It’s white. It’s nasty. It’s non-crushable. And we know it all too well. I am referring, of course, to Styrofoam.
Students at St. Mary’s are all too familiar with the egregious sight of 268 boxes piling up on Campus Center patio on any given day. Because as it turns out, that’s how many boxes we go through a day. Two hundred and sixty eight.
It’s not just a matter of aesthetic costs, however. Our guilt deepens when we remember that Styrofoam, a material manufactured with petroleum and all sorts of non-eco friendly products, is not biodegradable. That means when our 60,000 boxes a year end up in a landfill, they never disappear. They will stay there until the apocalypse, or until the day that the Great Room stops serving tots at brunch; whichever comes first.
In 2011, a group of students came together to request that a pilot program for an alternative be implemented in the Great Room and at all dining service locations around campus. Although it may come as a surprise, the original proposal was meant to phase out Styrofoam completely. Two years later, we can see how deeply this effort has failed.
Not only is Styrofoam by far the most preferred option for a takeout container, but the reusable to go box, or oyster shell, program has some pretty blatant flaws. We’ve all had that one box we keep in our room for weeks on end until it goes moldy. We all know that friend hoarding two or three boxes in their room. Without a proper incentive structure, there is zero reason to return the box, and thus they lie, rotting, all over campus. That’s bad college policy.
This is concerning for a number of reasons. We know, for example, that the Office of Sustainability purchased 2,000 boxes initially. An astonishing 828 of them have never even been opened, representing $2,650 in wasted money. BonApp estimates that it washes around 25 of them daily, so where are the remaining 1,147? Without proper tracking, we have no way to account for these lost boxes. That’s a potential of $6,320 in wasted expenditures. Talk about a misallocation of resources.
And we’re not just talking about fiscal resources. When you think about it from a materials extraction standpoint, it takes around 40 returns of an oyster shell for it to be better than Styrofoam. On its 40th optimal use, that box is doing something good environmentally. So all of these lost and unopened boxes represent an incredible waste of natural resources.
The other half of the eco equation, of course, is pollution. Each reusable oyster shell supposedly represents a Styrofoam box not making its way into a landfill for all of time. But as we have demonstrated, SMCM’s flow of Styrofoam into the municipal landfill is not being diverted in any significant way.
So why not recyclable or compostable boxes? Well, quite simply, because neither of those alternatives as currently used could actually be recycled or composted. At St. Mary’s, we cannot recycle or compost any box that has been contaminated with food grease, sauce, oils, meat, dairy, fish, or eggs, which disqualifies around 99% of the boxes being taken out of the Great Room. This is a classic example of greenwashing, or fake green advertising. You are not doing with this product what you intended to, and it will end up in a landfill all the same.
Additionally, these faux green alternatives would cost thrice the price of Styrofoam – a cost that could eventually be transferred onto meal plans. So, $15,000 a year for a product only marginally better for the environment? Doesn’t sound like a solution at all.
There is, economically and ecologically speaking, one solution that makes very clear sense. I am speaking, of course, about all renewables. We could switch to an all reusable system next year and completely eliminate Styrofoam, and before you panic – let me explain.
The Sustainability Fellows and Student Environmental Action Coalition (SEAC) envision this happening in a variety of ways. Firstly, we would completely digitize the system. That means no more pesky oyster shell tokens, but wholesale integration with the OneCard. So when you go to swipe, if you have a box out, you get a “red light,” but when you return it, your status returns to a “green light.” Every student would start the year out with a “green light,” which equates to a fresh oyster shell waiting just for them.
Additionally, we envision building flexibility into the program by allowing students to have two boxes out at a time. So if you take breakfast to go, bring it back to your dorm room, and return to the Great Room later on without a box, you can still get your second meal to go. It’s just that you eventually need to return both boxes in order to avoid paying a replacement fee of around $3.20. It might sound kind of sucky that we’d have to pay for lost boxes, but unfortunately it’s the only way the program will work. That’s how to avoid the dilemma that we’ve gotten ourselves into.
Finally, while behavioral change is always hard, this is really a relatively easy transition to make. The drop off stations for next year will include the Great Room, open everyday from 7 AM to 8:30 PM, and a Pub on North Campus, open 5PM to 2AM. So you’d have two drop off stations at key locations on campus, with widely expanded hours. Ideally, at the beginning of the year, RAs or Orientation Leaders could take the time to explain the oyster shell program to incoming first years as well as returning students. That way, the idea of returning a box gets built into the campus culture over time.
We have a number of other reforms in mind, such as the administration adopting responsibility for a dining services program rather than students (it should really be someone else evaluating a college program, and not us), and the elimination of Styrofoam cups near the ice cream station in lieu of a more eco friendly alternative. We will also, of course, keep a minimal amount of a disposable (but not Styrofoam) option in reserve for guests visiting the college or people who lack a meal plan and will not feasibly be returning to a dining location anytime soon.
So if you are sick of this ghastly sight, and think it’s glaringly hypocritical of us to tout our green label to the outside world while piling up 268 boxes a day of non biodegradable crap, then let’s go ahead and do this. I would exhort everyone to join us in the fight to switch to all reusables. It’s an adjustment we can easily make, with great environmental and budgetary benefits. Come on, St. Mary’s; let’s hold ourselves to a higher standard, and begin paying more than lip service to sustainability.
If you are interested in supporting this program, please contact your SGA senators, to be found on the SGA website. If you are interested in participating in the oyster shell program in the short term, contact Becky White at firstname.lastname@example.org. Please note that the drop off locations for this semester include the Upper Deck, the Pub, and the Great Room, and that you do NOT need to clean your box before returning it (just scrape off the food).