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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat


    Column: Student Union changes still sustainable

    This year, I thought to myself: “I’m a junior — time to be responsible and pack healthy lunches.” And yet, here I am, sitting in the Student Union Memorial Center exclusively eating chicken nuggets.

    If I can’t treat my body well, at least I can try to help the planet. Recently, though, that’s become more difficult in the student union. Some of its sustainability-promoting initiatives and fixtures have gone kaput — vanished and replaced with different, and less sustainable, options.

    Takeout uses non-compostable waste like plastic utensils and containers and doesn’t benefit from in-restaurant reusable wares like ceramic plates and metal utensils. But when it was unavoidable, students used to be able to get the grey, recycled compostable takeout containers many of the union eateries — Core, Sabor and Cactus Grill specifically — offered.

    By replacing compostable options and encouraging excess paper waste with prettier plastic containers and less labor-intensive paper ordering slips, the student union strayed from an important effort toward sustainability.

    This is especially glaring, considering that the UA — along with 71 other American and Canadian universities — has a STARS gold rating recognizing its sustainability efforts.

    But a little digging proves that the Arizona Student Unions are trying. They are training employees, encouraging them to monitor customer behavior near the recycling stations and considering the macro scale of sustainable options, said Jonathan Todd Millay, assistant director of Arizona Student Unions.

    And it’s true that striving to be as green as possible is a herculean task that, due to a variety of external factors — expecting students, the hoi polloi, to recycle and compost properly and the labor required to maintain these initiatives in terms of employees monitoring and being cognizant themselves — is never going to be perfect.

    The primary goal for the unions in eliminating certain initiatives is “closing the loop,” Millay said.

    With the introduction of a new head chef to the staff and an interest in maintaining positive revenue, the unions have focused their efforts on being a successful business before tackling any other goals.

    In their efforts to be financially responsible, Millay said the unions need to be aware of aesthetic and functionality.

    “The previous, compostable containers were simply not aesthetically pleasing,” Millay said. “They would get soggy and were an underwhelming experience for the [students]. Packaging is effective marketing for the union, and with the updated recycled plastic containers, consumers are able to see the bright and colorful salads, along with other options the union has to offer.”

    A simple revert to an easier option, plastic, is still unimpressive.

    It makes sense to bail the dingy packaging of the past but not at the expense of progress. It doesn’t make sense to dirty a brand image, especially with the rebranding of the entire university to a more sleek and modern fit, for a secondary functionality.

    However, the change makes sense for other reasons.

    Millay said the change has been cost neutral and has resulted not only in higher traffic for the unions but also in more successful recycling and waste management because the plastic containers are recyclable and do not fall victim to improper disposal.

    Along with aesthetic updates, the new plastic packaging is easier to order and has resulted in a minimization of waste from a macro perspective — the new packaging is ordered to be used and is not optional or available for request like the old — and an increase in efficiency.

    Some of the packaging, however, is boat-like and comically excessive — I’m looking at you, Sabor; my burrito could fit in a third of that. Millay said the unions are working on remedying the packaging, however.

    Millay added that a majority of waste mitigation happens behind the scenes. Arizona Student Unions employees receive training, complemented by the help of the Compost Cats, which ensures they make informed decisions about what to compost.

    The unions also participate in the Eller College of Management’s Zero Waste Initiative, catering meals for MBA students and ensuring any produced waste is properly disposed of.

    It’s not a perfect process, but steps are being taken to mitigate waste in the student union while also considering revenue and financial responsibility. All things considered, the unions are actually doing a great job of maintaining Arizona’s reputation of being a leading school for sustainability.


    Nick Havey is a junior studying physiology and Spanish. Follow him on Twitter.

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