfish, and fill reusable containers with a daily snack. Carry reusable silverware, and use it as frequently as possible.

The tri-campus is unified under Notre Dame Dining services, and we hope they can all begin working together to find new solutions to regulate sustainability practices within the community — starting with the towers of to-go boxes spilling out of the campus garbage cans.

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