Talking Trash


Talking Trash
Jim, Ryan, Olivia, Ethan and Cara
Professor Leither

Every week high school students from around the country come to visit Santa Clara, and get a tour from one of the universities cheery, and bright-eyed tour guides who show the prospective students the beautiful and blooming campus, while highlighting the assets of California’s first higher education institution. Along the tour the timid high-schoolers and their parents get to see some of the main stops on campus, and usually end their visit with a meal in Benson. Santa Clara is a University that pride’s itself on its environmental practices, so when you go into places like the cafeteria you see options to throw your leftovers into not solely landfill, but compost and recycling too. So, when you have the option to throw away your trash into something other than solely the landfill, you feel good about yourself and your participation in the green movement, and contribution to a more “sustainable world.”

The University strives to be one of the leaders in sustainability, and does so in many ways such as offering compost and recycling to devoid waste in the landfill. Included in the mission statement, Santa Clara pioneers as an educational institution that “will educate citizens and leaders of competence, conscience, and compassion and cultivate knowledge and faith to build a more humane, just, and sustainable world.” So what does the University mean when it boasts a more “sustainable world?” To Santa Clara, sustainability revolves around four themes. The first one being “the importance of linking grassroots efforts to top-down endeavors in making long-lasting institutional change,” second being: “how and why coordination is crucial particularly once multiple strands of sustainability emerge,” third: “the power of validation in a community, examining the ways that giving both permission and platforms for individuals to join broader efforts allows for innovation in curriculum and faculty development,” and lastly: “embedding sustainability into institutional mission and identity plays a pivotal role in moving the wider campus community toward sustainability.” (Amy Shachter, Weaving a Culture of Sustainability: Santa Clara’s Evolving Story) Creating a culture of sustainability is a key component to what makes Santa Clara so unique in their forward thinking ideals, and is an integral aspect to the allure of the school.

The allure may be there, but is Santa Clara doing a little too much preaching and not enough practicing? The four themes of sustainability are wonderful sentiments, but in terms of legitimate environmental practices that contribute to being less unsustainable, they seem more like bloviated statements. The extent to which sustainability is part of the everyday lives of students, and faculty members is unaddressed, and simply stating something in a mission statement does not suffice to implement any change, education, or action. Although Santa Clara University claims to “educate citizens [toward a more] humane, just, and sustainable world,”(Santa Clara University) its focus on a select few aspects of environmentalism that solely promotes their image, such as recycling and water conservation, has allowed the student body to egregiously over consume and remain ignorant of larger threats to sustainability. The University’s aspiration towards sustainability is valid, but it is a skeleton of bones lacking the blood and muscles that rouses a body into action. The University provides a framework of sustainability that students can buy into, then cop out of, rather than feel genuinely motivated to contribute to practicing.

It is easy to discount the sustainability principles that Santa Clara upholds but it seems as though many other universities perform similar practices on campuses across the nation. Yet, some universities practice sustainability differently than Santa Clara does and these practices could be more beneficial.
According to Princeton Review, Santa Clara University is ranked the 17th most sustainable school in the country. So, what are the higher ranked Universities doing in regards to sustainability? (Princeton Review Staff)

Colorado State University (CSU) seemed to be on the right track. They displayed the graph pictured below on their website stating that agriculture was the biggest problem in regards to climate changes. This is true having previously been educated that agriculture is in fact the greatest contributor to global warming and other climate issues. (Colorado farming system vulnerability and response options show the potential impact of climate-smart agriculture. Extracted from Annex A.3.1 Palombi and Sessa 2013)

As I read through Colorado State University’s website, I started to become convinced: this campus uses solar panels, properly recycles, and seems to realize the true problems with sustainability. CSU does recognize agriculture as the main issue but I soon realized that they recognize the wrong idea behind agricultural sustainability issues. CSU’s main focus was to minimize water use when raising crops and livestock rather than deeply discussing the ideas of greenhouse gases produced from agriculture. The website does happen to mention other concerns in regards to agriculture such as fertilizers but these examples lack the same quality of depth that the discussion on irrigation systems obtain. Instead, they explained that the university partnered with the Colorado Water Institute to use recycled water to grow plants and care for animals. Lou Swanson, editorial author of CSU Water Center’s Volume 33 Issue 1 of Colorado Water: “Climate Smart Agriculture” journal, expresses that “Groundwater based irrigation systems in interior arid plains” collectively raise the biggest agriculture, environmental issue (Swanson).

