From a Broken Promise, Glimmers of Hope Still Emanate: Swarthmore Pledges to Reach Carbon-Neutrality by 2035, But Why Does It Feel Like We Don’t Care?

Mairo Yamano // The Phoenix

imagine a lush garden

fill your pockets with freshly torn grass

so that you carry the burden of the Earth

For the past couple of months, Magill Walk has been closed for construction. The exposed steel pipes perfectly bisecting the trees along the walkway are a part of the college’s new geothermal heating system and are a big stepping stone toward our goal of carbon neutrality by 2035. Aside from the minor inconvenience of having to traverse the loop-the-loops to and from the Matchbox, what is our role in all of this? What exactly are we contributing to achieving the college’s goal? And why doesn’t Swarthmore feel like a sustainable campus yet?

As I exist, floating around this campus space, I am constantly conscious of how I am playing into the college’s collective carbon footprint. There are certain issues that have particularly been bothering me because they can be easily fixed, but are left completely neglected. The college seems to have big (public, and hence innately performative) goals on its to-do list, but that doesn’t mean we can’t also make small changes that not only engage students actively in sustainable practices but also have the potential to build into bigger environmental and social impacts.

For instance, have you ever considered where the hundreds of plastic takeout containers from Yangzi and Shere-E-Punjab go every day? Both the incinerator and recycle bins are constantly overflowing in Sci Center, filled to the brim with disposable (read: landfill) food containers. Clearly, we lack some consensus on how to deal with the vessels that house our beloved supermarket-grade, week-old sushi. To rinse or not to rinse. To incinerate or recycle. Both important questions. And while I would personally defer to a GA about the nitty-gritty of either dilemma, it seems the general suggestion is to rinse plastic containers before recycling. But that can be a lot to ask. What if the nearest sink is on another floor like in Essie’s? Students’ willingness to participate in a sustainable ecosystem is necessary but insufficient. It is also imperative that students push the college to incorporate the infrastructure necessary to scaffold the sustainable practice to which we aspire. 

Carbon neutral means zero waste. That’s something that a big fancy geothermal plant is not going to magically solve for us. And while the possible solutions are nowhere near as flashy, it’s something that we as students can play a more direct role in. We must ask questions like, “Why can’t the college provide vendors with compostable containers?” We certainly have the leverage to do so, and it would not hurt small businesses. In fact, they would be saving money on containers! 

And if the college really can’t provide compostable containers to outside vendors, why not provide better education around what to actually do with the containers? This guide for waste disposal is a start, but Sci bathroom sinks aren’t quite built for washing away curry and rice. Unless some big systemic and psychological changes are made, I doubt washing containers before recycling will become the norm. Along these lines, we might also ask, “Why do we offer bottled water at Sci and Essie’s?” Moreover, “Why is bottled water an option for the meal swipe beverage?” I often see students who, despite having reusable water bottles in their backpacks, still grab a bottle of water just because they didn’t feel like getting anything else. It’s the autopilot response. 

The same can be said about utensils on campus. It is abundantly not clear that students are supposed to be using their own reusable utensils at Sharples. Unfortunately, there has been no communication by the college to students about this expectation: no signs, no emails, no nothing. And due to this negligence, it is increasingly common to see Sharples single-use plastic utensils discarded in compost bins, only to be sorted out by a GA. Confusing messaging around the compostability of these utensils (they’re not) has certainly not helped the situation for Essie’s and Sci. 

Even at Swarthmore, where academics revolve around constructing nuanced and subtle arguments, we are not immune to the most basic human instincts. We fall prey to conforming to the dominant response, the choice that requires the least amount of thinking. We grab what is in front of us. Amidst the buzz of campus life and back-to-back classes, we become numb to the banality of wasteful and environmentally destructive practices. Just because our trash is out of sight by the next day doesn’t mean we are absolved from engagement with its materiality. If we are to genuinely integrate an active environmental consciousness into our lived experience, we would all benefit from taking some time to self-reflect on our priorities and values. If we truly care about our residing on Leni Lenape land, how might we reconsider the ways in which we interact with our food? If we truly care about Chester, how might we reconsider our relationship to the things we use and immediately discard? 

While I can’t personally help you settle your metaphysical qualms about environmentalism, I can propose a simple solution to our waste problem: what if the college stopped offering one-time use utensils altogether and forced students to be sustainable out of necessity? Because if the threat of global warming isn’t motivation enough, maybe not having a spoon for your soup will be. Like the plastic bag ban in Philly, if we stop displaying easily accessible disposable utensils out in the open, we increase the psychological barrier to mindlessly grabbing incinerator-bound utensils. Sure, there will be some pains in the process, but that might do us some good in the long run. 

To be carbon neutral is not the mere absence of fossil fuels. It means creating an integrated ecosystem of engaged students that prioritize sustainable practices. Seemingly, a painfully large proportion of students have no idea (or regard for) how to compost. This puts an undue burden on not only the EVS — whom I think everyone can agree should be treated with more respect — but plays into the myth that anything tossed into a bin is no longer our problem. The bigger issue of the failure of America’s recycling system means even things we recycle are not magically whisked away. But awareness of how to reduce waste and recycle and compost is a start. Everyone wants to be sustainable. At the very least, it makes people feel good about themselves. We just have to make the sustainable choice the easy one, and that’s something we can definitely work towards. 

if met with moldy bread or pastry

do not throw it away

instead, sow it into the ground

with a magnolia seed

so that it is

not wasted

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