OPINION: Mason should reconsider its waste and recycling policies

The following opinion was submitted by Nicole St. Laurent, a senior majoring in anthropology and minoring in sustainability studies.

Many of us will remember Shel Silverstein’s beloved Sarah Cynthia Sylvia Stout, who met an awful fate when the garbage she refused to deal with overwhelmed her.  Even a quick glance at how few students make use of the JC’s recycling bins on a typical weekday will reveal that like Sarah, we presume that our trash doesn’t make an impact.  It’s true: if just you, reading this article, decide to recycle your trash on campus, the impact will be tiny.  You have to look at the big picture to understand what your decision means.  Think of how much you throw away on an average day- everything from food wrappers to broken tech.  Then take that amount and multiply it by 33,917- George Mason University’s current student population.  Then multiply that by 365.  The flip-side of deciding that your personal after-lunch trash doesn’t really matter results in 5,000 tons of trash per year generated by George Mason.

But 5,000 tons of trash- what does that mean?  How can we conceptualize that?  One way is to compare it to what other schools throw out, another is to compare to local and international peers.  American University in DC has a highly competitive waste reduction program which Mason does not even begin to compete with.  AU has a Zero-Waste Policy: a comprehensive plan to divert 100% of landfill waste by 2020.  Not only do they throw out 4,261 tons less garbage per year than we do, but they recycle 70% of their trash, compared to our current 24%.  By analogy, their annual trash mountain is a comparative Shenandoah Mountain to our Mount Everest; even the Patriot would get lightheaded by that steep contrast.  Compared to other nations, the U.S. produces more waste than any other country.  Yet perhaps it isn’t fair to ask Mason to compete at an international level.  Let’s look closer to home.

Here in our local community, Fairfax County is required by the state to recycle a minimum of 25% of all trash, and Fairfax is ahead of the game, with a rate of 41.5%.  Again, Mason lags behind.  Is it possible that our institution simply doesn’t see its environmental impact on our community and world, and this trickles down to our level of engagement here on campus?  After all, Mason has been very busy the past few years, in an expansion effort that has seen enrollment increase by over 70% since 1996.  Perhaps that busy-ness is why our official Recycling Policy has not changed since 1993.

And what is that recycling policy?  Based on 1990 state legislation, it “emphasizes the importance” of “(exceeding) the mandated minimum recycling rates of state law”… that’s right, that 25% we are still not meeting.  Given that no specific goals or initiatives are outlined in this bare-bones policy, this is not surprising.

This is hardly from lack of environmental awareness from individual areas of administration.  For example, Recycling & Waste Manager Ron Lim was cited in 2004 as one of Mason’s everyday heroes for his creative and passionate efforts to increase recycling on campus: since 1989!  And our Office of Sustainability facilitated Mason’s Climate Action Plan in 2009, committing to become climate neutral by 2050.  Most of us who study and work here at Mason, individually and through various programs, care about our impact on the planet, but in our recycling standards, evidence of this is sorely lacking.  Just as our joint consumption creates our total waste impact, it’s our joint effort that can make a difference.  It’s time for us to connect that individual concern with actual change to our waste policy here at George Mason.  Our institutional peers have proven this, and our local Fairfax community has set the example.

Right now, students from the course EVPP 480: Sustainability in Action are appealing to our administration to update our outdated Recycling Policy.  We are asking the University to institute specific, measurable, time-bound goals, as a part of a mission to increase the percentage of campus waste diverted from the waste stream.  However, many of these students are preparing to graduate.  It really is up to you, reading this article, right now.  Do you want to leave a legacy of overconsumption, or one of environmental responsibility and community leadership?  Help us to let our administration know we stand together on this issue: visit us on Facebook, and take one minute to sign this petition to update our outdated Waste Management and Recycling Policy.  Simple actions really do add up.