The University of Maine has committed itself to the broad concept of sustainability, pledging to keep tabs on and improve its carbon footprint. As the flagship campus of the University of Maine System, this green goal is an admirable one — but one with increasing needs, as the issues around sustainability and environmentalism develop and mature.
Throughout April, UMaine has pledged to participate in the “#PledgeAgainstPlasticStraws 2018 Campus Challenge” hosted by Simply Straws, a company that sells glass drinking straws as an effort to reduce plastic pollution. Single-use plastics are incredibly damaging to the environment, both in the volume we consume and how we tend to dispose of them improperly. UMaine has a Zero-Sort recycling system in place, but off-campus recycling is much spottier. Some apartment complexes have recycling, but it’s either limited in types of waste it collects or in how many buildings their bins cover. Other housing options in the surrounding communities offer no recycling facilities.
Straws aren’t the only enemy. The Center for Biological Diversity reports that, “billions of pounds of plastic can be found in swirling convergences making up about 40 percent of the world’s ocean surfaces.” With so much plastic waste in the oceans, wildlife falls victim to the allure of our trash and consumes it, causing sickness, stunted growth and often death. Fish and seabirds now regularly ingest unhealthy amounts of plastic particles. Fish, seabirds, sea turtles and other animals frequently get caught in plastic debris and grow into this baggage, up until it suffocates or drowns them.
Single-use plastics are a convenience, but more often than not unnecessary. Straws are an accessory that we’ve grown to expect without needing to ask for them. Think about how often straws are immediately handed out — with every iced drink bought, and every beverage at a restaurant. There are straw dispensers in the Union and dining halls, but are they necessary? They don’t nicely line up with UMaine’s commitment to a sustainable campus.
UMaine’s sustainability timeline details the projects and achievements toward a lighter environmental impact. The usual methods have swept the campus — more efficient lighting and heating system upgrades, for example. Other sustainability efforts are centered on the responsible disposal of recyclable materials and food waste. The next step for UMaine should be reducing overall consumption. Campus can trim down its availability of single-use plastics, or opt for biodegradable options. Rather than composting 200 metric tonnes of food waste, we can recalibrate how much food is distributed and save the transportation, preparation and handling costs of food destined for the compost bin.
Even using printer paper that contains recycled or post-consumer fibers, the campus consumes too much paper. The requirement of printed academic honesty and sexual assault awareness policies lands individual students with one or two sheets of paper for each class, all stating the same information. These policies are undeniably important — but is a printed copy per class really the most green option? If they were aggregated online, we could save tens of thousands of paper sheets. Small changes like these are necessary in the coming years, as global attention turns to the hyper-consumption of finite resources and our struggles to deal with waste.
Despite popular belief, individual contributions do matter toward the larger plastic pollution problem. A study by the University of Warwick in 2017 found that “climate change helplessness,” or the feeling that you won’t make a difference by yourself, can negatively impact a person’s mentality. Believing that individual actions don’t matter may then lead to increased energy usage. Though this study focused on energy, the same mentality is applicable to the plastic pollution conversation. Cutting out one straw seems so trivial in the moment, but after a month or a year of steadily reducing plastics, one person will chip away at the huge country-wide statistics. Not to mention the power of spreading information and ideas among friends, family and strangers who may take notice in a greener approach to everyday situations.
UMaine is overdue for pushing its green initiatives further. So ditch your straws — not just for the sea turtles, as cute as they are. Ditch them for the health of our oceans, the fish we eat and the ecosystems that are suffering for our temporary enjoyment. Drinks taste the same whether they’re sipped through plastic, glass, or from the rim of a cup. But take the next step beyond that too — invest in reusables like straws or cutlery, try eating meat-free a couple times a week and spend time engaging with environmental politics to influence bigger changes.