Letter: St. Thomas should make sustainability a priority

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.

13 Replies to “Letter: St. Thomas should make sustainability a priority”

  1. Good article! I didn’t realize that the cups weren’t recyclable, and I wager that many students agree with me as well. The fact is, sustainability just makes sense; in the long run, it saves money and natural resources. All it takes is a little effort. Also, with the new campus development projects like the AARC and the Anderson Student Center, I think it is time for UST to really overhaul it’s environmental programs.

  2. Thank you, Chris, for reminding us of the challenge we face in becoming a more sustainable institution. It’s true no coordinated commitment to sustainability yet exists from administration nor does it from faculty, staff, or students. Cultural and behavioral change is slower than we’d like. Nonetheless, UST has made commitments to sustainability and we should celebrate those changes. Greenware cups are not recyclable but they are compostable. Eureka has a pilot program to compost not just Greenware but food waste city-wide. It takes time to put such structures in place. The Food Service response to student concerns about using Styrofoam is not greenwashing. It’s progress. Progress is a community garden being planted in the “green space” behind BEC, two Hourcars, a Bikeshare program on campus, the annual purchase of enough windpower to power all the residence halls on north campus, and the construction of a LEED silver student center. Progress is commitment to reduce/offset carbon emissions every year toward the goal of carbon neutrality by 2035. Progress is http://www.stthomas.edu/sustainability. Could we, should we, do more? Yes! But that takes commitment and involvement. We do need even more student participation and vision. Momentum is building! Join us

  3. I thought I heard that the cups are compostable? So, if I am correct, then throwing them away is kind of ok?

  4. Dylan, I addressed that within the article. The cups can be composted, but they need to be sent to a special facility rather than simply thrown in the garbage. Currently UST still does not have a means to collect and compost them.

  5. Mr. Douglas, the University of St. Thomas is only concerned with being green when it improves their image. UST purchased hour cars because its something tangible that they can show incoming students and alumni. This characterized almost every green effort at UST. Other energy saving practices (like setting up timers on computers around campus so that they turn off at night, putting aerators on the sinks, improving the absolutely terrible insulation around windows in residence halls) are completely ignored. These are painfully obvious solutions! Some friends and I brought these issues up at the town hall meeting last semester. USG responded, saying that UST was committed to being green, and cited as evidence that 20+ new LCD TVs were being purchased for the Anderson Student Center to eliminate the paper waste from billboards. This sort of incompetence permeates UST’s sustainability efforts. They’d rather buy new things to show off their green pride than doing the little things which actually make a difference. 

    Chris, nice article.

  6. Thanks for seeking clarification Dylan, and thanks to everyone who has given constructive feedback rather than trolling. :)

  7. I completely agree with the suggestions proposed in this letter. I thought it was a bit shocking when I found out the Starbucks cups that were promoted as recyclable was in fact not. It was a step up from the Styrofoam cups we used to have, but if an effort was going to be made, why do a half-hearted leap; such as the “greenware” cups. I both agree with both Mr. Douglas and Mr. Milner. Behavioral and cognitive changes takes more time to prevent frustration, and while UST is attempting to have little green steps, Mr. Milner makes a great point when stating that their efforts are a bit muted by their actions (and non-actions. I commend you Chris for writing this letter, it’s a step towards the right direction. I hope it gains the momentum it needs to propel a real effort by staff, faculty and the student body. 

  8. P Milner, You seem to always have a negative view of St Thomas. Bob just pointed out some positive steps being taken and the need for more action. Maybe you need to ask what you can do for the St Thomas Community and not just post another rant against our school.

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