Fork Over the Plastic Utensils: Sustainability Interns Tackle Waste on Campus (Op-Ed)

Let’s face it. Colgate has a problem with waste. While we reached our goal of carbon neutrality last year and continue to earn high achievement LEED Certifications for our environmentally-friendly new buildings, Colgate is still in a committed relationship with plastic utensils, packaging and containers. This semester, the Office of Sustainability interns are trying to change that. 

While it’s hard to say how many forks, spoons and knives are tossed away each year in America, we are a culture that thrives on ordering take-out and eating meals on the go. Yet, this mobile-meal lifestyle has a huge environmental impact, and its ease comes at a cost. National Geographic estimates billions of plastic utensils are thrown away each year, and most are only used once. Further, The Ocean Conservancy lists plastic cutlery among the items “most deadly” to sea turtles and marine mammals. As a society, we’ve taken on the reusable straw trend in order to #savetheturtles, and with the soon-to-be plastic bag ban effective March 1 in New York, we are making strides and changing our behavior to help our planet. But, the bring your own (BYO) cutlery movement should be given more weight, as plastic food-related waste and packaging is one of the ten most common items to end up in our oceans and landfills. 

If the statistics of the environmental cost of plastic cutlery don’t do it for you, consider the fact that President Casey recently committed Colgate to a lofty sustainability goal: becoming a zero-waste campus by 2025. 

Speaking to this campus initiative, junior Christina Weiler discussed the recent trend in going zero-waste. 

“Phasing out single-use plastic now can prepare our institution to comply with future regulation as municipalities, states and peer universities alike begin banning plastics like bags, cutlery and straws from food vendors,” Weiler said.

The concept of zero-waste is becoming increasingly popular, influencing individual lifestyles and prompting behavior changes. In essence, zero-waste living is a set of principles focused on waste prevention, encouraging the redesign of resource life cycles so that all products and materials are reused. The goal is for no trash to be sent to incinerators, landfills or the ocean.

Zero-waste living sounds great in principal; however, there are legitimate questions regarding what zero-waste living could feasibly look like on this campus. For instance, the “take-out,” “on-the-go culture” of the Coop contributes to a large part of Colgate’s food related waste stream. In addition, students within their first two years are required to be on the unlimited, Gold Raider meal plan; nearly half of our student body is encouraged and incentivized to eat at the Coop and the Chobani Cafe, in addition to Frank, to make the most of their dining plan. While it’s hard to quantify the exact environmental impacts of this, it’s certainly significant that two-thirds of our dining centers serve most of their food in one-time use, disposable containers to at least half of our student body. 

Regarding this concern, senior Claire Carson would like to see a stronger initiative from our institution to phase out plastic waste.

“I’m slowly working on the little things I can do to be more sustainable, like not using plastic utensils. But I don’t think it should be on the individual. Plastic utensils shouldn’t even be an option on a campus that cares about climate change,” Carson said.

In order to make campus-wide changes in our waste stream, the Sustainability interns are tackling the most feasible issues head-on. To reduce our usage of plastic utensils at the Coop and the Chobani Cafe, the food-related waste behavioral group launched a campaign centered on reducing this waste in dining halls and at campus catering events. For example, the group encourages Brown Bag events to request no plastic silverware from our caterers in town and provide students with reusable silverware during the events. In addition, when hosting events, coordinators should ask students to not only bring a reusable beverage, cup or mug, but suggest students bring a set of silverware as well. In fact, for centuries, it was uncommon to travel without a set of reusable silverware. If you didn’t know when or where your next meal was, it made perfect sense to carry an extra fork or spoon in your bag so that you were prepared. 

If we all went home to our dorm rooms, apartments and townhouses today and looked around for a spare fork, knife and spoon, we’d likely be able to find more random silverware than we would know what to do with. Several of the Broad Street Houses provide students with silverware or have extra bins of utensils that go unused as well. 

With unlimited puns surrounding silverware, plastic and the environment, keep on the lookout for posters in the bathrooms and bulletin boards of some of our campus’s most frequented buildings. For starters, we suggest you fork over your plastic utensils, and consider carrying a set of silverware on your person all the time.

 The food-related waste intern team consisting of senior Elaina Alzaibak, sophomores Kelsey Bonham and Willa King and myself will be raffling off reusable silverware sets, silverware wraps and to-go utensil carrying containers as well. Throughout the semester, you can find us tabling in the Coop on Mondays and Thursdays, and distributing our informational posters so that all Colgate students are encouraged to become silverware stewards.