My senior year kicked off the same way that most of my previous years did: panting up the Bancroft Steps to my sorority house. I was moving into the house for my final year at UC Berkeley. Sweating up those steps, I was excited to see where my senior year would take me. Although I found myself living in my sorority house for a third year — shocking, yes — I was excited that this year would be different.
Upon reaching the front door of the house, basically crawling at this point, I entered and headed straight for the kitchenette — no, I was not trying to get a jump start on munching the limitless Lucky Charms cereal supply. Instead, I was looking forward to what I would not find in the kitchenette.
Leading up to fall 2018, I was the director of sustainability for my chapter — a position that is loosely defined but breaks down to someone who tries to make the house more sustainable. My mission as self-deemed sustainability queen was to eliminate my chapter’s use of single-use disposable cups.
Throughout the year, our house would consume hundreds upon hundreds of these paper cups. Coffee, oatmeal and tea were flying out our door, packaged perfectly in those convenient paper cups. I am still haunted by visions of those pristine white cups stacked up high like castle walls in the cupboard. As sustainability director, I made it my mission to tear that castle down.
Meeting after meeting, public and board proposals, slow phaseout plan, public commentary — I went through all the steps of bureaucratic insanity to get those cups out of our house. So, according to the phaseout plan, I should have opened the cabinets that first day of fall 2018, and I should have seen them empty — not a single paper cup in sight.
But of course, that was not what I saw. Opening the cupboard that day, there was the wall of cups looking as tall and thick as the Hoover Dam, apparently impenetrable by me. Although my first instinct was to rip those cups out of the wall in a fit of rage, I managed to restrain my emotions, because deep down, I was not that surprised.
Although I had been passionate about protecting the environment since my senior year of high school, I had never tried to implement policies that affected other people’s behaviors. I always used my reusable mug and carried my reusable spork, but badgering my parents to recycle was the furthest I went outside of my personal actions.
So when trying to take away 185 coffee-crazed, convenience-driven sorority women’s cups, I realized just how little sustainability and the environment can be valued. Seeing those cups in the cupboard that day just confirmed what I already knew and felt from my chapter — that not a lot of these women really cared about their own or our chapter’s environmental impact. To many, those cups were just part of their daily routine, a tool for their pleasure and convenience. To me, those cups were once unprocessed trees and pure water rolling through a stream, just precious.
Facing that wall of cups made me feel small; it made me feel that my efforts were wasted and that my chapter was doomed to an existence of overconsumption. Fortunately, one of my younger sisters, with whom I had worked closely as co-director of sustainability, was much less bitter toward the system than I was, and with her positivity, she gave me the hope that I needed to persevere with my mission.
I did not rest until the cups were gone! I constantly reminded the house director about her commitment to eliminate the single-use cups. Truly, my efforts were a waiting game, as I was waiting for the day when sustainability could creep up just high enough on the house director’s priority list for action to be taken.
Finally, within the first few weeks of the semester, the stars aligned, and the cups were eliminated. No sassy side comment or secret complaint could bring those cups back. Finally, they had been banished from the cupboards of our home — well, except for that one shady person’s personal stash that was hoarded in the deep dark corners of the lower cupboards. Yay, sisterhood!
For the duration of my senior year, I would open up that cupboard, and instead of seeing those identical cups, perfectly sterilely stacked, I saw reusable mugs and cups, all different and beautiful. Each time I would open that cabinet, I remembered the journey it took to get there.
I would remember that it is worth it to fight for something you believe in. I would remember the kind support of my younger sorority sister who stood by my side. I would remember that even though eliminating those cups was just a start to the changes that my chapter can make, it was important nonetheless. Although it was not easy to get those cups out of my chapter, I would do it again and again, and I am thrilled to pursue a life of breaking expectations and protecting our planet.
Jessica Redden writes the Monday column on finding freedom from overconsumption. Contact her at [email protected].