Opinion letter to the editor

Reusable utensils pilot underway

On Sept. 24, 2020, an article was published in the opinion section of The Tech titled “Regaining a culture of sustainability amid a pandemic,” written by Jen Fox, detailing steps MIT Dining could take to reduce the waste produced during COVID operations. To many readers living on campus, where plastic and single-use items seem inescapable, this article hit home. For many of us off campus, this article brought to our attention the feasibility of reusables and the seeming absence of them on MIT’s campus.

The existence and wastefulness of single-use plastics, especially from food delivery practices, is something that student waste groups have been thinking about for a long time. These groups, including the Undergraduate Association’s Committee on Sustainability (UA Sustainability) and Waste Watchers, agree with the Sept. 24 article about the importance of action to reduce the use of disposable plastics on campus. As students who have devoted time and effort into addressing this exact problem, we believe that the article misses a few key points: (1) MIT Dining encourages plastic waste reduction efforts and is actively collaborating on a reusable utensil pilot program that is underway as of Sept. 26, 2020; (2) students have been working with administrators to mitigate plastic waste for years; (3) there are many other ways to increase the sustainability of your practices even off campus.

The reusable utensil pilot will run this fall and will provide all students living on campus with the opportunity to receive a free set of reusable utensils for use throughout the remainder this semester. This pilot is a joint effort from UA Sustainability, Waste Watchers, the MIT COVID Committee, MIT Dining, and the MIT Office of Recycling and Materials Management. At the end of the semester, the students who have participated will provide information about their experience with the utensils, including how often they used the set, any challenges they faced with having a set, and whether or not they would continue to use reusable utensils in the future. 

This information will serve to inform procurement decisions in the spring for the Division of Student Life (DSL) and MIT Dining. If the pilot is successful and the students who participate are enthusiastic about continuing with reusable utensils in the future, the value of reusables will be clear to key decision makers, and a model for effective changemaking in sustainability at MIT will be laid out for anyone in the student body to build from.

If you are currently on campus and were energized by the Sept. 24 article, sign up for the pilot to prove that it can and will work on a larger scale. You can sign up to participate in the pilot via a link sent to your email. For distribution to happen in a timely manner, you must sign up by Oct. 5. We cannot simply regain a culture of sustainability, as we at MIT still need to robustly develop one. Participation in this pilot is a direct way that you can contribute.

With the development of a culture of sustainability in mind, the Student Sustainability Coalition (SSC) was born this summer out of an effort to diminish the waste produced on campus from the COVID school year, especially from the meal plan. Initially, members from UA Sustainability, Waste Watchers, UA COVID Committee, and Dormitory Council planned to collaborate on the project together, but at the recommendation of the MIT Office of Sustainability, formed a collective organization to best represent the voices of all students doing work in the environment, sustainability, and climate policy space on campus. SSC provides a united front in communications with administrators and a platform for collaboration. As SSC was formed, work on the Fall Dining Waste project continued as a student-group effort until we presented to the DSL. Since then, we have been working closely with administrators to roll out the Reusable Utensil Pilot and a postering/education campaign.

This semester, the SSC is expanding its membership to include MIT Divest, the Sustainable Energy Alliance, the Energy Club, PlanEAT, the Water Club, and the Undergraduate Energy Club. In addition to expanding its membership, the SSC has added a project group working to provide student input on MIT’s new Climate Action Plan. We are still growing as an organization, so if you are a sustainability group on campus or would like to propose a project, email sustainability-coalition@mit.edu.

If you are not able to participate in the pilot or want to further increase your lifestyle sustainability, the following is a list of things you may start off considering:

In addition to personal sustainability, if you live off campus and would like to continue advocating for changes on campus, you can reach out to any sustainability-related club individually or to SSC to voice your concerns and get involved. We are constantly working with admin and various MIT sustainability offices, and we can provide you with a channel to have your voice heard and a platform to support your initiatives.

As students, we all play a part in the MIT waste ecosystem, and by extension, MIT’s sustainability as an institution. It is key that we be aware of our roles, and that we understand ways we can change our habits or get involved if sustainability is something important to us. SSC hopes this article provides clarity on exactly what sustainability student groups are undertaking now and how you can play a role in advancing MIT sustainability. 

The authors of this article are members of the Student Sustainability Coalition:
Kelly Wu ’22 is co-chair of the UA Committee on Sustainability.
Megan Xu ’22 is co-chair of the UA Committee on Sustainability.
Natalie Northrup ’22 is a member of Waste Watchers Admin.