What started as seemingly one of the first large groups that was able to recognize the main issues of climate change and related issues ended by making a full loop back the same sustainability efforts used by other universities: waste reduction and water conservation– deja vu.

This raises the question: If our time is being wasted on sorting waste as well as conserving water and energy, what can Santa Clara do?

Turning away from these superficial environmentalism efforts is difficult because it is what has been preached to us throughout our lifetimes. Additionally, it is difficult because the answer to sufficiently elevate the campuses sustainability, would be Santa Clara University banning all meat and animal products. This would be the most beneficial practice to the environment but at this point it is unfeasible. Banning animal products would not only cause a greater uproar than encouraging shorter showers but because “the majority of people eat meat or consume animal products here, people would definitely take some sort of action”, freshman student Samantha DiBenedetto confirmed. After surveying 30 people by questioning in person, about 78% (23 out of 30 people) expressed that it would be impossible or too hard to give up animal products. Additionally, if campuses began to ban animal products, students would still purchase and consume these products from other vendors.
After all, it is easier to simply throw away your deli meat wrappers than it is to not eat them at all, and it is easier to take a five-minute-shorter shower then it is to have a vegetarian dinner.

With all of the options that the student body has to make our campus a more sustainable place, you would think that as a whole, everyone would do their part? Recycle that bottle, or maybe pass on the burger, because it is the little stuff that can make a difference. But what is the issue? The student body as a whole, really doesn’t care!
When it comes to the issues of sustainability at Santa Clara there is a lot of finger pointing that occurs. Although some think the school itself is playing games, the student body also hurts themselves by putting in such minimal effort.
The university does have some operations in place which are meant to push the community to become a more sustainable atmosphere. One large one is the trash barrel system located in Benson, residence hall lounges, and scattered all across the campus. At every opportunity to get rid of your trash and leftover food there is most likely three trash cans. One that reads landfill, one labeled compost, and lastly recycle.


Although the students do remain extremely lazy in their attempts at sustainability, it is perfectly respectable to ask the question, why does the school let this happen? Our University claims that sustainability is one of the core values, although, I have yet to see any backlash from the school on students who fail to be sustainable. We have core religious values, and are required to take religion classes to graduate. So why are we not held accountable when it comes to a different “core value” such as sustainability?

The current state of Santa Clara’s sustainability campaign is a product of the structure of the modern university. The reality is that colleges are a business. They provide a service to students and in return they receive incredible amounts of money from both current students and alumni who still benefit from the prestige of their alma mater. But universities different from other businesses in the sense that their product’s perceived quality is almost entirely dependent on their customers, the students. Why does Harvard continue to be one of the top universities in the world? It may have excellent faculty and resources, but what would happen if they suddenly start enrolling high school seniors with 2.0 GPAs? Despite the quality of the actual education, colleges are defined by their students. Their students ideas and achievements will serve as free marketing for the university for the rest of their lives.

We should look no further than this dynamic between students and universities to diagnose the lack of motivation by the students to live sustainably. Every project, initiative, innovation, and campaign by the university to be environmentally conscious is, quite literally, by the university. The students do not feel compelled to take part in these efforts because they had nothing to do with them. They simply write a check and go to class without ever making a decision on how they want their university to be represented. As Santa Clara University Professor Nicholas Leither once said, “They are just paying customers, and SCU is taking care of them and giving them a product.” Of course, almost every college and university in the country operates that way. It disempowers instead of empowers. It gives people like me all the power to tell students what to do and how to do it, instead of creating equality and a true, democratic education process, where students have equal say in their own progress, and autonomy in their educations.

By no means does the Jesuit education model shy away from requiring students to be immersed in cultures and ideas foreign to their own. In fact, emphasis on well roundedness and general literacy in the liberal arts is the cornerstone of the Jesuit philosophy. Here at Santa Clara, a finance major is required to take 3 religion classes, 1 diversity class, 1 natural science, and many more courses outside the subject field written on their degree. While these may not be everyone’s favorite class, most students gain an appreciation and understanding for disciplines far beyond their own by the time they graduate. So the question remains: if sustainability is truly a core value of Santa Clara University, shouldn’t we require students to be immersed in an environmentally conscious culture rather than give them no direction and allow them to remain ignorant?

