When many people consider the positive impact that attending a college or university has had on them, they often mention gaining new perspectives on the world. While learning should be a lifelong process, the time that some of us have the opportunity to spend at institutions of higher education is a unique time to be surrounded by others who are there to explore, learn, and grow like ourselves.
During my time at UMass, I have largely been surrounded by (and have surrounded myself with) those who share my general views on environmentalism, social justice, and the need for systems-level change. Whether they are peers in my Natural Resources Conservation classes, fellow members of the UMass Outing Club, or co-fellows and mentors in the Sustainability Department, there is consistency among the knowledge we share and our outlooks on approaching environmental challenges.
Over the past three years, however, I have become more aware of the gaps in sustainability awareness that exist on college campuses, including UMass. There are efforts—in the dining halls, in classrooms, in dorms, and throughout the community—to raise awareness of individual-level actions that can be taken to address issues such as single-use plastics and water usage. But these “simple swaps,” such as taking a single-use compostable container and shortening one's showers, have “drop-in-the-bucket”-level impacts on the problem at large, especially when the responsibility is shifted onto individual consumers.
Considering how many forms of food packaging on campus are now compostable (straws, cups, to-go containers, utensils, napkins), you would think our compost bins would be overflowing. Instead, our trash cans—the worst place for organic matter to end up—are filled to the brim with these items. While the intentions are there to reduce our campus-wide plastic consumption, the results are far from impressive.
There are nowhere near enough compost bins on campus, but perhaps this is also a clear example of the failure of our educational efforts. If we are not taught from as young an age as possible about how and why to compost—or, better yet, to avoid wasting food when possible—we will grow up without these habits. I credit my mother (who credits her mother) for setting an example of minimizing food waste when cooking, and eating leftovers, and making sure that unusable scraps of food are composted. I am fortunate to have lived this way for as long as I can remember and, at this point, it is something to which I rarely give a second thought.
For those who have not had this type of mentoring, it is essential that we aim to do better by future generations in the way of bringing sustainability into the classroom by looking at it as the interdisciplinary issue that it is. While I might be slightly biased given the amount of time I’ve spent working with children as an outdoor environmental educator, I see education as one of the most critical tools we have in changing the narrative that humans are separate from the natural world around us.
The problem is not just of individual inaction; as long as we have the choice, and often need, to drive our own cars and buy new electronic devices when our old ones purposely cease to work, we will choose the option that is convenient, cheap, and habitual. With education and systematic change, however, making the “right” choice becomes both accessible and understandable.
With continued pressure from students and community members on state legislators, the administration, and other high-level decision-makers, it is my hope that UMass, along with other institutions of learning across the country and around the world, will continue to incorporate sustainability into its campus procedures as well its academics. Only when alumni can go on to be leaders of both management and sustainability, of education and environmentalism, and of every field in between, can we truly call ourselves a green campus.