The University of Auckland’s motto is “never stop”, so why have they stopped implementing sustainability initiatives on their own campus?
Step into the quad and look around. There’s plastic everywhere. Plastic-wrapped food, plastic takeaway containers, bins overflowing, plastic wrappers drifting in the breeze. We are surrounded by a sea of plastic. I can hear the baby turtles crying as we speak.
I am studying environmental science here at UoA because I am passionate about saving our planet; yet the institution teaching me is making some piss poor efforts to save it themselves. On the UoA website it says, “Think carefully about any purchases you feel compelled to make, and avoid unnecessary consumption”. But what is the University doing to provide more sustainable food and beverage options for its students?
The UoA greenwash spiel
According to the University: we are a “global leader in sustainable and ethical practises”. And the UoA’s Code of Conduct states that “we aim to be a kaitiakitanga: this means we recognise our responsibilities as kaitiaki (guardians) to protect and respect our environment”. Sounds like a lot of corporate greenwashing BS.
The University is ranked #9 worldwide for performance against the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and may claim they are already doing well in “sustainability”. But do not allow yourself to be misled. This is because they are doing well in some areas such as peace, justice, and economic growth. There is VAST room for improvement in other goals such as SDG13 climate action; in this goal we rank far worse than other universities in New Zealand.
In 2019 the University of Auckland claims it sent 16,471m3 of waste to landfill (enough to fill more than six Olympic-sized swimming pools). *Side note, whoever decided it was a good idea to just chuck all our rubbish in a big hole, then cover it over when it gets full and start a new hole?*
A large proportion of this waste is single-use takeaway food packaging and organic waste, yet this is completely avoidable. Currently, the majority of the packaging used in the quad/eateries is single-use. And there are no compost bins for our food scraps.
Single-use takeaway food packaging is especially noxious. Designed to be used for a few minutes, thrown away, and destined to sit in a landfill for thousands of years. Not all this food packaging makes it to landfill either. Single-use plastics (straws, plastic bottles, cutlery, etc.) make up 77% of plastic pollution found on Kiwi beaches. Worldwide, up to nine in ten sea birds and one in three sea turtles have ingested plastic. In Aotearoa, seven of eight of our most common fish have consumed plastic.
Food in landfill = bad
The food and organic matter don’t just sit there chillin’ in the landfill either; it produces methane emissions that contribute to climate change. We should be composting this material instead. The latest International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report makes it clear that we have a very short window to limit catastrophic warming; we need to drastically reduce emissions in the next ten years. If you’ve seen Don’t Look Up, you’ll see what happens when we don’t listen to the scientists.
Plastic cutlery, straws, sushi trays, and many other plastics are not recyclable. Even if the right item makes it into the recycling bin, much of the plastic recycling from New Zealand is sent overseas to developing countries like Malaysia and Thailand. The plastic is often dumped in illegal landfills, into the ocean, or burned under the cover of darkness. This is poisoning the people, animals, and ecosystems in these areas.
What about compostable packaging?
Compostable packaging is still single-use and wastes energy and resources. Most compostable packaging doesn’t end up in the bin anyway, it goes in the bin and ends up in landfill, producing methane. Or ends up in recycling, contaminating that waste stream.
We are behind other universities
The University of Otago, Victoria University and Lincoln University are all single use coffee cup free; and many other universities have composting facilities on site. UoA is far behind! Universities should be held to a high standard because they have a statutory role to be the critic and conscience of society. Part of this role must involve critically reflecting on the way we do things. Surely this institute of “higher learning” is not saying it is too hard to wash some cups and plates and put our food scraps into a different bin?
What can we do?
There are plenty of people on campus that want to see change happen and are trying to implement it, both staff and students. These schemes require funding to get off the ground. But fast change at a meaningful scale will only come with the support and budget provided by senior management.
Head to https://www.change.org/endsingleuseatUoA to sign the petition and let the University leadership know that this is important to us and we demand better sustainable options on our campus.
Imagine a different future. Stepping onto the campus you are hard pressed to see any plastic; students sip from a variety of reusable cups and there are compost bins dotting the grounds for your food scraps. Life is good. The University has made it easy to be sustainable and you feel proud to attend a university that takes the future of the planet seriously.