Science and Technology
By: Atara Kelman
Just before we went on break, I ordered myself a set of reusable cutlery instead of using the free plastic cutlery the dining halls provide. This was an easy step for me to stop contributing to the overwhelming plastic pollution problem. After my reusable cutlery set arrived, I wrote a post in Stern College: In the Know encouraging others to do the same. This post was quickly met with a greater-than-average response of well-intentioned likes and comments. I first felt the glowing elation of an activist’s clean conscience, but that was soon replaced with a sense of futility — whether people switch to reusable cutlery or not is almost meaningless in reducing pollution, and in any event, no one I spoke to planned on bringing reusable cutlery to school. Anyway, my actions felt more symbolic than useful.
Some commented on the post suggesting that the Beren dining halls switch to reusable or biodegradable utensils. Following these comments, I reached out to the head of the dining hall services for YU to ask about switching to biodegradable cutlery. In our email exchange, he explained that we would need to overcome hurdles in price — biodegradable utensils (at $0.04) are “more than double the cost” of the cutlery YU dining halls currently use, and that the cutlery must be able to fit in the dispensers YU has — which biodegradable ones don’t — since health regulations require all cutlery to be covered. At this stage of the conversation, it seems that if we could raise the money, we would be able to switch to biodegradable utensils, at least partially. The increase in cost for a Shabbat with biodegradable utensils would be $50-$100 per week, per campus, according to the director of the dining hall services. While reusable cutlery is a much more sustainable solution, switching from plastic utensils to biodegradable utensils would be a significant improvement.
Using reusable cutlery is easy, and relatively trivial. Even though plastic forks are not the most important issue we face, we must address it. As someone was quick to point out to me, while the cutlery I ordered on Amazon may reduce plastic pollution, there are troubling allegations from Amazon’s workers on the conditions in which they work. I am more concerned with buying clothing and produce from companies whose workers are mistreated than throwing out plastic, but that shouldn’t prevent me from talking about plastic pollution. Perhaps there is some inconsistency in buying reusable cutlery from a company that has had charges of worker abuse, but the inconsistency doesn’t discount the act. There are options (other websites or stores) that assure humane treatment of workers while providing the products you need. We might not be able to quickly solve this global issue, or more pressing ones, but we can hold ourselves to a higher standard.
We can’t control the waste output and the inaction of those around us, but we do have personal responsibility to take ownership over our actions. During this time of year, we are expected to reckon with our actions and actively engage in bettering ourselves. Rambam in Hilchot Tshuva (3:4) tells us to imagine ourselves as half-guilty and half-innocent, so that the next action we take will tip the scales and determine our fate. When it comes to pollution, most of us can’t look at ourselves and say we are equally innocent and guilty. Yet we can still appreciate the words of the Rambam, and with every action we take, choose to do the better one.
The combination of a sense of duty that pushed me to write a post and a feeling of powerlessness is frustrating. But it is much better to engage with the problem, than to let apathy win as we move on. Buying reusable cutlery won’t solve a global problem, but it will show that in some small way, we are committed to working towards a solution.
If you are passionate about this issue, please reach out. I would love to work together.
Atara Kelman can be reached at email@example.com