College Failure to Recycle Shows Carelessness

Rollbacks on recycling during COVID-19 have presented the College with an enormously difficult task: absolving itself of liability for increased pollution while maintaining the appearance of sustainability. The fact that the College is making a remarkable stride toward carbon neutrality via ground-source heating does little to acquit the institution of fervent greenwashing. What is striking is that all too often, the College only puts its money where its mouth is when the change actually saves money — as is the case with the replacement of the disintegrating, century-old steam heating system. 

If the College had a real desire to reimplement recycling, there would be an avenue to do so using curbside bins rather than dumpsters. Instead, recycling bins that simply get emptied in the garbage remain conspicuously placed around campus buildings, presumably for no reason other than to assure admissions tours that we are, in fact, recycling.

Still, recycling has only ever been a band-aid solution to the waste stream, a nasty symptom of Oberlin’s addiction to resource consumption. On a surface level, recycling seeks to transform the waste stream — a term used to describe the entire life cycle of garbage — into a closed loop whereby there is no waste. This, of course, has never been the case because of the inability to recycle a significant portion of disposables. Additionally, while recycling drastically reduces carbon emissions associated with production of glass, paper, and plastics, energy input is still required to transport and transform waste into usable materials.

Oberlin has a plan to achieve carbon neutrality by 2025, but it has no such plan for reducing the usage of disposables, or even just single-use plastics. Plastics and other waste products from Oberlin continue to end up in the Black River, causing the proliferation of microplastics in the very water we drink — a direct impact on our community’s health. Given the current lack of recycling and the impact of plastic pollution on our community, the College had an opportunity to use this moment to commit to plastic bans at an institutional level, rather than shrink back from our values of sustainability.

Instead, the College sits idly by. At the onset of COVID-19, the assumption was that plastic, being easy to clean, could cheaply cover everything, from food to your face. During this time, single-use plastics and other disposables proliferated. The College was no exception to this trend, and because of this, personal agency during the pandemic has been severely limited when it comes to the use of disposable plastics. Students were forced into meal plans in which the only option was grab-and-go, making disposable cutlery and containers unavoidable.

Inexplicably, AVI Foodsystems maintains the use of disposables at Clarity, Umami, and other dining locations at which plates or reusable grab-and-go containers could be utilized. Former College Sustainability Manager Bridget Flynn and the Office of Environmental Sustainability worked tirelessly to implement the reusable container programs across campus in order to combat Oberlin’s pollution relapse, but to little avail.

As community members have limited agency to choose alternatives to disposables, now, more than ever, it is important to demand institutional change. Unfortunately, there is little we can do to eliminate plastics from our waterways, but we can stop normalizing the use of disposables — especially plastics — in our dining facilities.

In an ideal world, recycling embodies one of the core tenets of sustainability: orchestrating a perpetual balance among social, economic, and environmental systems. Every change has an impact on the system that we live in. Some actions, especially those at institutional levels, have more apparent impacts, but even small effects accumulate.

Consider the impact of a single cigarette butt discarded in the street around campus. It seems minuscule and therefore permissible, so it is rather common to flick it away without a second thought. That simple action and oversight, repeated by any number of the one billion people worldwide who collectively smoke 5.7 trillion cigarettes per year, compounds to become a much larger problem. Rain runoff carries many of these butts to storm drains, from which they flow into streams, rivers, and, ultimately, the ocean — contributing to the single largest source of solid-waste pollution in waterways, according to Ocean Conservancy. 

Recycling is not pointless and neither are other efforts to reduce waste. Actions matter. While these actions are more effective at an institutional level, you, as an individual, are not powerless to make positive changes to the environment or the health of your community.