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Bottled Up

Plastic reduction initiative has fits and starts at community college

March 11, 2014, 12:00 am

Matt Sherman is going to hate the sight of a plastic bottle pretty soon, if he doesn’t already. For two years, he’s been pushing to change the Santa Fe Community College policy on selling disposable plastic bottles. Since enrolling in SFCC’s biofuels program in 2010, Sherman has been an active force in the university’s Environmental Club, where the initiative began.

It started as a proposal for a school-wide plastic water bottle ban, drafted by former student Sage Bird, but morphed over several drafts into what is now the Plastic Bottle Reduction Initiative. In 2012, Sherman took charge of the proposal, which has been through several iterations with the approval of the Student Government Association and key college departments. But that’s not enough to get students to agree to these changes without official backing. 

“Resolutions don’t have any bite. They need to get into policy,” Sherman says. Technically, establishing policy is the job of the SFCC Governing Board, but there are several bases to hit along the way for approval; the Student Government Association is a start, then the Faculty Senate, Staff Senate and the Executive Committee. Sherman says the goal is to form “consensus among all stakeholders, which is like herding cats because there are edits at every phase, and when there’s been a change, I’m required to get approval again from everyone else.” 

“Matt’s been working on this for a long time” says Xubi Wilson, SFCC’s renewable energy programs coordinator. “A big institution moves slowly, and of course students aren’t around as long.”

Matt Sherman isn’t letting go of this plan.
Zoe Haskell
Matt is determined to be the exception. “A lot of the students who originally started this have graduated, are working, have kids and really can’t go through a rigorous three- or four-year process to get these changes through,” he says. “I’m sticking around because I want to make this happen, and really I’m kind of annoyed that I have to keep taking classes just to push this thing! After all, no one’s out there saying, ‘I don’t want to be sustainable’…The people are well intentioned, but the system is not conducive to change.” 

On paper, the college wants to be firmly in the sustainability camp. In 2006, SFCC developed a five-year plan including the use of sustainable technologies and practices, then signed the American College and University President’s Climate Commitment in 2009 and a zero waste resolution two years later. The college also offers programs in sustainable technologies, solar energy, biofuels and green building systems. “The school has a lot of great academic programs on sustainability, but as far as the administration walking the talk of what we’re learning, that’s still not happening although they are taking steps,” Sherman says.  

Wilson says that part of the slow pace is about responding to changing needs. “A lot of people are affected by these changes who aren’t involved in the process, and they’re upset.” And there have been other issues. When plastic water bottles started disappearing from the library and cafeteria as a result of the burgeoning policy, people started buying soda in the same disposable bottles instead.

“Is that a victory? The fitness center certainly didn’t think so,” says Wilson. So the initiative went back to the drawing board to include more products. Another problem arose in the catering department. SFCC hosts regular conferences, and when bottled water isn’t an option, outside groups simply bring their own, leaving just as much plastic to dispose of, but less revenue for the school. An exception applying to the catering department was written in next. 

Martha Romero, a member of the SFCC Board since April 2013, calls the issue “a big culture change and a change in behavior.” Because the policy affects convenience for students, it’s slow to catch on.  

The inertia of habits and institutions is nothing to sneeze at, but another commonly cited problem is a lack of urgency about the issue due, in part, to instability in the college administration. In the last four years, SFCC has had three presidents: Sheila Ortego, Ana “Cha” Guzman and Randy Grissom.  

SFCC Sustainability Coordinator Brian Combs says that sustainability “was not high on the priority list for the former administration. They were happy to pay lip service to it, but when it came to really supporting, it was basically thrown under the bus…and there’s a sustainability poster on the side of the bus.” 

Transition at the top has put some issues on hold, but faculty and students express optimism about the new administration. Before becoming the interim president last January, Grissom was the director of sustainable technologies at SFCC and has supported multiple sustainability initiatives in his time at the college. 

Combs says he’s “hopeful” about the administrative changes and wants to get things done “while there’s this opportunity.”

At a recent staff meeting, Wilson reports that some administrators were still “holding out, asking if this initiative was for the best, but the final argument that won out was that it was time to support the students who have been so passionate and worked so hard to get this done. That did it. And that made me feel really good about where we’re headed.” 

 

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