An alternate solution is to flip the script on the structure of university decision making all together. While the vast majority of college campuses operate in a way similar to Santa Clara, where decisions that “define” the community are made with largely no consideration for the students’ desires, there are exceptions. Deep Springs College, a two year liberal arts institution in Inyo County, prides itself on self-governance. The student body plays a significant part in the admissions process, the selection of curriculum, disciplinary hearings, and student life policy. As stated on their website, the deed of the school states, “It shall be the duty of said Trustees to accord the Student Body the full right, power and authority of democratic self-governance in accordance with its traditions and the ideals and policies of Deep Springs” (Self Governance). Because the students play such a pivotal role, the decisions of the college reflect the collective values of the entire community. If universities allowed its entire population to organically decide what policies they would like to enact, we would not see the endemic apathy we do here at SCU and at campuses around the country. Rather than treat students like the children they once were, maybe we could treat them like the future leaders they are and allow them to rise to the occasion.

The price tag on Santa Clara University for the 2017-2018 school year is $64,512 dollars for undergraduate tuition and on campus room and board. As students fret over which university to attend across the country and essentially what degree they would like to purchase, they look at what comes along with the purchase just as if buying any normal commodity and product. One of Santa Clara’s selling points and something that comes along with Santa Clara once you enroll is its reputation as the “17th most sustainable school in the country” and a university that prides itself on “creating a more sustainable world”. The vision of the university according to the school’s website is to, “educate citizens toward a more humane, just, and sustainable world,”. The school’s actions of putting sustainability upfront and forward in the University’s brand demonstrates that sustainability is something the school wants to be recognized for and also as a selling point in the business of attracting paying customers, aka students, to their university. So like when buying a new car with tons of new features, once we purchase the car we get to choose what features we want to use or to not use. The same idea goes for the students attending SCU, once they are accepted and decide to purchase a spot in the next freshman class of SCU, the big deal that was made about sustainability when they were looking into and being sold on the University really doesn’t matter to them anymore unless they choose to make it matter.

What’s wrong with this? And why does it matter for the University? Well that’s exactly it, there is nothing “wrong” with students choosing not to care about our universities sustainability, what is wrong is that the University is not practicing what they preach. There is no one simple solution but if there is so much emphasis on sustainability in the University’s ambitions and goals, how come the University doesn’t give the students a vested interest in sustainability? As a Jesuit University we are required to enrollee in 3 religion courses, why aren’t we required to take a sustainability course as a part of our undergraduate core? We envision a University that cares more about making a sustainable campus than talking about a sustainable campus. In order to truly “educate citizens toward a more humane, just, and sustainable world,” the students and the University must both have a genuine and vested interest to do so.

Barry Commoner, Leading ecologist and founder in the modern environmental movement, when about our environment in a question and answer interview with the New York times said, “Environmental Pollution is an incurable disease. It can only be prevented ”. To be bluntly honest, Santa Clara as a small private Jesuit University is not going to completely change the world in terms of sustainability and the problems of waste. But as my grandfather, who attended Santa Clara University and was a Judge in Santa Clara County for over twenty years, used to say “It’s about doing what’s right”. Just like the boy who cried wolf, after a while people become immune to words and actions that are promised but never really happen. Today in countless university mission statements or pamphlets one can find something about how the university values or is sustainable. We as the students have become so insusceptible to such statements and hence lack the urge to follow through with actually making an effort to be sustainable or understand what being sustainable truly means. So as proud Broncos why would we not want to practice what we preach? Unless Santa Clara University wants to be just another “sustainable” university making promises it can’t keep.


Source Citation
Baldwin, Cheryl J.. The 10 Principles of Food Industry Sustainability, edited by Cheryl J. Baldwin, John Wiley & Sons, Incorporated, 2015. ProQuest Ebook Central.
Colorado farming system vulnerability and response options show the potential impact of
climate-smart agriculture. Extracted from Annex A.3.1 Palombi and Sessa 2013
“Student Body & Committees.” Deep Springs College. Web. 25 Apr. 2017.

Princeton Review Staff. “Top 50 Green Colleges.” Top 50 Green Colleges | The Princeton Review. Princeton Review.Web. 20 Apr. 2017.
Swanson, Lou. Colorado Water. Denver, CO (1410 Grant, B-204, Denver, CO 80203): League of
Women Voters of Colorado, 2001. Colorado State University. Colorado State University.
Vinciguerra, Thomas. “At 90, an Environmentalist From the ’70s Still Has Hope.” The New York
Times. The New York Times, 18 June 2007. Web. 20 Apr. 2017.



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