Environment Column

Cornell’s drought efforts don’t add up

/ The Daily Orange

When it comes to combatting drought, the first thoughts that come to mind are probably to take shorter showers, water the lawn a little less or maybe even rethink the way the dishes are done. But water conservation is not that black and white.

Cornell University recently went back to using reusable dishes in dining centers after the school switched to disposable dishes and utensils in an effort to reduce water usage in the face of a Level 3, or “Extreme Drought,” in Ithaca. The decision to revert came after Cornell’s Drought Incident Management Team decided the water saved on campus could now balance out water usage in dining halls.

While Cornell, a Syracuse University peer institution, initially made the intuitive push to eliminate dish washing, the backtracking on behalf of the university brings an important criticism to light: Campus administrators cannot look simply at the cost-benefit analysis of sustainability through such a narrow scope. In Cornell’s case, there was a failure to properly acknowledge that switching to disposables just displaces the water burden to other areas also experiencing drought.

In an ideal world, sustainability strategies at universities would be more comprehensive and focus on looking at the entire production cycle of a commodity to fully assess water footprint. But when university-led conservation efforts leave gaps, students can fill them in by contemplating their own consumption habits.

The main issue here is that disposables themselves have water costs attached to them — in both production and breakdown. Not only is water needed to make plastic cutlery and cups, but making one pack of 22 paper plates requires about 12 gallons of water, according to Rodale’s Organic Life magazine.

A 2012 report by Environment America also found paper pulping mills discharged 539,000 pounds of carcinogenic chemicals into waterways, more than one-third the total amount of cancer-causing chemicals released nationwide.

Yes, Ithaca is 8.22 inches behind an average year and projects 0.5 million-gallon water usage increase citywide when students return to campus. But in light of global irregular water cycles, preserving water should be a priority among institutions of higher education.

Even at SU, there still is a tug-of-war between disposables and reusables. Lynne Mowers, secretary to the director of SU Food Services, touched on SU’s use of disposables in some campus dining centers and explained that they have their benefits, too.

“SU Food Services uses disposable utensils in our cafés for a variety of reasons,” Mowers said. “While many cafes have seating areas, these locations are often used as a ‘grab and go’ location by customers. They want to get something and take it with them, so they need something disposable.”

In light of excessive resource use, sticking with the mindset that students “need something disposable” feeds into business as usual. Choosing between reusable dishes and disposables may have been a difficult decision for Cornell to make, but it doesn’t have to be in the lives of SU students.

Little, habitual changes, like bringing washable utensils, cloth napkins, Tupperware and even plates from home, are a start for lowering the campus water footprint. And when SU Food Services already has such an encouraging water bottle refill program and actively promotes sustainability on its website, we shouldn’t stop there in pushing the limits for eco-friendly dining practices.

When it comes to sustainability, SU as a campus has to think outside the box. There may be no right answer when it comes to specific methods, but it’s undeniable that students should be more mindful about water consumption beyond the local community.

Victoria Chen is a senior international relations major, and an environment and society minor. Her column appears weekly. She can be reached at vlchen@syr.edu.

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