I have been lucky to serve as faculty advisor to the Envirolutions student club at Pratt for the past six years. There have been a lot of great projects done by the club over these years, and some of the best have been centered on Pratt’s Green Week, an annual on-campus celebration of sustainability.
This year club members came up with a really fun and thought-provoking project. Whereas past projects had been more oriented to education and outreach, with the club members presenting information to the Pratt community, this year’s event was very much a participatory affair. To get members of the Pratt community thinking about the unsustainable nature of single-use bottled water, the club invited people to collect disposable bottles and exchange them for a re-usable bottle. Thanks to funding from the Student Government Association, the club was able to purchase sixty cute little Nalgene bottles to give away to anyone who turned in twenty single-use bottles. A tribute to the success of the event, nearly all of those sixty bottles were claimed during the two-hour event.
As bottles arrived, they were added to an installation piece featuring a surface of chicken wire. Individual bottles were placed into openings in the chicken wire, creating a wave-formed curtain of single-use bottles that eventually blossomed into a very substantial wall of plastic. The piece was left on the Pratt grounds within NYPIRG’s climate garden. After being on display, the bottles will be redeemed for deposit value and the proceeds will be donated to SERRV, a non-profit that helps artisans in developing countries turn their labor into sustainable livelihoods.
There are a number of things about this event that made me proud to be the advisor of Envirolutions. The interactive nature of the event was extremely valuable, as members of the club challenged members of the community to participate rather than simply consume or be audience to the event. Every participant confronted the question “how easy is it to collect twenty single-use bottles?”. Based on how many people showed up over a two-hour span, the answer to that question seems to be “pretty easy”. But each participant had their own unique experience of that ease, and in this experience is a lot of the value of this exercise. For people who consume a lot of bottled drinks, this collection forced a confrontation with their own consumption patterns (and perhaps with the fact that twenty bottles of water cost well over what a single refillable Nalgene costs). For those who do not consume a lot of bottled drinks, this collection made it clear how many other people do, as it proved to be pretty easy to collect twenty bottles. While most people seem to have been collecting all week in response to posters and other advertising for the event, a few people showed up at the table, learned about the requirements for getting a free Nalgene, and returned in a very short time with the requisite twenty bottles. The interactive nature of this project forced members of our community to confront the ubiquity of these bottles.
I also really appreciate that this event helped to facilitate behavioral change. I know full well that anyone is capable of purchasing a re-usable bottle and breaking their bottled drink habit, but sometimes some people need a little social push. And the symbolic act of exchanging wasteful bottles for a waste-averting one might just be the push that people need in order to change their daily habits. There is a lot of power in changing people’s daily habits.
I am also proud of the fact that Envirolutions club members did their research. The club actually spent a fair amount of time considering which kind of bottle we ought to provide for exchange. Glass, metal, and plastic bottles were considered and debated. Glass turned out to be prohibitively expensive, but was an aesthetic favorite of many members of the club. And then there was the metal versus plastic debate. Was metal better because it was not made of fossil fuels? Was it somehow hypocritical to be replacing a bunch of disposable plastic bottles with another plastic bottle? For awhile the debate was going nowhere, because much of the decision rested purely on conjecture. When Carolyn Shafer of the Center for Sustainable Design Studies offered to help, the conjecture ended. Using the Quantis life cycle assessment tool, Carolyn helped club members determine that a bottle made of Tritan copolyester by Nalgene of Rochester, NY would have a lot lower impact than comparable bottles made of metal. This was a valuable lesson for members of the club to learn — that our intuition about what is “green” may not always match reality — and one that could be disseminated to event visitors.
Although we do not expect at five cents per bottle to recover very much money, that is not entirely the point of returning the collected bottles for their deposit value. I actually conceptualize this as more performance than anything else: in going through all the labor involved in returning these bottles — a task usually performed by very poor people — these privileged students are experiencing and pointing out through their experience just how casually we treat disposable materials in our society. When all is said and done I am guessing that we will have for deposit less than fifty dollars worth of plastic bottles, and the fact that we place such little value on incentivizing recycling is emphasized by this “meager harvest”. The choice of SERRV as the recipient of this money — however small in amount — is appropriate, as SERRV is connecting makers and consumers around products that are meant to be long-lasting and cherished.
Below is a gallery of additional pictures from the event: