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Since coming to the University of Tennessee, I have been able to witness the active role sustainability plays on our campus at an institutional level. From recycling in residence halls to zero-waste events around campus to composting at our dining halls, our Office of Sustainability, despite its small and quickly rotating staff of mostly AmeriCorps members, has come to play an important role in students’ lives--whether they fully realize it or not. 

However, the COVID-19 pandemic has seemingly put campus sustainability, in several key ways, to the side for this semester. Certainly operating a university in this unique time presents immense challenges, but my generation does not have the luxury of time to ignore the carbon footprint generated by large institutions like UTK. 

While the expansive utilization of styrofoam to-go materials in our dining halls likely represents the most salient of issues facing the campus community this semester, I would like to first discuss the Free Store’s efforts to get a permanent space on campus.

The Free Store is an initiative run out of the Office of Sustainability that aims to provide free, lightly used clothing and other items (vacuums, coffeemakers, etc.) to students in order to reduce their carbon footprint and increase financial accessibility. For several years, the Free Store has acted as a pop-up shop around campus a few times each semester. This initiative has genuinely become one which students love. (This semester, the Free Store is operating off of their Instagram @freestore_utk.)

In an effort to expand its ability to serve students, the Office of Sustainability has been working to secure a permanent location since before the pandemic to no avail. However, the University Space committee has repeatedly extended the time period over which they would like to review the project, even though the office--particularly Store Manager Maryn Miles--has found solutions to all potential concerns for the proposed location of the Carriage House (right beside Hoskins Library). 

It is now, in the midst of this pandemic, when the Free Store would be most beneficial to have a permanent location on our campus. As economic hardships impact a great many students more than ever this semester and we are generating immense amounts of single-use waste, the Free Store presents a solution. The Free Store deserves a permanent space on our campus.

At the same time as the university bureaucracy has blocked the Free Store from securing a permanent location on campus, our dining halls have begun utilizing styrofoam boxes and cups to provide a to-go service that has become a popular option--or until recently, a mandate--for students this semester. 

This should come as a surprise to no one: styrofoam is bad. It is a petroleum based product which will never biodegrade and has been found to have toxic consequences when hot food is added to it. Now, trash cans across campus are filled with thousands of styrofoam boxes that will exist long after anyone reading this will be alive.

To be clear, Vol Dining has taken significant strides to embrace sustainability in recent years. For example, Panda Express, Canes and Twisted Taco all utilize compostable boxes for their food rather than styrofoam. 

We should be doing the same in our dining halls and expanding our composting infrastructure.

This column could quickly become a multi-chapter book to provide more nuance and specifics to these ideas, but in reality, the solutions are simple. To the University Space Committee, give the Free Store a permanent location at the Carriage House that the Office of Sustainability has already allocated the money for in its budget. To Vol Dining, stop using styrofoam and rapidly transition to compostable to-go materials.

Campus sustainability must remain a priority during the pandemic--we can’t afford for it not to.

If you are interested in getting involved in on-campus sustainability efforts, check out the Office of Sustainability internship program, SPEAK (@utkspeak), and Student Basic Needs Coalition (@sbnc_utk). Also, sign the petition calling on Vol Dining to utilize compostable materials instead of styrofoam at tinyurl.com/saynotothefoam.

Simon Jolly is a junior at UTK and can be reached at sjolly3@vols.utk.edu

Columns and letters of The Daily Beacon are the views of the individual and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Beacon or the Beacon's editorial staff.

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