If you’ve ever eaten at the Grill, you’ve probably also drank out of a Greenware cup. Among the most obvious features of these cups is their bright green labeling that informs the savvy consumer about the cups’ eco-friendliness. Less apparent, however, is the fact that these cups cannot be recycled. When they were first released, the recycling team actually had to put up signs to divert well-meaning students from throwing them into the recycling bins. Now they end up in the trash along with everything else.
St. Thomas perhaps does not realize the irony – or does not care – about using “green” cups that cannot be recycled. In point of fact, the cups are compostable at the right facilities, but this would only matter if the school had the infrastructure in place to get them there. This practice of appearing to practice environmental sustainability without actually doing so is often referred to as “greenwashing,” and by all appearances the St. Thomas administration is perfectly content with the results. After all, TommieMedia pointed out the shortcomings in this and other new “green” measures last December. Still the cups remain; an insult to the intelligence of the students who use them.
Part of this problem can be traced to the lack of a coordinated commitment to sustainability at every level of administration. While St. Thomas does have a sustainability committee, industrial and organizational psychologists have long known that there is only so much an isolated part of an organization can accomplish without the awareness and support of the larger community. Currently, this department has limited influence, and often most students are unaware of its environmental initiatives.
This is a shame, because most students do care about environmental issues. A 2008 survey by The Princeton Review found that 63 percent of students would value having information about colleges’ sustainability practices, and that this information might impact their decision of which schools to apply to or attend. Another survey of 240,580 college students conducted by UCLA found that 45.3 percent of respondents rated “adopting ‘green’ practices to protect the environment” as either “essential” or “very important” to them.
Here at St. Thomas, a recent study found that more than 70 percent of students surveyed moderately or strongly agreed with the statement “Protecting the environment is important to me.” Only a tiny minority of 5.6 percent scored neutral or below on this question. Clearly there is a disconnect between what we believe and value and what is actually taking place at St. Thomas.
As an institute of higher learning, we should be on the cutting edge of issues such as sustainability, rather than being dragged along by the trends others set. The best schools already are – Harvard, Yale, Berkeley and other elite academic institutions are the leaders in sustainable practices. Locally, St. Thomas is also falling behind the University of Minnesota, Macalester and others who put a group effort toward more sustainable living rather than token efforts by a small group of concerned stakeholders. This should be especially embarrassing for a Christian institution, since we are failing both as academics and as stewards of creation.
The good news is that we can make real improvements if everyone just does a little. You can help out with simple contributions such as turning off lights, unplugging large electronics at night and taking the stairs instead of the elevator. All these behaviors are relatively easy and help reduce our energy consumption.
Even more importantly, write a short message to the administration to let them know sustainability matters to you. Ultimately, the school will listen to its students if we actually make the small effort to voice our values. If enough of us get the message out there, St. Thomas will make protecting the environment for all of us a priority instead of just an afterthought.
Chris Huber is a senior at the University of St. Thomas.