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Credit: Catherine Liang

I’ve noticed that Penn students regularly use more than necessary. Disposable water bottles make regular appearances in the classroom. A chorus of agreement sounded when a friend shared that paper plates became a necessity as schoolwork accumulated. We tend to grab paper towels in needlessly thick wads. 

We often make choices based on convenience. With endless assignments, meetings, and things to do, it can be easy to ignore the consequences of actions such as throwing out a plastic fork or grabbing a paper cup. While navigating everyday life, we often neglect our responsibility to the environment. Our actions have consequences for the environment, and we should care. 

Every product we use came from somewhere and goes somewhere. The collection, production, transportation, and disposal of materials consumes energy, generates waste, and alters ecosystems. You should recycle what can be recycled. Still, recycling doesn’t justify the problematic normalization of a pattern of take, use, toss. While recycling helps conserve resources, reduce energy use, and prevent pollution, the transportation and recycling processes still consume energy, use resources, and produce waste. Many materials can’t be recycled or composted. Recycling isn’t a full solution to a problem that can be prevented — you wouldn’t have a bottle to recycle if you hadn’t used it in the first place.

When we use materials that we don’t need but make life easier in the moment, we’re choosing comfort over responsibility. Many of us don’t have to experience the worst impacts of environmental issues, but that doesn’t mean we aren’t responsible for caring. While humans will inevitably impact the environment to some extent, we aren’t entitled to take whatever we want, and we aren’t entitled to disregard our impact on the planet and on others. While companies, governments, and other organizations are also responsible for making changes toward sustainability, there are changes that many of us could make as individuals. 

Although we may not have control over the type of utensils and containers provided at free food events and other food places, there are steps we can take. I’ve noticed that a lot of people grab single-use water bottles at events, when it is often possible to bring reusable bottles. Sometimes, we might decide to bring our own plates and forks instead of taking ones that we’ll throw away. If we overestimate the napkins we need, instead of tossing the extras, we could use them later. We might decide that the environmental impact of a polystyrene cup is not worth a few gulps of soda. 

When we use convenience to justify our actions — or inaction — which have consequences for the environment and for others, we are saying that we value our time and comfort — or our avoidance of temporary discomfort — over the wellbeing of something larger than ourselves.

What’s considered normal depends on social context. Throughout this past year, I’ve been in groups where it was more common to grab a disposable cup or water bottle than to bring a reusable one. Even when it doesn’t seem normal to be mindful of your consumption of materials you have a responsibility to care. That a behavior is considered the default doesn’t mean it is justified. 

Instead of going through a new fork, cup, or lid each day, we could bring reusable utensils or use those bottles or mugs that we keep getting for free. If you have influence over events with food, you could try reducing the packaging and containers consumed, along with minimizing extra food to prevent food waste. If you must use paper towels, one is usually enough, if not more than enough, especially if you follow advice from Joe Smith’s TEDx talk and shake your hands free of excess water (some of which would drip anyway) and fold the towel. Also, there’s no need to keep cranking away at the dispenser when there isn’t enough water to be absorbed by the extra paper.

When we say that we’re too busy to fill our bottles at the water fountain, to wash the dishes, or to remember to care, maybe we should ask ourselves what we are so busy for. Are we waiting to start caring for when we get wherever we’re trying to go? In the meantime, the effects of our consumption don’t disappear just because we aren’t thinking about them. We all have a responsibility to think about the meaning and consequences of our actions—and to put our concern into action.

PEARL LIU is a College freshman from Farmington, Conn. Her email address is pearlliu@sas.upenn.edu.

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