Students at Whittier College have ample stress returning back to campus — from rejoining a community in person, to staying in touch with family and friends in faraway places, and abiding by health and safety standards. While the College has done its . . . best in helping with such difficult times, they could certainly do better at minimizing waste and potentially being more cost efficient.
The College has appointed members of the faculty and staff to their COVID-19 Compliance Task Force — which sounds much more serious than it truly is, considering most of the students on campus are not aware of the daily health form, which is ‘mandatory’ in order to leave your dorm. WC offers hand sanitizing stations and has implemented new rules and standards in order to keep the community safe and minimize the fear of an outbreak.
Though, while everyone settles into campus life, there are some new things heavy on students’ minds; how will some of these COVID-19 regulations affect the environment in the future? I think this is something Whittier College seemed to have overlooked as they rushed to bring money to their pockets . . . or students to their campus, depending on who’s asking who.
While the members of this Task Force are working hard to keep everyone safe, it seems as though the administration over them are taking advantage of each corner to cut in the means of budgeting instead of what is best for the students and planet.
After speaking with the President of the Sustainability Club, fourth-year Scout Mucher, I was warned that many students have a negative mindset surrounding sustainability in the first place. Whittier is the larger institution at hand, and, while they are limited due to who they receive funding from, they are the real culprit when it comes to not adequately staffing the Campus Inn, or making financial decisions. “Since Whittier is an institution with more power than an individual and a considerably bigger footprint, I think there’s a lot of room for our campus to take more initiative with combatting these systems. [ . . .] The biggest issue I see is waste, both recyclables and food. These are deep issues that go well beyond campus, as 79 percent of all recyclable plastic ever made is currently litter or in landfills,” said Scout. She pointed out that Whittier, as an institution, is where the blame lies, rather than you, as an individual.
While students should be environmentally conscious and ask the sort of questions pertaining to what they could do to better the environment, it is important to remember that the U.S. as a whole thrives on a ‘single-use, buy more’ society.
Another wonderful thing Whittier College has implemented in order to keep students safe and limit exposure to COVID-19 is to provide single-use plastic for every meal, for every student — three times a day on weekdays and twice a day on weekends. Instead of washing cups, silverware, and plates, they provide prepackaged plasticware, feed us on paper plates or bowls, and encourage us to use a new plastic cup every time we need a refill. However, the CI still allows self-serve options, and, to make this safe, the staff switches out shared utensils every thirty minutes and washes and sanitizes them. While convenient for the already-overworked and mismanaged staff in the CI, it is not so great for the already-substantial plastic consumption Whittier College faces. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention does suggest that using disposable items is safer than using normal, sanitized, utensils; however, they also suggest not having self-serve options as a whole. This begs the question: is Whittier College doing this because they are thinking of their overworked staff, or because they’re only thinking about the money?
A commonly-overlooked issue in the realm of sustainability is the effects of disposable masks. When walking from my dorm in Harris to the Science & Learning Center, I counted 17 disposable masks on the ground. While my first thought was to pick these up and dispose of them properly, I realized that this would be unsanitary. One would think this would be due to a lack of trash cans on campus on my chosen path to the SLC, but that would be incorrect; I passed by three outdoor trash cans on my walk. I think students should take initiative to educate themselves about where these masks are ending up, even the ones that do make it into the garbage. Landfills and oceans are the last destination for masks that are properly disposed of, and we all know the damages this causes to our environment and its inhabitants.
A great measure of combating this would be purchasing a cloth reusable mask. The College did mail students cloth masks during the height of the pandemic, but, according to the COVID-19 Compliance Task Force, ceased the efforts because their “expectation is that everyone is responsible for providing their own masks to ensure a proper fit,” said Lisa Newton, Associate Director of the Office of Research & Sponsored Programs. As Scout mentioned, “Five dollars can get you 50 disposable masks, or one reusable one that will last you 10 times as long.” So, while disposable masks are great for those who are in urgent need for a mask, a cloth one makes more sense economically and environmentally. It is frustrating to see the continued use of disposable masks, especially when faced with gruesome numbers, such as “129 billion face masks being sold per month,” according to National Geographic, and knowing where those would end up.
I think that Whittier has been forced to face some difficult topics moving forward from the pandemic. They are offering disposable masks, sanitizing, appointing well-rounded individuals to their COVID-19 Task Force, and enforcing new COVID-19 regulations. They could, however, be more mindful of the footprint they are leaving behind. With hundreds of students living on campus, and hundreds more commuting, it is important to think about the impact of single use plastic in the CI and educating students on the benefits of cloth masks as opposed to disposable ones.
It is also just as important to keep us, the students, as safe as possible. In some cases, it is best to provide disposable masks to students who have forgotten or lost their own. It also makes perfect superficial sense to not allow students to share the same utensils after someone else touches them. While the overhanging questions of what scale of catastrophe this carbon footprint we are causing may leave behind, it is crucial that we are not placing blame on individuals and rather looking at corporations as a whole.
After asking Scout about what individual students may do to combat the ‘three steps backwards’ in the eyes of sustainability while also following COVID-19 guidelines, she had this to say: “This last year and a half, it has been essential to our health and safety that we use single-use plastic and disposable PPE, and also that we stop sharing communal resources. This does not mean we are unsustainable people or should feel guilty in any way for our consumption habits lately. Even in normal times, saving the planet is not the responsibility of the individual. We interact daily with big systems that were developed before we knew how they would harm the environment. Scientists knew, and corporations knew, but most people didn’t. So now we live in a world dependent on oil and plastic packaging. I think what becomes the responsibility of the individual is understanding how the planet is impacted and who is at fault. I would encourage Whittier students to learn more about unsustainable products and processes, but also just to put more care and thought into the things you purchase. Where is your money going, and who does that support? Are they thoughtful about how they make their product? What will you do with that product when you’re done using it? If you want to ask those questions, but don’t know where to begin, take an environmental studies course (many are interdisciplinary), or come to Sustainability Club. Get a reusable mask. Wash your plastic utensils and bring them to your next meal. Only fill your plate with food that you will eat.”
Scout’s response is a much more beautifully-written and well-said narrative than I could dream of stringing together. Asking questions is a step in the right direction, and understanding that, while Whittier may have had health as the highest priority, (or perhaps their financial status played a bigger role), it is important to question them as well, and to hold the institution accountable for the choices they make. The Coronavirus has devastated millions of people, and while it certainly comes last on the list of worries, people should definitely keep in mind what happens to the products they are using once they are finished with them, and keep in tune with their footprint. This is a time of learning, and, while Whittier is doing its best, there is certainly room for improvement.
Featured Image: Courtesy of Waste 360