A week into our quarantine, my dormmates and I sat on the lawn outside of Stevens, munching on our sandwiches and wraps when another member of our dorm trudged out the front door dragging a bulging black trash bag across the concrete on their way to the dumpster. Our house counselor noted the remarkable speed with which the trash had filled and implored us to step up if we saw this happen again. I sat on the hillside as two brave souls worked together to pull the beast of empty milk cartons, days-old wraps, and half-full plastic containers to the dumpster about two dozen meters away.
This monster, the accumulation of our waste in the common room, filled up in just a few days, and only represents a fraction of the waste we produce as a dorm. It’s not hard to imagine where it all comes from; practically every meal during quarantine was wrapped, packaged, and eaten using plastic. And this, along with all the other kinds of waste we produce, accumulates. I’d imagine that at this point, we as a school have already produced a small hill’s worth of trash. It’s as if we’d forgotten what it was to live conscientiously.
According to Allison Guerrette, the Campus Sustainability Coordinator, the dining program had hoped to use compostable containers from the start of school, but found they could not retain enough heat. Though I personally would have preferred the compostability anyway, I understand this is an insurmountable issue, especially with the time limit of students arriving on campus. At least it was the original plan.
Thankfully, however, the issue wasn’t set aside and ignored upon this revelation: my meals have started appearing in the Big Blue Greener reusable containers. I’m elated to report that the system is well-designed and runs smoothly so far, especially for how large of an undertaking it is. There is no doubt that this system is much more work: food waste is kept within the reusable containers for staff to collect, compost, and they must clean each case thoroughly before using it again. While I’m worried the energy consumed in the cleaning process will somewhat negate the benefit of reusable containers, it is healthier for the planet in the long run, and more importantly, sends a message to members of the community.
At my old school, when the Covid-19 crisis hit, we switched to purely cups and containers. Even our fruit was packaged, and everything was thrown in the trash or composted. Regardless of compostability, however, I felt disgusting everyday as I ate with my friends and saw the daily tower of little plastic cups grow in height and begin to topple. At the core of it, the problem wasn’t whether or not I was doing harm to the environment. It was the fact that our “sustainability” melted away as soon as it was difficult to achieve. It felt as if the environmental work we had done was not grounded in the belief of its importance as much as it was the idea of an environmentally-conscious school.
Trash is not always about trash. Sometimes it is a mindset. This switch to reusable containers shows me that Andover truly does care, and that is equally as important as the effect on the planet. It shows me that I didn’t choose incorrectly in coming to this school, this campus, and that my future matters. The world around us is crumbling in so many ways, and it’s often easier to pretend that is not the case. The arrival of the Covid-19 pandemic is a crisis no one can nor should ignore, but equally as disastrous is our planet’s failing health. As much as we would like to forget about climate change, that will only make our situation more dire.
I’m not going to pretend that we, a few hundred students eating cold eggplant meatballs out of plastic containers, were single-handedly hauling the Earth to its death bed as we might haul our trash across the street. But when I see this school working to alleviate the climate crisis, it reminds me that there is more that we can do, more that we should do. It reminds me I affect the world around me, and I’m elated Andover knows that too.