Paper or Plastic: Either Way, We Lose
Delving into the waste production on campus and recent recycling efforts
We are wasting paper and plastic at an alarming rate – and all for the sake of a quick pick-me-up.
Students and faculty at KUA often swing by the coffee machine in the dining hall to make a cup of coffee or tea to bring on the way out. Personally, when it gets cold outside, I have the habit of taking a hot drink after breakfast and dinner on my way out. I notice that a lot of students do the same: Herds of students can be seen rushing off to class with paper cups in hands.
These cups are disposable; they are only used once and get thrown away into the bin once the contents are gone. I could not help thinking about how much waste we create every day.
According to our Food Service Director, Stephen Tragge, by the beginning of November, as a school we spent $818 so far on the coffee cups and plastic lids – that translates to 12,000 cups and 7,000 lids that were used and thrown away. Stephen orders new ones every week, and so these numbers only cover the first two months or so of school.
One of my friends has the habit of taking her Thermos bottle to the dining hall. I saw it as a great idea that will prevent the waste of paper cups, so I often do the same. The system isn’t perfect, though. Sometimes I forget to bring my thermos, and it is definitely more convenient to have cups ready in the dinning hall so students don’t have to carry their bottles all the way to the dining hall.
The dining hall staff do offer a more sustainable solution: students often use the stacks of plastic cups next to the juice machines to get drinks during their meals. These plastic cups go into the washing machine and are in circulation until they crack or shatter. However, if they are broken and have to be throw away, just like the plastic lids next to the coffee machine, they would add to plastic pollution and never dissolve completely.
During last family dinner, I was lucky enough to have a conversation with Dr. Kopp, the environmental science teacher at my table, to discuss the issue. Dr. Kopp mentioned that last year, the school’s sustainability and social entrepreneurship class had proposed some ideas to cut down on the wasting of coffee cups.
I arranged to speak with Dr. Kopp so we could have a deeper conversation about what KUA has proposed in regards to plastic and paper waste.
According to Kopp, last year the sustainability and social entrepreneurship class did three projects relating to the coffee cup Issue. The first one addressed the use of cups and plastic lids. The second one focused on solving the waste of coffee grounds. The third one was about where the coffee comes from.
The first project, tied to the wastefulness of paper cups and plastic lids, proposed the introduction of reusable mugs in the dining hall. Three or four years ago KUA used mugs in the dining hall, however when they ran low, they were replaced by paper and plastic ones. The students suggested that in order to prevent the wastefulness, when one gets admitted into a college or university, a mug or two from that college or university could be donated to the dining hall.
The second project dealt with the waste of coffee grounds. I hadn’t even thought about that side of the equation; I had been so focused on the paper and plastic being thrown in the garbage, I had forgotten about the other byproducts involved in the consumption of coffee.
In the past, coffee grounds have gone directly into the garbage. A student proposed a method of recycling in which they would use coffee grounds as a source of nutrition to grow mushrooms. He did a test crop, and the coffee grounds were mixed with straw and wood shavings. The substance was then inoculated with the spores of mushroom. The mushrooms that grew were then sold back to the dining hall, completing the cycle of reuse.
Both these projects saved some money and the funds were used to change the dining hall coffee to certified to fairtrade roasts. As Dr. Kopp said, these projects were created to improve students’ social responsibility.
Since these projects were class exercises and there were a lot of graduating seniors involved in them, these projects did not continue their operations. However, as a community, together we could make changes. Next time, when you throw away a coffee cup, make sure to throw it into the recycle bin. Plastic causes a lot of harm for the environment, but at least in that way it could turn into other components and get used in other ways.
I also brought up the topic of plastic cups and lids in the dining hall. Dr. Kopp said that plastic is “Down cycling”. It could be recycled but each time it becomes a lower quality product, which would eventually become garbage. This garbage gets buried in landfills.
For those of you unfamiliar with landfill procedures (like me), the method of burying the plastic is complicated and hopefully meticulous. Kopp explained, “Before they start putting in any garbage in it, they excavate down deeply, they line in with clay and water doesn’t go through the clay easily, and then plastic and then more clay and then crushed stone. So they create this landfill so that any rain that gets into the landfill goes down into the crushed stone in the drainage and gets treated to make sure it doesn’t pollute the environment.” Therefore, with little oxygen, no light and no water, there is no way for the plastic to decompose.
While people are still using plastic products in their daily life on and off campus, and sometimes it is unavoidable with a big community like KUA, there are still some changes that you could try to make the conditions better. KUA used to throw food waste into the garbage, but now the food waste is used to feed the pigs. There are better ways out there; it just takes a little creativity to find them.
We need to take ownership of our campus and our world, and work toward better solutions. I’m going to continue trying to use my thermos, and I encourage other students to work with Dr. Kopp and the dining hall staff to develop ways to respect our resources and our environment.