UTM has a dirty, stinking, rotten problem. And a team of UTM students were wrist-deep in it as they sorted through garbage from the bins in the South Building meeting place.
Known collectively as the Green Team, these students are employed by UTMs Environmental Affairs Office to conduct eco-projects around campus. Todays trash audit leads to a simple finding: UTM students dont know how to recycle.
Situated next door to this damning pile of trash is Bill McFaddens office, located within the newly renovated space in the former library. As director of UTMs Campus Hospitality and Retail Services, Bill is in charge of all the food services provided on campus, including the newly inducted Booster Juice.
Booster Juice, a smoothie and juice franchise that recently opened a branch in the South Building, uses polystyrene cups, commonly referred to by the brand name Styrofoam. Booster Juice has compiled a list of facts about their polystyrene cups that they post at each of their locations, in an attempt to expel the myths of Styrofoam.
According to Booster Juice, Styrofoam is better for the planet than paper cups because its recyclable, does not contribute to ozone depletion, and uses less energy to make than its paper counterpart.
Sitting behind his desk, Bill defends Booster Juice in the classic debate of paper versus plastic. Booster Juice is a cold product which requires insulation. The heat transferred from your hand to the cup changes the consistency of the product. Booster Juice has compared Styrofoam to different types of plastics, and this one worked best.
I would argue from the research Ive done, that paper cups are just as bad or worse than Styrofoam, Bill adds. Everyone thinks paper is biodegradable, but when you put a wax coating on it, its not. And paper needs trees. One 24 oz. Booster Juice cup uses just three of these little baggies, he says, holding up a small baggie with about a dozen tiny plastic pellets in it.
Bill promises that UTM is doing its best to resolve the polystyrene problem. It has been working with a Mississauga agency, the Canadian Polystyrene Recycling Alliance (CPRA) to have them recycle all their collected polystyrene waste. In fact, he assures that UTM will be touring the CPRA facility soon (no exact time frame has been set) to discuss how to streamline the process.
Sustainability coordinator of UTMs Environmental Affairs Office Aubrey Iwaniw however, is skeptical about Bills reassurances. He says soon , but soon never happens. Aubrey has an office just around the corner from Bills. Despite their physical proximity, they couldnt be any further apart in their environmental ideologies. Aubrey agrees that paper cups are not an environmentally friendly option, but she doesnt think that polystyrene is the best option either, because in the end its still disposable. Yes, Styrofoam is recyclable. Once. Then it sits in the landfill forever. But thats a mute point, because were not recycling it anyways.
Before Booster Juice even opened, Bill came to me and asked for my advice. I gave him three points if he wanted to bring Booster Juice onto campus. First, get them to agree to a discount for customers who bring their own reusable mugs. Second, dont offer any lids. And third, recycle the Styrofoam. He agreed to all three points and none of it is happening, claims Aubrey.
On the issue of the reusable mug, Bill is strongly against students bringing in their own containers. Booster Juice comes in a 24 oz product. We dont want students to bring their own reusable container because if we give students less than 24 oz of what they paid for, they will see it as a reduction in value. Booster Juice has sold reusable mugs in the past, and Bill insists that they are working on bringing it back. Booster Juice is working on a reusable mug thats currently on backorder. But its coming soon.
Guelph Students for Environmental Change (GSEC), the Universitys leading student-led environmental organization, is currently lobbying Booster Juice to change their Styrofoam packaging. Their Styrofoam Awareness Group (SAG) lobbied Hospitality Services to rid the campus of Styrofoam. They report that all other Hospitality Services have complied, except for Booster Juice (although it did allow Guelph students to use their own reusable containers).
Both Aubrey and Bills perspectives, however divergent, acknowledge that the most powerful agencies for change are in the hands of two campus groups: the students and waste management services.
Last year Pizza Pizza switched from using trays to personal boxes. This resulted in seven times more waste. The problem was addressed quickly because of protests from students and waste management services. The garbage cans were filling up faster, so caretakers had to work more. It became a justice issue, Aubrey explains. Its the trickle-down effect.
The student group Roots and Shoots, which headed the Pizza Pizza campaign last year, hasnt expressed any interest in Booster Juice.
There are assumptions made about waste, she adds. Because Styrofoam weighs very little, people think it doesnt contribute that much to the waste problem. And because its not adding extra work, the caretakers dont care.
According to Bill, its all about whats convenient for the students — whether or not theyll carry around reusable mugs, or sort their garbage responsibly. Of the ten things Canadians are most proud of, Tim Hortons is number one or two. Does this reflect the sad state of Canadian culture? Bill asks. I dont know. The point is, disposable cups are not going away. What are the alternatives? Bill doesnt believe the answer is in biodegradable plastics made from plants such as corn, because it diverts food resources. How sustainable is this to humans? Bill asks.
Aubrey concedes. She adds that biodegradable plastics still need oxygen and specific conditions to biodegrade. Its basically plastic with starch, she says, the plastic is still there on a cellular level and its not going to biodegrade in a landfill.
Both Bill and Aubrey can agree on one more thing at least. UTM needs to change their waste streaming approach, because right now theres no effective way to separate polystyrene from other trash. It will require the cooperation of everyone on campus to create a holistic solution.
Aubrey offers one last piece of cautionary advice: The answer is not recycling. Its energy and water intensive. You need a buyer for the recyclable material, so its market driven. The answer is reducing and reusing. We learned this in kindergarten, Aubrey says emphatically. Recycling is the endpoint.