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October 21, 2020

Plastic Film and Nasty Dumps: Can Cornell Live Up to Its Reputation of Sustainability?

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I am a freshman in the School of Engineering and an international student. This last detail is important because from Aug. 17 to Aug. 31, I had to quarantine in my room, eating only the boxed meals provided by Cornell Dining. During, and well after my time in mandated quarantine, widespread complaints about two issues circulated: The overuse of single-use plastics and inadequate waste disposal. Every student I talked to feels guilty about the ridiculous amounts of plastic used by each and every dining hall.

I never thought that three pairs of dollar store, reusable utensils would be so useful, but because of them I never needed to use a single one of the plastic utensil packets that came with every one of my quarantine meals. Washing and reusing my flatware allowed me to see the plastic packages for what they were: Unnecessary. By the end of the 14 days, there were 29 packets in my bag — some wrapped individually, others not. Now, almost one month later, they still sit in my room. They have not changed, just as they wouldn’t change if they were sitting in a landfill. Plastic doesn’t disappear — not inside my room or outside in nature. It only gets smaller and smaller, degrading into microplastics that infiltrate the soil and sneak into our aquifers.

But those single-use utensils are only the ones in my hands. On average, dining halls and eateries will distribute two, sometimes three, packets per person. There are currently 15,043 undergraduates at Cornell, so even if only one fourth of undergraduates eat at dining halls, up to 22,566 pairs of single-use, non-recyclable packets could be thrown away each day. That is 157,962 packets per week, and 631,848 in a month!

  I wish I had spoken out sooner because maybe then we could have prevented our entire community from creating all this unnecessary waste. However, it only occurred to me later when I saw shiny stacks of throw-away containers ready to be filled with salads, dressings, fruits and beverages, as well as the plastic film wrapping thousands of apples at every exit of every eatery.

I suggest that single-use plastic items be replaced by their reusable or sustainable counterparts. Here are some ideas:

  1. Give all students a reusable water bottle, eliminating the need for plastic cups. If the average student uses one plastic cup per meal, this could avoid disposing of around 11,283 plastic cups per day!
  2. Replace the pre-packed salad stations with salad bars, and allow salads to be put in the entree container. Not only would this stop the need for separate salad and topping containers, but it would also encourage students to eat more greens. The current boxed salads don’t look too appealing, so it would be great to choose your own toppings and quantity to suit your diet and preferences.
  3. Dining halls should use reusable tupperware, and disposable plastic cutlery should be switched to metal cutlery. Students can keep their utensils inside the tupperware, and drop it off at the same place where tupperware is currently dropped off. If losing metal flatware is a concern, dropping it off should be required to get a new set. This should not conflict with COVID safety precautions: If staff members use dishwashers and wear masks and gloves, cleaning will be safe.
  4. To avoid the need to wrap plastic cutlery, they could be kept in covered boxes and distributed by a staff member wearing gloves and a mask.
  5. If individually wrapping apples is necessary, all apples should come in wax paper instead of plastic film.

If we were guaranteed that all our plastics were being recycled, my conscience would be clear, but overflowing trash cans, sickening mixtures of white cardboard, food scraps and plastic wrappers are common sights that have concluded every student’s meal in the past month and plague various public spaces on North Campus.

“There are barely enough trash cans to throw away our junk, let alone recycle it,” admitted a freshman, visually frustrated to contradict the sustainability oath Cornell had inspired her to take. It’s true that some parts of campus do make distinguishable efforts to improve their waste management — Mattin’s, located in Duffield hall, has three visually distinct bins to separate recycling from organic from trash. Nonetheless, in a campus as big as Cornell’s, most spaces don’t have trash cans or recycling bins. If people don’t have access to trash cans, they will be tempted to litter, even if they do care about sustainability.

Yet, overflowing trash cans are only the beginning of some of the stories I have come across these past weeks. The first day out of quarantine, I met a girl who showed me a drawer full of empty water bottles she was reluctant to throw away — Clara Dickson’s recycling, I learned, had been completely shut off. Another day I met a boy who stacked the salad containers under his bed because he said if he gave them a second use he wouldn’t feel so guilty about having used them in the first place. There are many others: Some arrive at the dining hall extra early to ask for unwrapped apples, others hold on to their yogurt cups and use them for storage and others simply cancel their meal plan to avoid participating in the creation of so much waste. Whatever their background, all incoming Cornell students are made to write about sustainability before starting their semester, so not a single one of us is unaware of what our food system is doing to the planet. My suggestions for dealing with all this waste are the following:

  1. That one, large-sized recycling bin be placed beside every trash can, with very clear and visual differentiation between the two.
  2. That there are two recycling bins in every lounge of every residence hall.
  3. That more trash cans — and their recycling counterparts — are put around green spaces such as: The fields around North Campus residence halls, the Slope, West Campus and the Quads.
  4. That the compost system is reinvigorated, and organic bins for compost are put in eateries and every residence hall’s lounge and kitchen. These should be actively maintained and visually recognizable as compost because the ones currently found in our kitchens are rotten and unrecognizable — probably why nobody uses them.

We understand these are difficult times and that safety is currently the main concern. However, I believe there are sustainable ways to ensure security against COVID, reduce the reliance on single-use plastics and properly dispose of different kinds of waste. It’s time for our campus to reflect what the press, other universities and thousands of people admire about Cornell. It’s time to live up to our sustainability STARS Platinum award, regardless of the adversities we face. It’s time to reform our system. It’s time to scrutinize our methods. It’s time to take action.

Andrea Miramontes Serrano is a freshman in the College Engineering. She can be reached at am2389@cornell.edu.