The Solo cup dilemma
Let’s face it, at some point in your college career you’ve probably drank something out of a red cup. It’s also likely you threw that cup into the trash without a second thought for where that Solo cup will end up. Solo cups are ubiquitous in college life, so much so that you can buy these things in bulk on Amazon (I’m talking hundreds to thousands in one package). But I think we all know enough to realize these cups aren’t recyclable (there are signs on campus almost everywhere), and at times, I have personally wondered why we’re okay with the fact that partying may be the most unsustainable thing that we do on a weekly (or monthly) basis.
Last week, a group of undergraduate students announced that they would be piloting their “YOLO No Solo” recycling initiative on Fraternity Row. Their aim is to cut down on the high amounts of waste that Greek life parties can produce, and to expand a culture of sustainability into Fraternity Row. As someone in Greek life, I really admire the idea behind the initiative and I have seen firsthand how many Solo cups can get used in a single night. But, when you begin to dig into the issue (and live it firsthand), you realize that there is more to this dilemma than meets the eye.
Like all other dorms on campus, Greek life houses have designated recycling and landfill bins. We have signs telling us what to recycle and what not to, and we all generally know that it’s better to recycle than be wasteful. Unfortunately, in my personal experience, the men and women employed by Washington University who clean Fraternity Row tend to throw away everything in our house. In talking to the people who clean our house, I have learned that they simply cannot assume that we have properly recycled our waste.
Our house can produce 10 to 15 bags of recycling and trash combined in a weekend, and those tend to be an indiscriminate combination of plastics, disposable boxes, food scraps and tin cans. The bags are undeniably gross, and no one should ever have to sort through them—it’s only logical that they should be designated for a nearby landfill. Unfortunately, I would be hard pressed to believe that these new recyclable cups will all get into the recycling, since I have seen firsthand what happens to bags of “recycling” from Greek life houses.
It would be easy to argue that the problem lies with Greek life members: They indiscriminately throw away waste and need recycling initiatives as a jumpstart to create a sustainable culture within our organizations. However, I have also seen that fraternity brothers are resigned to all of the trash in their house being “trash” because they have known from past experience that Campus Life does not believe we recycle effectively. It seems there is a culture of mistrust, or at least miscommunication, that underlies the problem of waste in Greek life.
In addition, our student body has really struggled with recycling their own waste properly. Recall in January that the Office of Sustainability changed its recycling policy because recycling from our school was turned away from local recycling centers for being too contaminated. Above this normal behavior, you also have to acknowledge that people at parties are not conscious at all of their waste—trash cans and recycling bins begin to look eerily similar as the night wanes on. At the end of the day, just like any other place on campus, it is hard to know if students recycled properly.
A new type of cup, while a great symbol of progress, does not get to the bottom of the issue we are facing. If we’re going to become a more sustainable set of houses, there needs to be a better waste management system in place in the house. There may in fact be an environmental culture problem that we can actively change if we make an effort. But I also know firsthand that my fraternity is wary of “recycling” in our house and believes that there are reasons outside of their control that recycling is currently unfeasible (especially at parties).
My fraternity has not yet signed up for the “YOLO No Solo” program, and while I hope we will, I want Campus Life (the organization in charge of Greek life housing) to take this moment to take inventory of their actual recycling protocol and make sure that these new cups won’t just end up in the trash themselves. That involves examining the infrastructure for recycling within houses, dialoguing with fraternity executive boards to better understand the issue of waste management and figuring out how to make the current alcohol policy more conducive to recycling (drinks in Solo cups and beer cans are rather inefficient).
I will be the first to admit that Greek houses are unsustainable and that our parties are a landfill’s worst nightmare. But hopefully, this initiative can bring out a bigger conversation about why we have this waste problem in the first place. And maybe, just maybe, a future generation of Wash. U. students won’t have to worry about the “red cup” problem on social media.