Sustainability has become omnipresent in UR’s dialogue. When people hear about the latest sustainability initiative, they often assume it’s the right thing to do. Sustainability, the rational effort to ensure that our activities will not deplete limited resources, is a laudable goal. However, some applications of sustainability at UR are misguided.

One of the primary concerns with sustainability is that people often neglect to account for the costs of implementing these measures. For example, one goal of the Students’ Association is to mount motion detectors in all Ruth Merrill Center offices. In making the decision to install these devices, those in charge should ensure that the value of the energy saved exceeds the full costs of installing and maintaining motion censors.

Likewise, UR touts some initiatives, such as water refill stations, as sustainable achievements. Yet it is questionable whether the refill stations truly decrease the use of bottled water. Are these efforts in fact sustainable, particularly when manufacturing the water refill stations installed all over campus comes with its own environmental and financial cost?

Some sustainability measures can have potentially unintended consequences. Consider the mug refill program, which reduces the price of a cup of coffee to $0.99 for students with refillable mugs. Students who take advantage of the program can use the money saved on their meal plans to purchase other items like packaged food. Thus, while students may switch to reusable coffee cups, they may consume more overall. The appropriate consideration is how the cost of throwing out additional paper cups balances against the cost of additional food consumption. As this example shows, a seemingly sustainable action, and a good intention, can unintentionally lead to negative consequences.

Sustainability is a worthy goal in that it aims to reduce our consumption of finite resources. The current approach to sustainability, however, calls into question how effectively UR achieves this objective.

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