The least you can do: an open letter to a student I saw in the Campus Center

By Kevin Hollerbach

Cade Belisle/Daily Collegian

Dear unknown student,

There you were, standing among the lunchtime rush in the Campus Center. You were musing in front of two bins that were placed on the wall of the main corridor: one bin marked for trash, the other for bottles and cans. You looked at your plastic water bottle, then at the bins, then back at your water bottle. You then tossed your bottle into the trash bin and walked away with indifference. Just like a 3 a.m., bleary-eyed text message, this action was meaningless to you, and you probably forget that it even happened. Despite the fact that you forgot you sent it, the text message was still sent to the unwitting recipient, and the bottle was still sent to the middle of the Pacific Ocean.

I don’t hate you, and I don’t blame you. I was not about to force you to fish your bottle out of the trash. I get it. One water bottle is just a drop in the ocean. You were in a rush and did not have the time to figure out where it belongs, and/or you simply do not care whatsoever. This is a typical perception that students hold. Our society engrains this self-interested, convenience-first mindset into all of its citizens. As a facilitator in the Eco-Rep program under the Sustainability Initiative, and a “No Impact Man” first-year reading discussion facilitator, I have come across this attitude on campus much more than I feel comfortable with. My purpose on this campus is to change that, without sounding too much like a self-righteous hippie.

Fortunately, numbers are impartial. According to the Office of Waste Management, the recycling rate in the residence halls is only about 20 to 25 percent. The total recycling rate for the campus as a whole is 56 percent. Why are recycling rates in the residence halls so low? Why is it the faculty and staff who are bringing the number up to 56 percent? What happened to the days when students fought against the “man” and had to convince the “suits” to change their habits, not the other way around?

During the “No Impact Man” discussion, one student told me bluntly, “I haven’t figured out the recycling at UMass yet, so I just throw everything away.” Surprisingly, her reaction is not uncommon. Most students that I have come across are not aware of the single-stream recycling program. Bottles, cans, cardboard and paper can all be placed in a single bin. New Students Orientation does not have a section for sustainability where students can learn how to recycle, how to save energy and how to get involved on campus.

Initiatives from other departments could help as well. Larger recycling bins are needed in residence hall trash rooms, as they often overflow and spill into trash bins. Optional outdoor composting bins could also relieve stress from the garbage cans and increase recycling rates. But the largest contribution must come from the students.
Environmental science students are not the only ones that need to think about sustainability. I, for one, am planning on becoming a science teacher in a middle school. While my field is not directly related to sustainability, I look forward to teaching students to be aware of environmental issues. These are issues that every student should be conscious of, regardless of academic interest.

Unless your career goals involve being a water levy engineer, climate change is not good for anyone. I challenge you to change little things in your life: carry a reusable water bottle, recycle what you can and try to eat local foods. Soon enough, you won’t even know you’re a part of the movement.

We have the potential to be the leaders in sustainability. We could be the university that all other colleges look to and say, “Maybe it’s time we make some changes.” Now is the perfect time for the University of Massachusetts community to seize this opportunity and obtain our communal self-actualization. Imagine if every UMass student began carrying a reusable water bottle starting today. The university would be on the cover of every newspaper across the country, being hailed for its concerned students and progressive ideals.

So again, unknown student, I understand where you are coming from, but try to meet me in the middle. What is more important, momentary convenience for a lazy individual or the planet’s eternal health? Do you want to look back when we finally reach the tipping point for climate change and regret not making these simple changes? Don’t you want to help put UMass on the top of the charts for something other than Berkshire Dining Commons’ food?

My parents always told me to leave a room cleaner than when I walked in. I take this advice on a broader scale. My aim is to leave the university a little greener than it was when I walked in. I hope that you learn to feel the same way.
I’m doing all I can to get us on the right track, the least you can do is put your bottle in the right bin.


P.S.: Search “Sustainable UMass: Waste Facts” on YouTube and share the video you find if you want to make another small difference.

Kevin Hollerbach is a Collegian contributor and can be reached at [email protected].