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A Costly, Complicated Folly

Although it was a noble effort to reduce waste and expand environmental awareness, the reusable cups program was a costly, complicated folly. As was predicted by its critics, the attempt by Bon Appétit to have hard plastic reusable cups has been swiftly abandoned. No longer will they be stacked in dorms or campus houses. No longer are they seen left ironically in front of signs advertising their return to the dining halls or Sayles Café. Bon Appétit has since returned to the less prestigious practice of having disposable compostable cups (which are an admirable step up from using Styrofoam).

The experiment was dogged by logistical problems from the start. Bon Appétit opposed the cups, as they felt they would not be returned, and facilities opposed them because they did not want to have to deal with the mess, and they also did not want to use an employee to ensure their return to Bon Appétit. They also opposed them because of the problems of cleaning them: stacking wet cups is a sure fire recipe for mold. Neither wanted bins in housing or educational buildings, due to the mess they would cause and the hassle it would be to empty such bins. Hence Bon Appétit voiced their concerns and opposition to the idea of reusable cups for some time. Due to the lack of bins, many students found it to be an inconvenience to return them, leading to their accumulation in town houses and dorm rooms across Carleton. It was also unfortunate that the first batch had the word, “recycle,” on them, and many students were led to believe the recycling bin was the best place for them. The advocates of the project believed that the best system was a 1-1 system, where the number of cups matched the number of students, such as giving students their own cups. However the CSA was prohibited from funding individual student property. Doing this would have given every student a nice piece of Carleton paraphernalia, to cherish for years to come. Or they could be lost or never used due to the inconvenience of having to clean them, bringing back the need for the disposable variety.

Bates College in Maine does provide a model for reusable cups, similar to the one which operated at Carleton. Yet, it required personalized containers with barcodes. The cups were inserted into a large machine estimated to cost up to $200,000 in order to keep track of how the student body returns them. The complexity of the system (in a school with only one dining hall, not two and a café) does not bode well for an imitation here or at most institutions.

SOPE is quick to point out that over 900 students voted for it, and 200 voted against it during the spring term of 2014, and there was vocal support from a large portion of the student body during the process. However, college students can be flaky. Many students (of which I am a frequent offender) are on mailing lists for clubs they had no intention of actually joining. Support at study breaks and in the election is not a commitment to wholeheartedly complying with the proposal. It is telling that a large number of students did not even vote for or against the proposal. Yet, proponents of the reusable cups took this as a sign that the student body was in full support of the pro- gram. Perhaps this was a core flaw in the cup program. Students were anonymous when they took them out, and returned them again. There was no public pressure to return them. Hoarding also proved to be a sensible idea as they are good quality cups, and seem at home in dorm rooms. Hence a high level of commitment was needed for it to be successful. Yet this commitment wasn’t present. Not every student is interested in activism, and not everyone cares about the environment. And for the large number who are concerned about the environment, this does not mean they felt a burning desire to return their cup to the proper place as soon as they finished their hot drink.

Successful environmental strategies build themselves into the fabric of everyday life, such as being able to put your cup in the compost rather than make it a permanent fixture in the landfill. Having students carry around used coffee cups for the day for the convenience of taking a hot drink to class is not the best way to ensure environmental conscientiousness. The proponents of reusable cups assumed too much about the level of student commitment and the system became too cumbersome to be practical. This was the core reason why the program failed. In an ideal world, altruism could have trumped inconvenience, yet even the student body of Carleton is not ideal. Environmental awareness is an admirable aim, yet efforts aimed at promoting it must keep in mind human frailties, or fail because of them.

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