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For Trash at Harvard, Out of Sight is Out of Mind

By Jenny M. Lu
By Morgan L. Whitten, Contributing Opinion Writer
Morgan L. Whitten '21 is an Environmental Science and Public Policy concentrator in Adams House.

Plastic has made its way from the top of Mount Everest to the depths of the Mariana Trench. It is frozen in Arctic ice and coursing through our own bodies. Plastic is churned out at a rapid pace that has surpassed most other man-made materials. Half of all the plastic that humans produce becomes trash in less than a year, and it takes more than 400 years to degrade. At Harvard, the lifespan of much of our plastic is particularly short: the time it takes you to eat lunch.

After Harvard transformed normal operations to re-open safely amid the pandemic, many students returned to an unrecognizable campus. Once the hub of many students’ social lives, dining halls were reconfigured to prevent Covid-19 transmission from indoor dining. Students now receive their meals in plastic containers, which they carry in plastic or paper bags to their rooms. There, they eat with plastic cutlery and drink out of plastic water bottles. They microwave their food in plastic containers, whose “microwave safe” labels do not guarantee that they’re free of risk to human health. Then, the dumpsters fill up. Harvard is leaving students with no choice but to accumulate intolerable and unnecessary amounts of garbage. But if we recycle, it’s all good, right?

Well, no. Often, recycling confuses or frustrates. Perhaps worse is when it satisfies. Even when we carefully rinse, sort, and separate, we’re only washing our hands of our mess. It doesn’t disappear.

This is not a comment on Harvard University Dining Services’ service or quality, which has been stellar in difficult circumstances. This is about Harvard reneging on its commitment to sustainability.

Coronavirus spreads primarily through respiratory droplets, not from surface contact. So, with proper cleaning, reusable containers and bags are safe. For plastic cutlery or plastic water bottles, there is no Covid-related justification — only a predilection to take the easy, wasteful route.

It should come as no surprise that the plastic industry is cheering on and encouraging our collective backsliding toward single-use dominion.

Plastic manufacturers want you to think that recycling is the solution to the pollution they generate so that consumers internalize the blame for the debris that is accumulating in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch or washing up on remote island beaches. But very little of the plastic we toss in the blue bin actually gets recycled; in fact, less than 10 percent does. So, nearly all of the plastic produced piles up in landfills or drifts elsewhere in nature.

But the plastics crisis isn’t just harming the planet — it is also a human rights problem. The United States incinerates more plastic than it recycles. And disturbingly, nearly 80 percent of waste incinerators in the U.S. are in low-income communities and/or communities of color, exposing residents to carcinogens and toxic gas that plastic combustion creates.

The United States also exports its plastic pollution, offloading our waste onto countries less equipped to handle it.

Since China stopped receiving American plastic waste in 2018, the United States is increasingly turning to the Global South as a dumping ground. Because plastic is so difficult to recycle, and because we chuck such massive quantities, even countries that banned certain single-use plastics internally are now overwhelmed by our garbage. As a result, our excess is destined to clog poorer nations’ soil, air, and water for centuries.

But while plastic manufacturers initiated this catastrophe, we consumers perpetuate it. We have an obligation to change our behavior and lead by example. Harvard can and should responsibly provide meals without excessive waste.

First, plastic bottles can be easily eliminated. The Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection maintains that tap water in Cambridge is carefully tested and safe to drink. But many students prefer extra-filtered water, particularly if they come from places with unsafe tap water. Therefore, Harvard should launch a water safety education campaign and provide reusable bottles and water dispensers in hallways.

Second, though paper can be more easily composted or recycled than plastic, paper bags require a lot of energy and resources to create. There are trade-offs with every type of bag, but one thing is certain: Reusing is what makes the difference. Three bags per student per day is excessive. Harvard should require students to bring their own bags, as well as arrange dining halls so that students can collect their meals without passing their bags to HUDS staff.

Third, Harvard should do away with plastic cutlery, which is not recyclable. Harvard should provide students with stainless steel forks, knives, and spoons, as well as dish soap and cleaning supplies. Harvard may be concerned that students would not properly clean reusable cutlery. If that is a concern, shouldn’t Harvard also be concerned about students leaving food to rot in their rooms? Or whether Harvard students are properly brushing their teeth?

Harvard’s overreliance on disposables is not necessitated by public health measures, but rather is a symptom of widespread and destructive carelessness. You may doubt that any of these changes would make a dent in a problem of such massive proportions. It is easy to think individual consumption changes are futile when the impacts are hidden from your sight. However, to dig our heels into our outsized footprints is to further the idea that Harvard students are somehow entitled to undue convenience and wastefulness at the expense of others.

Morgan L. Whitten '21 is an Environmental Science and Public Policy concentrator in Adams House.

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