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Guilt trips aren’t sustainable

| Staff Columnist

I have been rather put off by the “sustainability” program that’s ramping up at Washington University. Before I get there, however, let me qualify that statement a bit. I’m a fan of the LEED certification that adorns some of the buildings. An acronym for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, LEED certification is, in my opinion, a good idea. I’m not necessarily for advertising the certification ad nauseam, but I applaud companies, charities and universities who opt for lower energy usage and thus lower expenses. I do not look at it in terms of how much coal went into powering the Danforth University Center, and I do not count carbon. Instead, I look at numbers. I study accounting and economics, and if one thing rings true in my ears, it’s that lower expenses are better than higher expenses in the long term.

I support recycling also for economic reasons. If recycling was not in some way a cost-effective alternative to using non-recycled items, I do not believe the market for recycling services and recycled goods would be as large as it is today, let alone in existence whatsoever. I thus put most of my recyclables in recycling bins if it is convenient. That said, I do have grievances with the sustainability efforts at Wash. U.

When I returned from winter break, I found that just about every garbage can on campus had been defiled with gigantic stickers emblazoned with the word “LANDFILL.” A little poking and prodding into the matter showed that the University had adopted a single-stream recycling program (SSR). Good so far, yes? Again, it’s back to the economics of the matter. If SSR is both easier for the Wash. U. community and cost effective, then why not use it? Where I think the environmentalists have gone overboard is with the stickers on the garbage cans. On the Wash. U. sustainability Web site, the University admits that a variety of everyday items cannot be recycled. This material has to go in the garbage cans. It is here where environmentalism loses its credibility with me.

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Tacking a guilt trip sticker to the cans is obnoxious, especially when not everything is recyclable. I thus propose this question: What is the point of using a sticker when its message undermines your credibility? The answer is simple. There is no point. Save for the green activists feeling good about making others notice their cause, the stickers serve as a mere eyesore to the rest of us. I don’t like having a finger pointed at me every time I try to throw away non-recyclable material. I don’t appreciate the accusation that I’m adding to piles of landfill garbage somewhere in the nation when I’m not supposed to pitch something in the recycling bin anyhow. I can’t help it. Am I instead to leave my garbage on a table in the DUC just to avoid putting it in a landfill?

I ask the environmental sustainability initiative to rethink its promotional policies. Roping people into such a trap just doesn’t work. If you want to convince me, or any contingent of reasonable individuals, of a cause, try facts. Try telling me what it is that I am doing right or wrong. A big, critical sticker on a garbage can doesn’t really help anyone; it merely pushes them away. The “green” movement ought to step off the corrugated cardboard pedestal it has built for itself and realize where it’s gone astray. Until then, I’ll continue putting my garbage in the garbage cans and not feeling bad about it.

Richard is a junior in the Olin School of Business. He can be reached via e-mail at [email protected].

  • Harold Kingsberg

    “Take some responsibility for your actions. It’s what adults do.”

    Which is why you posted your comment anonymously, no doubt.

    I have a few points other than that:

    1) Since I strongly doubt that the stickers were made using non-industrial methods, how many kilowatt-hours worth of energy went into making this campaign? And of course, since the vast majority of our energy is derived from coal, how much coal was burned?

    In other words, environmentally, did the cost of the campaign match the benefit?

    2) It’s one thing to be environmentally friendly and encourage others to do the same. I certainly agree with such tactics. But this sort of thing reeks of “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” Oh sure, it gets results for a few minutes, but then people just tune it out and go back to the way things were before. So you’re being momentarily obnoxious for an effect that is pretty much negligible. That sounds sensible to me.

  • Anonymous

    If you can’t handle the truth about where your trash goes when you put it in the trash can, then you need to grow up.

    Take some responsibility for your actions. It’s what adults do.

  • WU Senior

    All university programs should be restructured based on whether Richard Jesse Markel thinks they are too mean.

  • Laura Kelly

    “A big, critical sticker on a garbage can doesn’t really help anyone; it merely pushes them away. ”

    This is empirically false. There is a huge body of research in psychology that the way something is phrased has a huge impact on peoples’ actions (see research by George Lakoff and Kahneman and Tversky). People are much more likely to take an action, even if it is an inconvenience, if you emphasize the negative effects of failing to act. Labeling the trash cans “landfill”, which emphasizes the negative effects of throwing something away, is a classic example of this well-documented effect. Obnoxious? Perhaps to some, but this technique works and I think for that reason I think most students would agree that it’s worth the minor discomfort you apparently experience when you put something non-recyclable into the trashcan.

    “If you want to convince me, or any contingent of reasonable individuals, of a cause, try facts. Try telling me what it is that I am doing right or wrong.”

    Most of what the green groups on campus do IS education. Although I am not a member of any environmentalist group on campus, I am willing to bet these stickers were not intended to convince students that they should recycle. Rather, they were meant to serve as a reminder to those of us who are already convinced.

  • I agree that guilt trips aren’t sustainable, and neither is rhetorical hyperbole. I am generally in favor of good political theater, to engage (and entertain) an audience. This includes stickers on recycling bins, mock Gulags, and the like. Once an audience is engaged, however, we must move on to dialogue, and substantive critique.

    I would like to hear more about this, and I hope to read more about this in Student Life.