Truong: Is It Easy Being Green?

Convenience is necessary for sustainability efforts to be implemented.

by Valerie Truong | 10/5/17 12:30am

Today, we often let convenience make our decisions for us. The easiest and perhaps the quickest option usually wins. The rapid growth and success of online retailers such as Amazon offer proof that many of us would rather click a few buttons than get ourselves to a store to buy the things we need or want. It’s just so easy. In the past two weeks, I have ordered a rain jacket, face wash, a phone charger and a comforter through Amazon. Yes, I could have walked down to CVS or taken the free shuttle to West Lebanon to buy these items, but why leave campus when I can make purchases from the comfort of my dorm room? Yet this convenience comes with an inherent trade-off in sustainability. Ordering things online multiplies the amount of packaging needed. Instead of the singular box an item comes packaged in at the store, the shipping process uses an additional box and tape that would not otherwise be needed.

Another convenience we take for granted is take-out containers and bags. From Styrofoam take-out boxes to plastic smoothie cups to plastic shopping bags, we can easily grab these single-use commodities at just about any restaurant or store. We take them, we use them, we throw them away. Bringing our own reusable cups and shopping bags is more tedious than grabbing these items that are already at the establishment. And at the end of a meal at restaurants, how can we choose between wasting food and getting a to-go container?

Rosi Kerr ‘98, Dartmouth’s director of sustainability, said that the challenge of sustainability comes from the fact that the most sustainable option depends on each individual situation. Compare leftover steak to leftover salad. A large amount of fossil fuel inputs and greenhouse gas emissions were required to produce the steak, so even if the take-out container is made of non-recyclable Styrofoam, it would likely be better to take the steak home. However, if you have leftover salad, which requires less greenhouse gas emissions to produce, deciding whether to take it home or not becomes more complicated when you factor in the take-out container. Is it made of Styrofoam, hard plastic or recycled paper? In American restaurants, the easiest option may be to cut down on waste by reducing portion sizes. Kerr believes that in an ideally sustainable world, there would be regulatory mechanisms in place so that no restaurant gives anyone a Styrofoam container. But in our current state of sustainability, we all need to be cognizant of the impacts we make on the environment when we choose convenience.

In a culture where time is constantly ticking away, Mother Nature bears the consequences of our ever-increasing desire for convenience. According to the Dartmouth Sustainability Office’s website, Dartmouth generates 7.5 million pounds of waste each year from food, trash, recycling, electronics, tires and construction waste. Leftover food is composted, trash is dumped in the Lebanon landfill and recyclables such as hard plastics, bottles, cans and glass are brought to a facility in Rutland, Vermont. However, students are notoriously bad at sorting their food. Kerr notes that at places such as Collis Center, where students sort their own waste, there is essentially zero sorting behavior on average — all the bins are full of exactly the same materials.

I am guilty of this behavior myself. Rushing to my next class after finishing my bowl of stir fry at Collis, I dump the empty but oily paper bowl into the compost and attempt to sort the fork into the trash, disregarding the carefully designed signs that show examples of the items that go into each bin. In actuality, both my plastic fork and my paper bowl are now considered trash because they have been contaminated.

Unfortunately, everything that students throw into the compost bin, even if it is trash, remains in compost — it does not get sorted a second time. This contaminated compost is then used for windrow composting instead of a higher-value type of composting, where it is mixed with woody debris and piled into long rows. Because it is contaminated, it cannot be used in gardens and is not nearly as sustainable as it could be.

While 100 percent of food waste is composted at Class of 1953 Commons, Kerr estimates that only about 5 percent of food waste is composted at Collis. This stark difference comes the convenience factor — at ‘53 Commons, all we have to do to dispose of our waste is to leave everything on a revolving machine, which takes it to trained employees who correctly sort the waste. On the other hand, at Collis students are responsible for sorting everything themselves, leaving much room for error.

Sustainability initiatives such as Green2Go and refillable water bottle stations therefore have to be relatively convenient in order to be effective in the long term. If students had to wash their to-go containers or walk across the entire campus every time they wanted to refill their Nalgene, we would revert to disposable take-out containers at Foco and buying bottled water. People will not adopt these alternatives if the cost of time is significantly greater than the current practice. The relationship between convenience and sustainability is like the relationship between two siblings: Convenience upsets sustainability, but at the end of the day, sustainability is dependent on convenience.

I asked Kerr if it was possible to have both convenience and sustainability, especially since we are part of a culture in which the former is a priority over the latter. She responded, “You can certainly design systems so that the sustainable option is the easiest option ... You can put the stairs at the front of the building and the elevator in the back … If those things are mutually exclusive, we have a serious problem on our hands … because we’re not gonna shift this society of ours unless we can make it truly convenient.”