Campus culture shapes and even produces behaviors and practices that are unfriendly to the environment. Food and energy waste is a major, direct influence colleges have on the environment.
At all-you-can-eat dining halls, students tend to grab more food than they need trying to get the most out of their expensive meal plans, resulting in tons of food being unnecessarily thrown away.
“Food has pretty high environmental costs; water, land and fossil fuel in particular,” Plattsburgh State senior Christopher Nicholson, a double major in ecology and english literature, said. “Every bit of food that we throw out is like throwing out the land, water, and fuel resources that were spent to create it.”
Single-use plastics, such as utensils, cups, lids and bags, which are extremely prevalent on campus, are also very harmful.
“These single-use products are so successfully marketed as convenient, that we don’t even think about it,” Nicholson said. “All of these single-use products are derived from fossil fuel, so they feed into that environmentally harmful industry, plus, unlike recyclable plastic bottles, they go straight to a landfill, where they will sit for roughly 500 years until they decompose.”
Until recently, PSUC went through roughly 300,000 plastic bags in an academic year, according to PSUC junior Kyle Visoky, who spearheaded a successful movement to remove plastic bags from campus dining facilities.
The campus culture in many ways trickles down from the culture of the broader society that continually demands we consume more stuff.
“We’ve been raised in a society that is designed to use more resources because that keeps our economy going,” PSUC sociology professor Lauren Eastwood said. “So it’s really hard to then make the argument to change that culture on a micro-level here on campus.”
The layout and structure of college campuses have consequences for their environment as well, according to Eastwood.
“The one example I would use for SUNY Plattsburgh is the availability of parking, and the lack of ease of walking places,” Eastwood said.
“When I came here for an interview, one of the first things that struck me was the main streets running through campus. What that indicates is that the car is the most important piece, and the person is not.”
Eastwood compared this car-based culture to the culture of Copenhagen, Denmark where people can and do bike all winter long because the designated paths are taken care of.
Eastwood said institutions here in the United States across all levels of society need to ask themselves how to produce behavior that’s environmentally friendly and how to make it normal and comfortable.
“Our culture influences our behavior in many ways,” Eastwood said, “and that culture can be structured.”
Eastwood acknowledges that there’s a fundamentally unjust practice at play as well as the U.S. uses most of the world’s resources.
“Even people who are not all that wealthy in the U.S. are using a disproportionate amount of resources because that’s how our society’s structured,” she said. “It’s not right for us to assume the world is there for us to use.”
Further studies on environmental justice reveal the particular ways climate and environmental changes disproportionately harm people of color and low economic status both locally and globally, according to Nicholson and Visoky.
“The environmental impact that we cause has the greatest impact on the people with the least money,” Visoky said. “It’s very unfortunate because we don’t see the impact of us throwing away garbage all day.”
Many of these harmful practices are easily mitigated. Nicholson and Visoky said serving yourself smaller portions is the best first step to combating food waste.
“Take less food, and then go up for seconds,” Nicholson said. “No one will judge you.”
Purchasing meat and vegetables from local farms are a great, affordable way to help the environment, Visoky, an environmental science major, said. Every year for a period of time, Visoky purchases his food through a farmshare process known as culturally supported agriculture.
“I get a lot of my food from a farm,” Visoky said, “because it wasn’t sent thousand of miles over trucks and planes.”
During the rest of the year when farms are not in growing season, Visoky is conscious to limit consumption of plastic.
Bringing your own reusable utensils and cups to campus dining services reduces use of single-use plastics.
“At Tim Hortons, if you bring your own thermos or travel mug, they’ll charge you for a small regardless of the actual size,” Nicholson said. Einsteins Bros Bagels offers a similar deal as well.
Nicholson said issues concerning apathy toward and ignorance of environmental issues are the biggest indirect harms of PSUC on the environment.
“If you aren’t in one of a few majors, odds are pretty good that you can graduate from SUNY Plattsburgh and never ever learn a thing about climate change or environmental issues,” he said.
Visoky credits this lack of concern to a disconnect between people and the environment.
He said he thinks when people are more connected to their environment, they are more conscious of things like littering.
Visoky and Nicholson agree that it’s important for students to understand that these harmful changes to the environment affect everyone.
“Our impact now is affecting our children, if anyone wants to have them,” Visoky said. “We’re borrowing this earth from them. When we’re long gone, they’ll still be here. It’s just selfish to not care now because you’re putting all of this onto someone else who doesn’t want it and played no part in it.”
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