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UCLA shouldn’t recycle its old methods when creating new sustainability goals

UCLA is no stranger to announcing ambitious sustainability initiatives. The university has also failed to live up to those promises. Its single-use plastics proposal might not be any different.
(Daily Bruin file photo)

By Andrew Raychawdhuri

Jan. 30, 2020 10:23 p.m.

For most students at UCLA, daily worries about the environmental crisis are nothing new.

But for UCLA administrators, another day simply means more half-baked solutions to environmental problems.

UCLA and the University of California will be the first to tell you they have been on the front lines of fighting for a cleaner future. Their sustainability goals, which include carbon neutrality by 2025 and a plan to be waste-free by 2020, have been widely lauded.

Unfortunately, the University has also been in the headlines for failing to meet those goals.

But with a new decade comes new ambitions. UCLA recently announced a plan to phase out single-use plastics used in food-service ware starting in summer 2020 and transition to compostable and reusable alternatives. The administration clearly sees a role for itself when it comes to setting lofty environmental goals.

But past failures might put a wrench in its plans – or worse, a noncompostable fork.

When it comes to new sustainability goals and environmental initiatives, the road to success has been consistently paved with failures and shortcomings for UCLA. For once, the university has set a goal it might actually achieve – and as such, it must ensure banning single-use plastic doesn’t end up as another failure added to the growing list. If administrators want to prove they are committed to a sustainable future, they have a responsibility to meet this challenge.

And that starts with evaluating their past mistakes.

The UCLA office of sustainability said in an emailed statement that UCLA is undertaking a sustainability master plan that will create a bold vision for a sustainable, healthy and resilient future.

Despite these comments, the data doesn’t exactly point to success.

2020 finally came, and none of the UC campuses met the goal set out by the Zero Waste initiative, which was a commitment to reduce landfill waste from campuses by this year. Instead of owning up to its shortcomings, UCLA insists that its failure to meet the goal was a result of unforeseen barriers that slowed progress.

In part, that’s true – China’s National Sword policy, which limited the import of plastics for recycling, left the UC in something of a tailspin when it came to waste management. But moving forward with new goals, UCLA and the UC have an opportunity to evaluate their approach in the context of changes in the global landscape.

But those changes don’t excuse all of their shortcomings.

UCLA and the UC’s goal to become carbon neutral by 2025 doesn’t seem to have a clear path to success either. A report last fall stated that UCLA’s campus is still highly reliant on fossil fuels, despite its goal being only five years away.

The university has little in the way of past successes to reflect on, but its list of failures can still inform future projects.

Unfortunately, introspection doesn’t seem to be its strong suit.

The current plan UCLA has described intends to eventually provide only reusable items for dine-in eaters. But in the meantime, its strategy for eliminating plastics would hinge on compostable alternatives, which may be problematic.

Daniel Coffee, a public policy graduate student, said that dealing with this problem isn’t as simple as replacing single-use plastics with compostable items.

“If you are going to phase out single-use plastics, such as in a food-service context, you need to do it and replace them with items that are actually going to produce a net environmental benefit,” Coffee said.

Compostables are not as environmentally friendly as they are advertised to be. Many of these items will only break down inside the right type of equipment, and it is not a sure thing that they will even make it to the right facilities. In addition, composting certain items presents difficulties for the facilities, and public confusion causes problems in the waste sorting process.

“A lot of people think that using compostable stuff and putting it in the correct bin means it is being composted, but that is not actually the case in LA County,” said Candice Richardson, a public policy graduate student.

Composting is surprisingly technical, and profit margins dictate what facilities will and won’t take – which doesn’t bode well for a plan that relies on using compostable alternatives.

Maggie Faigen, a public policy graduate student, said that it’s important that UCLA imparts lessons to students about environmental sustainability.

“It can impact consumer behavior at the student level and the hope is that they take their knowledge off campus and that it will impact the future,” she said.

But clearly the university isn’t in a good position to do so when the prospects for its own successes are slim.

Fortunately, UCLA has not fully developed its proposal to phase out single-use plastics, which means there is still time for it to improve and make adjustments as it sees fit. But all too often, UCLA has come up short when it comes down to the wire. It consistently fails to meet its goals, even when achieving them could have a huge impact on students at the school.

This is a real opportunity for the university to show that it cares and that it is committed to finding and implementing a solution to a pressing environmental issue. And failure is no longer an option for an institution that prides itself on its sustainable outlook.

The university may have managed to set an achievable goal – and students are justified in feeling hopeful, if only tentatively.

But only time will tell whether UCLA is as committed as it purports to be.

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Andrew Raychawdhuri | Opinion columnist
Raychawdhuri is an Opinion columnist.
Raychawdhuri is an Opinion columnist.
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