A Blog by International Students at Leiden University
Let’s talk about some practical issue that may interest you very much. If you are spending time in any of the University buildings these days you may have noticed that something changed in our waste management system: a new garbage bin mysteriously appeared, and there is “Paper cups” written on it.
Now, this may seem completely irrelevant and of course, most of us didn’t even see it as something worth thinking about for more than two seconds. However, here at the Leidener we decided to go deeper and to discover more about the matter. Curious? You may find out the political message of that humble garbage bin is more than meets the eye.
When we see separated garbage bins, we automatically think that everything will be recycled. Sadly, that’s not true! It’s only since February 2019 that in The Netherlands the so-called “Plastic packaging, cans and drink packages “(PMD – the orange garbage bin) produced by educational institutions can be collected separately and be recycled. Alas, paper cups are not PMDs, and that’s why they need a separated bin now. They chose to move to a black bin, grieving for the separation.
“But what happens to the paper cups then?” I can almost hear you asking frantically. Don’t you worry: they are going to be shipped to a German company that will separate the paper from the plastic layer inside, turning the first into tissue materials like toilet paper and the latter into raw materials that can be recycled.
Why it is important
But why such a fuss for paper cups? Are they really that damaging for the environment? Well…they definitely are. The massive production and consumption of disposable coffee cups has proved to be an enormous problem for our environment in many aspects. First of all, they are almost never only paper, as they also have a plastic layer highly polluting and incredibly hard to recycle. Not only, their production also implies a high carbon footprint to produce both plastic and paper. According to “the independent” (link) only 1% of the paper cups in the UK is actually recycled. Also, the plastic layer tends to break down in microplastics that pollute the landfills and that are ingested by animals and consequently humans. These microplastics are known to contain toxic components potentially damaging for our health.
Being an education institution, Leiden University is, of course, an important producer of plastic and paper cups. Only in 2016, 1.022.584 plastic cups and 750.000 paper cups have been used in our campuses. The problem has already been addressed both by the Green Office (link) with the Bring Your Cup campaign and by the University (link) urging staff members and students alike to re-use the disposable cups at the coffee machines.
Your sustainability – obsessed blogger has something to add
Here my -totally unsolicited- opinion on the coffee cups matter: cutting on the waste is always better than recycling! In fact, even if it’s great that our university now recycles coffee cups, it’s unlikely that this will happen also outside in the “real world”. Moreover, even if cups are recycled, even the recycling will include some CO2 costs for shipping and the actual process. The University has already stressed that “prevention is better than recycling” and with our coffee machines is actually very easy! In fact, something only a few people know is that our coffee machines won’t give you a new cup if you put your old paper cup (or a normal white cup) under the sensors when you order your favorite beverage.
Therefore, my personal position is that it’s always better to bring our own cup and to encourage students to do the same, even knowing that there is always a backup plan in case we forget, thanks to our new black bins.
If you want to know more about the university waste management system here’s your guide.
What do you think about the topic? Let me know in the comments below!