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The Carletonian

The Carletonian

A Farewell to Cups (For Now)

<and reusable cups experiment of fall 2014 is over. Despite a student vote of 914-242 in favor of the initiative, $8,000 in CSA funding, and 8,000 new cups purchased, Carleton’s dining halls once again use disposable takeout cups in lieu of a reusable option. As Bon Appetit stated, “the reusable cup program that was piloted during Fall Term has been discontinued. It was not sustainable since most of the cups were never returned.”

As students in SOPE (Students Organized for the Protection of the Environment), we have been pushing for reusable cups in Carleton’s dining halls for close to five years. And despite this setback, we’re not done yet. The purpose of a pilot program is to learn lessons, not to determine the absolute worth of a concept. We are currently at work at the next iteration of the reusable cup project, hopefully coming to a campus near you some time in 2015 (and no, we don’t mean St. Olaf–they don’t even have a takeout policy). In the meantime, here are some of the lessons that we learned from a term of reusable cups at Carleton, in the hopes that they might inform some critics and provide a shining light to future generations of Carls looking to make the world a more sustainable place.

First, from an environmental perspective, the discontinued reusable cup program was still better than compostable cups. Before this fall, Carleton students used an average of 6,000 cups per week, or 60,000 per term. According to the manufacturer, one of those reusable cups became preferable to a compostable one after four uses. This means that 15,000 reusable cups would have represented an environmental outcome equal to the status quo. Carleton used only 6,000 cups this fall. Despite the loss of cups and other problems with the program, it yielded a net environmental benefit.

Second, the logistical hurdles that felled the cups program demonstrate the power of institutional resistance to change. Many people have offered opinions on why so many cups were lost. One zealous critic on Overheard at Carleton claimed that “the lack of anticipation of this result is entirely a sign of poor planning.” Trust us, we would love it if the world were so simple. In fact, SOPE collected student input for the cups program on five different occasions just last year. Attention was paid and plans were made. Our intrepid internet critic forgets the importance of another factor: the ability of bureaucracy to derail even the best laid plans.

Because plans mean nothing if no one wants to take responsibility for implementing them. Everyone agrees, for example, that the reusable cups program would have done better if every building had a collection bin; but collection bins need people to empty them, and people need to be paid. Between Bon Appetit, Auxiliary Services, the Treasurer’s Office, and others, everyone agreed on a common problem, but no one seemed interested in being a part of a proactive solution. And in a large institution with multiple centers of power, decision-makers too often see obstacles as insurmountable rather than as challenges to be overcome.

Third, even when we agree with it, change is hard. Ultimately, although some fault lies with Carleton, Bon Appetit, and SOPE, the real reason for the failure of the cups program is all of us. 914 people voted for the cups program, 79% of those who cast votes. If 79% of us had returned our cups, a lot more of them would be left today. But holding ourselves accountable to our own standards is a challenge for everyone. Believe it or not, SOPE doesn’t stand on some self-righteous pedestal: we, too, found cups in our rooms sometimes. One ardent supporter of ours once handed us a molding stack of 9 from on top of their bookcase. And even the Wellstone House of Activism was always full of several cups at any given time. The cups program should be a reminder to all of us that words are sometimes easy, but actions are always hard. As a school full of students that like to talk about fighting systematic oppression and injustice, it’s worth it to remind ourselves that we need to fight it not just in the classroom or when we have our activist hats on, but all the time: in the way we live our lives, not just in the way we conceive of them.

Another commenter on Overheard wrote that “people don’t operate on inconveniences.” Maybe that’s true. We live in a world where the consequences of our actions extend far beyond our line of sight. Each bite of food, every piece of clothing, every object that we rely on has a story, and that story is often ugly. We operate in a productive but exploitative global economy, and every day through our consumption we may tacitly support worker exploitation, human rights violations, animal cruelty, and toxic pollution. Even in the classroom or in a late night conversation, these are uncomfortable truths to stomach. Imagine if we stopped to think about all of this every time we’re running late to a 2A. It would be immobilizing–talk about inconvenience!

So maybe we shouldn’t spend every day wallowing in despair over the condition of the world. It doesn’t sound like a lot of fun, and it sure won’t help change anything. Neither will withdrawing ourselves entirely from the act of consumption; there’s nothing wrong with wanting to carry a hot beverage. But while we cannot vet every item that comes into our lives, we can minimize our impact in small but tangible ways. Maybe we can learn to think of the cup in our hand as a privilege, and to value it accordingly. An Overheard commenter wrote that “people prefer the readiness of the compostable cups at a moment’s notice that are then easily discardable and forgettable,” and that’s true. But is it good?

The reusable cups remind us of a JFK quote, in which he talks about choosing to do things (going to the moon) “not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.”

Let us do likewise.

And if you want to get involved as we get ready to move forward, you can contact the SOPE presidents at murciab, lukinss, and smitha. We’d love to hear from you.

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