Comment & Analysis
Nov 29, 2023

Reusable Cup Initiatives are Drops into Warming Oceans

Yes, we recycle, but as developed countries, we also emit the most greenhouse gases and create the most urbanised cities, writes Amelia McGowan

Amelia McGowanContributing Writer

Drop a €2 deposit for a reusable cup at the Perch Café, and you’ve stopped global warming in its tracks. It’s true: the Greenland Ice Sheet is no longer blending into the ocean, Nixon has reversed the EPA, and the Carolina Parakeet is flying once again. Now we can’t exactly tell you why, you just have to trust that once you put that deposit down, Mother Earth will bow at your feet. That, and a 10 per cent discount on all coffee you buy with that sweet, little reusable cup. 

From October 16th through 20th, Trinity Green Campus hosted the ‘Climate Action & Biodiversity Week’. Each day of the week was host to a new endeavour, starting with a meat-free Monday, a herbarium tour, tree planting on Wednesday, panel discussions, and finishing with a biodiversity pub quiz. 

It isn’t creating a Green New Deal, but catering events towards college students and taking 10 per cent off their drinks to incentivise recycling cups accomplish awareness at the very least, if nothing else. But how far does awareness take us? 


Nicole Hennessy, from Trinity Green Campus, notes a chasm in Trinity’s sustainability: “There is very rarely encountered any sort of climate denialism or any lack of knowledge around the subject,” she said, “there’s a lot of buy-in.” Despite this, “there isn’t much individual action being taken on very simple things.” Trinity Green Campus is working diligently as a committee of staff and students with an overriding input into policy, and far fewer limitations than most societies have. They reached a motion condemning the support of Ryanair of the Sustainable Aviation Center just days after voting in a new committee board, are working on reducing plastic usage in the Pav, and are studying contamination in Trinity’s waste streams. 

But, we can applaud the work of organisations like the Green Campus while still feeling inadequate as individual consumers. The age-old question lies in the gap between young 20-year-olds buying their first compost bin, and ExxonMobil Corp deciding where to emit their CO2. Whose shoulders should climate action be on? It’s the debate between collective and corporate action.

Fourth-year environmental science major Nathan Hutchinson Edgar says small actions are good, up to a point, “I think they are necessary, but if they’re done without changing other stuff at a bigger scale…” By focusing on the occasional reusable cup or the “proper disposal methods” we turn a blind eye to the much bigger, much more injurious villains like the corporations releasing tonnes of fossil fuels into the air daily. He continued: “We’re talking a lot about future change and how we take these small steps and that’s […] the approach that environmentalism has taken for the last like 30 years and it hasn’t worked. We are in a worse position now than we’ve ever been. Globally, 9 million people die every year from fossil fuel pollution. It’s not like a coming crisis, it’s a present crisis.” And small actions like recycling? Not a “panacea”, as Hutchinson Edgar puts it. “It’s in a way a form of offloading the problem onto the small consumer who is quite disempowered in the first place.” 

To say that Trinity’s students are solely performative is deficient. But as students, we can only do so much. With school, jobs, and other responsibilities, students don’t have the time or means to look for the most sustainable choices. 

That isn’t to say collective action has no benefit. In fact, Nicole Hennessy sees student action much differently. “Businesses only function based on their consumer behaviour. Consumers don’t change their behaviours and continue to enable all of it. Then those businesses will have absolutely no incentives to want to further their changes and do it now.” It’s true that the relationship between consumers and companies is symbiotic. Consumers depend on companies to supply goods that meet their needs, while companies rely on consumers to buy their merchandise, driving revenue and growth. But corporations are ultimately the ones who gain profit. 

David Hackett, Environmental Services Coordinator and Vice President of The Green Campus Committee, noted the direct result of the Green Committee’s efforts. In the last ten years, Trinity has reduced its water usage by 40 per cent, and is currently replacing each light fitting with the newest LED systems, along with many other accomplishments. It’s difficult to motivate students, however. The Student Union Cafe in Goldsmith Hall participated in ‘Meat-Free Monday’, and saw a drastic decrease in sales. “It’s hard to take part in environmental efforts like this when we’re student-run,” barista Nour Hachemian notes. “It’s really hard to make money at the end of the day.” Like SU Cafe and other local businesses, profit tends to become more unreliable with sustainable choices, but Hachemian sees hope in these smaller actions, “We can’t change minds. I think one day is not enough to change that much, but it’s a start, you know?” The term Greenwashing has become increasingly popular in recent years. According to Business News Daily, Greenwashing is “when an organisation spends more time and money on marketing itself as environmentally friendly than on actually minimising its environmental impact.” People love to see action, or at least the performance of it. Most emissions don’t come from reusable cups, and according to Hutchinson Edgar, “Recycling to a large degree is this kind of excuse for the fact that we’ve produced so much waste in the first place.”

Green consumerism is a privilege. Environmental sustainability is largely an affluent prerogative. We have the ability to switch from whole milk to oat milk, from agricultural wasteland to local farms, and from synthetic to organic. Yes, we recycle, but as developed countries, we also emit the most greenhouse gases and create the most urbanised cities. We use recycling and ‘shopping local’ as a bandaid for wounds of our own making. It’s rare that Trinity, or any other top-down university, would not be steered by government policies. As a university, we are limited, only semi-autonomous. We can sell reusable cups, but we can’t replace the school’s windows with high UV protection windows. And even if we could make Trinity a green utopia, it would still remain a bubble within a large, urban, city. 

Power resides in multiple hands, but mainly in our institutions. As Hutchinson Edgar says,  social change has to be “more of a movement and less of painting the word sustainable and green in front of the word business – [It’s] like painting a peace sign on a nuclear warhead.”

Sign Up to Our Weekly Newsletters

Get The University Times into your inbox twice a week.