Duke cannot be sustainable without you

Although I am not an expert on environmental issues, there are some things that I can identify as mostly “good” or “bad” for the environment just as easily as the next guy. Namely, the misuse of resources (water, food, energy) is generally bad, and the reduction of waste and recycling is good.

Last November, Duke announced its Climate Commitment: “A university-wide, impact-oriented initiative to address the climate crisis by creating sustainable and equitable solutions that place society on the path towards a resilient, flourishing, carbon-neutral world.”

As I live surrounded by enormous amounts of waste, this claim — as good-hearted as it sounds — is just hard to believe.

At some point, all of us have been faced with the classic Shutterstock image of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. At first glance, the plastic island hardly seems real. Looking closer, however, each colorful inch of the island can be identified: a bottle cap, a Coca-Cola bottle, a single-use grocery store bag, a flip-flop.

I would be wrong to claim that Duke University is contributing a larger-than-average amount to the garbage patch, or to any garbage mountain in any landfill out there, compared to institutions of a similar size. However, it is just as questionable for us to claim the label “sustainable” as casually as we do.

Though nowadays retaining a moderate position on any issue seems to be difficult, I have always considered myself moderately concerned about the environment. I mostly carry my water bottle with me wherever I go, and if I must purchase a plastic one, I recycle it. I bring a reusable bag to the grocery store, but if I forget it, I re-utilize the single-use ones I take home as trash can liners.

Even so, seeing thousands of plastic water bottles being given out, half-drank and thrown away immediately during the tailgate of our first home football game shocked me.

I’m aware of how few people care about the waste they generate, but I was not expecting to see such misuse of scarce resources from a school that just the year before advertised how “hundreds of first-year students this year signed up for pre-orientation activities focused on the environment, climate change and sustainability.”

Looking back, I should not have been shocked in the first place: What I have seen since then, climate-awareness-wise, has been even more worrying. From free swag given out daily at various campus events (yes, daily — you just must find it) to the thousands of compostable food containers given out at the West Union dining hall daily (and to the lack of a facility to actually compost them) to the tons of food waste coming from the Marketplace dining hall alone — which would probably be enough to feed all of Durham’s hungry — there is so much room for improvement.

This morning, I woke up to the sound of running water. Once again, two of Southgate’s bathroom taps had been running all night. Students can’t be blamed for this, either: The seals in some of the faucets are long gone, so it is nearly impossible to close them.

With the recent concerns about the quantity of water used in the production of meat products, there has been a push by climate-concerned individuals to shift to veganism. It seems to me that though noble in its vision, this lifestyle change should be preceded by a step much less impactful in students’ lives here at Duke. In other words, we should shut the bathroom faucets at night before we resort to becoming vegan in an effort to save the world.

I’m no plumber myself, but the leaking taps seem an easy enough fix — possibly just the seals needing replacement. With lawn reconstructions, work order requests and other plumbing issues, there is no question whether the maintenance team has kept itself busy.

Even so, after weeks now, one may wonder why the maintenance team still has not been asked to address this issue.

The answer? Prioritization. A faucet running day and night is still not perceived as a great waste. The generosity of resources and the feeling of abundance are two great traits of this grand country. The difficult task lies in drawing the line between comfortable living and useless waste.

We are big thinkers at Duke and express rightful concerns about the environment by attempting to address big problems with big ideas. Yet, we are sometimes unable to see little things around us which, when compounded, in themselves cause substantial harm.

Reading about the university’s progress from its own perspective, it sounds like everything is going as planned. From celebrating “added resources” to new assistant directors to “student passion” to work that is expected to “expand and intensify,” the New Office of Climate and Sustainability mentioned no faults or shortcomings in its Oct. 13 mission statement.

However, in talking to other students, it quickly became apparent that I was not the first to question some of Duke’s achievements, in terms of their sustainability. When I think of the university’s efforts towards good environmental practices, the Bleed Blue, Live Green campaign comes to mind. But, from what I’ve seen on campus, it is a little more than a campaign to encourage students to recycle and switch the lights off as they leave a room. Well, that’s underwhelming. Recycling and energy conservation should be a given by now.

Whereas the real effects of the Climate Commitment are not yet apparent, I have to acknowledge that a plan of action is there, ready to be implemented.

Duke Dining’s Waste Reduction & Recovery strategy, for instance, offers some great ideas for reducing waste. Some of these, such as educating students on their impact and introducing “a reusable takeout container program” would address the issue nicely. As it turns out, students are just as easily influenced by each other: The bandwagon effect would help this program spread quickly on campus. Additionally, I don’t think it would not be tedious to implement. Incentives such as food-point discounts could even be used to incentivize students to bring their reusable containers.

Nevertheless, this program has never seen a true attempt at implementation. Then, it is no wonder that with so many similar programs being outlined and never introduced, students and staff alike are starting to feel skeptical towards the grounds upon which the university gave its promises.

In a way, I understand that Duke should be expected to be just as unsustainable as any other private institution: in its defense, Duke is only trying to keep to the standard and sell itself to students and parents out there. If the Duke Climate Commitment achieves this, then it was a good move by the marketing team, but mainly that — a marketing strategy.

If Duke hadn’t made a Climate Commitment last year, it would have signed its own death contract. There is no business for unsustainable companies in today’s world, after all.

This considered, maybe it was my delusion to expect higher-than-average levels of sustainability in a college campus that is rich, influential and holds modern and liberal values about the climate and environment.

Despite my feeling uneasy in front of useless waste, I can still only consider myself a moderately concerned student at Duke and should really look to start this quest towards sustainability in my very own dorm room.

In this lies a truth that can be hard to admit: the future of the university’s sustainability truly lies in students’ hands. Not just through the formation of new environmental groups (Duke has 35!) or through hopeful messages printed in bold on presentations of new future projects and ideas, but in the daily efforts of its students.

Then, if students and faculty are as concerned about the environment as they seem to be, I ask one thing: let's all start to give our contribution through small, deliberate changes. Let’s return to the basics: let’s recycle plastic containers; let’s re-fill our water bottles; let’s only take what we need from the Marketplace buffet. Oh, and please: Someone come to Southgate and fix those leaking faucets.

Anna Garziera is a Trinity first-year. Her column typically runs on alternate Wednesdays.


Share and discuss “Duke cannot be sustainable without you” on social media.