Opinion: How a pile of trash can break your heart

eco clambshell illustration
Mia Miller/The Occidental

We’ve all seen it — the overflowing trash bins around the Marketplace. Litter spilling out in all directions, left to the wind’s devices until it finds a resting place at the base of one of the Quad’s beautiful coast live oaks.

This daily sight might be slowly draining your faith in humanity (like it is mine) or you might consider it merely an aesthetic blemish, an inconvenience to be stepped around. Either way I think we can agree, for our sake and out of respect for the many hardworking staff members who collect and remove the waste we create, that our campus would be better off without this trash pile up.

The great news is that we have both reusable plates for dining in and eco-clamshells if you want food to go — which are not only reusable but, in my experience, also sturdier and easier to carry than the single-use containers are. There is even a reusable mug program at the Green Bean — just ask the baristas about it — and it’s easy to bring your own reusable water bottle and silverware to the MP in case they run out of the ones they provide.

The bad news, as evidenced by the unruly trash heaps, is that as a community we are not very good at using these sustainable options. Dining goes through around 1,600 single-use containers every day, enough to stack taller than the Empire State Building in just five days. Before the pandemic, getting reusable plates was the default — but now I look around the MP at a sea of those cardboard or black plastic containers even though many people with those containers aren’t even taking their food to go. In the Green Bean, I can spot my drink from a distance because it’s usually the only one in a reusable mug. As for eco-clamshells, they were always a rare sighting on campus and continued to be even when reusable plates weren’t an option. According to the campus dining interns, eco-clamshells account for an embarrassingly low 1.95 percent of all meals bought from the MP.

I’ve sat through multiple Sustainability Fund meetings discussing this low usage, and asked my own friends who are infrequent eco-clamshell users why they often still reach for single-use containers. I almost always hear one of three things: 1) uncertainty about how the program works, 2) admitted laziness when it comes to cleaning and returning them and 3) nervousness about asking for the clamshells in line. These are valid obstacles but all easy enough to overcome. The Campus Dining interns have a video showing how it works and (as someone who has been asked before) I know most people you see using the clamshells would be happy to explain the process. If you don’t already have a token, you can email dininginterns@oxy.edu to get one. If the latter two obstacles are enough to prevent you from using an eco-clamshell, then consider just eating at the Marketplace: slowly with a circle of friends as a small resistance to the constant frenzy of labor expected of us.

I too have given in to my instinct towards convenience more times than I would like to admit. What weighs on me more than the minor inconvenience of going against the grain by using reusables, however, is the larger problems that my baser instincts are indicative of. Our culture is deeply consumerist and fast-paced, meaning we rarely slow down enough to think about the real consequences of our choices. This culture does not lend itself well to the kinds of daily environmentally minded actions that are crucial to making the impact of humanity more life-affirming than life-destroying. This is to say nothing of the larger systemic changes that will be needed to slow the tide of climate change and all the tragedy (for humans and non-humans alike) it entails.

Ultimately, those deeper problems are what distress me about the trash heaps and low rates of eco-clamshell usage. In the grand scheme of environmental action, no one piece of trash matters. Getting rid of a single pile of trash on a single college campus won’t make a difference to the ancient forests being destroyed at a rate of one football field every six seconds, the countless species disappearing forever before we even get to meet them or the climate refugees watching their homes go underwater in places from Louisiana to Bangladesh. But if college-educated, value-driven and socially aware liberal arts students can’t make minor sacrifices — can’t walk the reusable dishware walk as much as they talk the environmental activist talk — it’s impossible for me to imagine that our broader consumer culture is capable of meaningful change. And without meaningful change, the losses we face are greater than words can capture.

The small choice of single-use containers over easily accessible sustainable options is not itself life or death. However, it reveals a deeper disease within all of us, one that we cannot be blamed for inheriting, but that we can be blamed for not fighting — especially for those of us from the privileged groups that are most responsible for climate change and most able to do something about it.

On my more emotionally fragile days, it’s not an exaggeration to say the trash pile outside the MP brings tears to my eyes. I don’t want to diminish the incredible efforts of many Oxy students past, present and future, in their service of environmental justice. But the litter does not lie — we, the Oxy community, are failing to take even the smallest actions toward a more sustainable future, and it breaks my heart.

I’m not going to find a silver lining for you here. I know that we are capable of overcoming inconvenience and the other obstacles that keep us from thoughtful and caring action, but right now we are not living up to that potential.

Sit with me for a moment in the heartbreak and then get up and do something more. Tomorrow is a new day, a chance to be better, no matter what we have done before.