Turning to Plastic Containers for Sustainable Solutions

By RAE AARON

Last semester, a Super Senior and Sophomore Feb came to me with a proposal from the Sustainability Department to implement a system of reusable plastic containers in the dining halls in lieu of the former paper to-go boxes. The students impressed me with their research on the environmental and financial benefits of reusable plastic containers and their commitment to making it a success at Middlebury.

The new system involves putting down a $5 deposit at any retail location (Midd Express, Bi-Hall Kiosk, Rehearsals Cafe etc.) for a carabiner (a clip-like gadget) for accountability. You can then exchange the carabiner at a dining hall for a nice plastic container, which you use and then return to the dining hall. When you return a dirty plastic container, you can either receive a new clean plastic container or exchange for a carabiner to clip onto your bag. You can return a carabiner to a retail location at any time and collect your $5 deposit.

Dining services was very supportive of the idea, and had received positive feedback from a previous trial-run with a group of students in Proctor. As an SGA Senator, I have always seen my foremost responsibility as helping  students pursue their ideas and work with the administration to get things done. This was an exciting project that seemed overdue considering how many other schools were already using this common-sense system. While change is always difficult and requires adjustments, I felt confident this progress would align well at a college with a reputation as a pioneer in environmental sciences and sustainability.

After many discussions with Dan Detora and the Sustainability Interns about how many containers to purchase, whether to require a deposit to “buy-in” to the program and how best to advertise the change, I was excited to pass a bill through the Senate to be able to start advertising and transition over after spring break.

The students overseeing the project did an excellent job putting up infographics around campus, creating a website (go/to-go) with Q&A and a form for feedback and tabling in the dining halls. However, many students were upset about the change, complaining that having to return the containers was a hassle and inconvenience they did not ask for.

In only the first couple of months that the program was in place, over 500 carabiners were in circulation, and dining saved thousands of dollars while minimizing our footprint by eliminating the 180,000 one-use containers that ended up in landfills. The money saved is now being reallocated to make improvements to dining. And, the new Tupperware snaps close, so you never even have to worry about salad dressing dripping in your backpack.

I’m ever-impressed by students and college employees who have initiated or embraced the change and who have given suggestions on how to make it work better for everyone. To those who say that for how much you pay to attend Middlebury you deserve a disposable to-go box, or that it’s too much to ask for you to remember to bring your plastic containers back to the dining hall, let’s remember that not only are we capable of taking small actions that make a collective impact, but that we have a responsibility to take our environment into our own hands, even at the expense of our convenience in the short period of time we get to spend at Middlebury.

Let’s all turn over a new leaf this fall (all pun intended) by having an open-minded mentality, embracing the progress and cultural shift we’re making as a community and serving as an example for others. We’re always eager for your thoughts and feedback, so please reach out at go/to-go any time!

Rae Aaron is a member of the Middlebury College class of 2019.5.

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Turning to Plastic Containers for Sustainable Solutions