Letter to the Editor: A Tragedy of (the) Commons

Submitted on 10 December 2019

Letters do not necessarily reflect the views of the Quest or the Editorial Board

Starting before 2014, so before likely anyone that currently goes to this school was even here, Commons was experiencing a massive problem having dishes returned. At this time, there were no dish return bins around campus. The manager of Commons at the time, so the story I have heard from the current manager Matt Talavera and from Greenboard members now long-graduated that helped with this project originally, went to Greenboard with this issue of having to spend over $30,000 a year on new plastic dishware. Bon Appetit’s contracting agreement with Reed states that $6,000/year of the cost of new dishes should come from Bon Appetit, and anything above that the school would pay for. I interpret this agreement as Commons accepting a reasonable level of turnover of dishware that would work its way out of commons, but anything more than $6,000 and Reed would need to step up to pay for it as the dishes were on the rest of campus and students should be honorable enough not to steal them. 

For reference, Commons has enough dishes to cover a full two days of meal rotation and washing schedule, so if the dish isn’t back within 48 hours for sure but 24 hours to be guaranteed to make it back into the rotation before new plates need to be bought or paper and plastic plates and silverware would need to be put out, a person must return their dish within 24 hours.

The members of Greenboard in 2014-2015 put dish return bins and posters around campus and had student volunteers empty them, bringing them back to Commons. This worked for a while, until the students in charge of that stopped emptying the bins and graduated. The custodians, out of contact of taking on more work, were forced to make bringing dishes back to campus a part of their job.

The amount of money spent on dishes gradually decreased, increased a tiny bit again, and so then Greenboard was asked again 2 years ago to spread awareness of the issue. We put up similar posters that we have this year, and money spent on dishes again decreased after the posters. Each campaign cycle has seemed to work, but awareness of the issue must be maintained for each new entering Reed class. So, Commons manager Matt Talevera asked to meet with me again to discuss running another return-your-dishware campaign. He provided the amounts spent on Commons dishware over the years from receipts his office has tracked, and based on current spending, we are expected to revert to pre-second round of campaigning levels and spend around $12,000 on dishes again this year.

Not only is virgin plastic contributing to massive environmental disaster, but the financial consequences of purchasing new plastic is absurd. The money spent on dishes comes from student funds that could go to much less wasteful things and be put towards a scholarship, as was previously pledged by Reed during the original campaign. Money Commons wastes on this issue could go to improving Commons or even perhaps lowering costs.

I have received feedback that students should actually care that the money is coming from Reed and non Bon Appetit as their parent company, Bamco, is a multi-million dollar company. I believe we should not ask even large corporations to spend thousands of dollars on virgin plastic, and no one who works for Commons is paid enough to lobby their parent company to give them this throw-away money. 

To just maintain the already expensive prices of Commons meals and a commitment to caring for the lifecycle of the items we use and sustainability, I think it makes sense if students make the effort to promptly return their dishes to Commons. This is a… tragedy of the commons.

If students continue to take dishes at such an alarming rate, I think we would seriously need to consider a rule that dishes cannot be removed from Commons, and students would need to supply their own take-away containers or choose to use an eco-trainer or disposable container. I don’t want to advocate for disposable, but I would rather a student treat a less-sturdy plastic-lined takeaway container as throw-away than the amount of hard plastic of a plate. Or, we could all commit to return Commons dishes within 24 hours and not remove them from campus.

I am working with Residence Life to request that they fund Kommie plates and silverware in dorms to reduce the incentive to store Commons dishes in dorms.

If you can think of more facets of this discussion to consider or solutions or even ways of thinking differently about the problem, please reach out via email to sustainability@reed.edu, attend a Greenboard meeting, or write an anonymous comment card on the Green(Cork)Board outside of the GCC Infoshoppe. You may also contact Matt Talevera directly; that’s how I learned about this issue. 

Signed, Hayden Hendersen, Student Sustainability Coordinator, Environmental Studies-Political Science ‘20.

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