September 7, 2020

BERNSTEIN | During (and After) the pandemic, Greek Life Needs to be More Environmentally Sustainable

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Greek Life, already, is unsustainable environmentally. Overuse of plastics and metal cans combined with poor recycling practices is disastrous for sustainability. And COVID-19 isn’t making these problems any easier to solve.

Did you know that Solo Cups aren’t recyclable? They’re made of polystyrene, which is a number 6 type plastic that also appears in styrofoam products. According to Recycling and Materials Management of Tompkins County, only plastics numbers 1, 2 and 5 are recyclable.

Greek life houses will likely go through thousands of cups and cans throughout the semester and very likely, these houses will have poor recycling habits to begin with. In fact, the president of Greeks Go Green, Stefan Engquist ’22, described recycling as one of the top priorities for the organization, which is a student-run group focused on making Greek Life more sustainable. “Sometimes people are too lazy to recycle,” he said. “It’s definitely something to work on this year. It’s super easy to do.”

But recycling may be getting harder with COVID-19. New Greek Life housing guidelines recommend grab-and-go dining, no water fountains and careful masking. These rules are all helpful to create a safer living space for Greeks, but they may lead to more waste — in the form of plastic silverware or styrofoam trays, single-use plastic water bottles, littered masks, et cetera.

Some initially viewed COVID-19 as a positive for the environment because of low carbon emissions on the year. But the pandemic can have disastrous environmental ramifications, ranging from a short-term increase in single-use plastics to a long-term fear of mass transit. It also reasonably distracts us from sustainability concerns — after all, the regulations put in place are meant to save lives. COVID-19 has, unfortunately, become a more pressing issue than environmentalism. For example, Engquist said that it could hinder his group’s ability to organize and launch initiatives.

But if there’s one shred of hope to rise from the ashes of pandemic, it’s that the global collective action of preventing the spread can be once again employed elsewhere. Because we’ll need it to beat climate change.

As true as it is that only the governmental and corporate powers that be can really save our planet’s environment, we each have a personal role to play. And playing our role starts by cleaning and greening up our tightest communities, at all times. We can’t even let a pandemic stop us.

This holds true for any student on campus, regardless of whether or not you’re affiliated with Greek Life. But the tightest communities for many Cornellians are their Greek Life organizations, and those communities often need the most reform.

It’s imperative you have a leader overseeing sustainability so that environmentalism always has a seat at the table in your house’s conversations. If you don’t already have one, your sorority or fraternity should designate a sustainability chair — and if you do, make sure that they’re held accountable. It’s everyone’s responsibility to participate in creating a cleaner environment, but a sustainability chair can direct your environmental efforts and ensure that the chapter is working towards being greener.

The number one thing to do for your environment at your Greek organization is recycle. Recycling more and recycling better can go a long way towards changing your house’s culture. Load up on recycling bins (which you can get from Student Management Corp. if your chapter is a member) and research what is or isn’t recyclable according to your waste collector (which may be the same service that Cornell uses if your house is on-campus housing). Some services, including Cornell’s, offer co-mingled recycling, where you can mix plastic, paper, cardboard, metal cans and glass all in one receptacle.

Having a sustainability chair and a good recycling habit, however, are the bare minimum of requirements for your chapter house. With COVID-19 regulations often leading to more single-use plastics, it’s necessary that students go beyond. Don’t let yourself fall into the trap of using styrofoam or plastic trays, cups, bottles or cutlery. You should buy your own reusable silverware, plates, straws and other utensils if you can. But even if you do, Greek houses still need to buy better.

Styrofoam and other number 6 plastics should be out of the picture as they’re not recyclable in Tompkins County. Consider compostable items instead. I know it’s a big ask to expect fraternity brothers to compost their cups the morning after a long night, but if even half the waste from a party is reduced, that can have a huge environmental impact. Besides, this isn’t just about cleaning up after parties; it’s about taking care of a living and eating space too. You can even talk to your chef or food provider about composting their scraps if they don’t already.

The action called for in this column is simple; it really comes down to reduce, reuse and recycle. We must go beyond the basic steps — for example, Greeks Go Green wants to work on providing solar energy to Greek Life houses this year — but, unfortunately, much of Greek Life still needs to fix the little things, and that adds up. With COVID-19 stopping parties and other Greek events for the semester, there’s time to work on environmentalism. Fraternities and sororities can’t let sustainability fall to the backburners, because then matters will only get worse.


Daniel Bernstein is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at [email protected]. Feel the Bern runs every other Monday this semester.