Let’s Talk Trash at Amherst

Every day, our campus community disposes of thousands of single-use items from dining services, according to Director of Dining Services Joe Flueckiger.

Although we don’t see the genetically modified corn that goes into our compostable Grab ‘n Go containers, or the mountains of our recycled plastic bottles exported to communities across the globe, we are implicated in these processes. As a community, it is time that we recognize our complicity in an ecologically and socially harmful global waste scheme, and take immediate action to address it.

You might think that because Amherst recycles and uses compostable plastics, we have nothing to worry about. I need not mention that these processes require student participation to be effective. But even when they do work effectively, recycling and composting are not solutions to our waste problem — they are merely band-aids.

In the U.S., one-third of recycled plastics, which are made from petroleum, are exported abroad, almost exclusively to developing nations, according to a New York Times report. These recyclables are often contaminated with hazardous materials, which wreak havoc on human and ecological health in the communities they are dumped in.

Compostable plastics, which are plant-based, tend to be sourced from industrial agriculture. They can only be broken down under extreme temperatures in industrial composting facilities.

An enormous amount of energy goes into the production, transportation and disposal of everything we use, contributing to greenhouse gas emissions and resource depletion. No matter how we dispose of single-use items, the disposal site (and its associated harms) is disproportionately likely to be located near a poor community of color, either domestically or abroad. This is blatant environmental racism.

Fortunately, there are steps we can take right now to reduce our participation in the unsustainable and immoral global waste system.

The next time you go to Valentine Dining Hall, consider bringing a reusable container for your snacks instead of using to-go cups. Take a travel mug to Frost Cafe. Switch from bottled water to a reusable bottle.

As an institution, Amherst should strive to remove all plastic bottles from campus, use china and glassware at as many events as possible and transition to reusable containers at Grab ‘n Go. With student support, all of these changes are eminently achievable — many of our peer institutions implemented them years ago. Smith College, for example, switched last year to a waste-free Grab ‘n Go. Students exchange a token for a reusable container, and get their token back once they return the container to a designated location for cleaning.

Waste reduction is one of the most overlooked, yet impactful, ways to alter our campus’ ecological footprint. Although waste from dining services comprises only a portion of our waste overall, I believe it is the best place to start. The choice is, quite literally, in our hands. Let’s begin the process of extricating Amherst from the global waste regime.