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Hyper aware of disposable cups
Posted On March 18, 2012

[Written on erev Shabbat, posted on Sunday)

My work week began this week, at 6:00am on Sunday morning in Denver, on my way to catch a flight to Laguardia Airport for a week of meetings and conferences in the tri-state area.  No sooner had the cab pulled away from my house and merged onto the main road, did I realize that I had forgotten an important item at home: my reusable coffee mug.  When I leave the house for a meeting or trip, I try to remember to bring a reusable cup and a reusable water-bottle.  I have found that by carrying these two items in my bag, when I am attending meetings, I am able to reduce the amount of waste I produce because rather than reaching for a disposable cup or bottle, I reach for my reusable bottle or cup.

In reality, my carbon footprint from hopping on an airplane as often as I do (I have Elite Status on United because of all my flying) far exceeds any carbon footprint I would produce even if I never used a reusable cup/bottle.  However, whereas I have yet to find a more effective way to recruit campers and raise funds for camp than in person meetings in various parts of the country, schlepping my own bottle/cup seems to be an easy way to conserve at least a little energy and save a little waste from being buried in a landfill.

So there I was, on Sunday morning, half asleep (I had yet to drink any coffee), trying to figure out what to do.  At first, I thought I would ask the cab driver to turn around, but then I thought that would be crazy, as I was already running late for the plane.  Then I thought I would buy a reusable cup in New York, to use for the week, but then I know that to justify the energy it takes to create a new stainless steel cup one must use that cup a few hundred times to make up for the carbon footprint of all the water bottles/paper cups one would use if one reached for a disposable one each time instead. (My current stainless steel cup is 5 years old.  Figuring that I use it on average five times a week, throughout the year, I have used it for over 1300 cups of tea/coffee.  That is a lot of disposable waste diverted from landfills).  Instead, I decided I would live a hyper-aware week, reusing paper cups & plastic bottles whenever possible and then counting up my cup use at the end of the week.

And so the tally is in:

This week I used three paper cups. Two of these, I managed to refill four times each before they got crushed.  One was a one shot deal and never stood a chance of being reused.  It took a little bit of chutzpah to hand over my dirty paper cup from Seattle Best Coffee (purchased in the Denver Airport) to the barista at Starbucks in NJ, but after giving me a perplexing look, he happily filled my cup with dark roast coffee.   The other times I used my old paper cups, I did so at self-serve coffee urns, thereby avoiding the awkward looks from Barista’s.  (A different blog post could focus on the excessive amount of caffeine I drink when traveling, but that is a different story).

During this same time, I found myself more parched than the hills in Colorado Sand Dunes three times, and reached for a plastic “disposable” bottle water. Additionally, on the airplane, I used one plastic cup for water.  Most of the day, I stayed hydrated by consuming water in my stainless steel water bottle which I would fill whenever I found a faucet or water cooler.  Had I not had this bottle with me, I would probably have consumed at least 10 plastic water bottles, in addition to using countless more plastic cups, as many of the water coolers at the conference had stacks of plastic cups next to them.  I also have learned a good trick when flying with your own water bottle:  While you cannot take water through security (one of the most perplexing rules in American airport “security”) you can always take your empty water bottle to any soda fountain inside an airport terminal and fill it up with cold filtered water, the same water that is mixed with sugar in the fountains to make the soda that you could purchase in a large disposable cup.  I did this on my way to LGA, but forgot to refill on the way home, thus my use of a plastic cup.

So where does this leave me?  On the one hand, I do not think my actions had that much of an effect on the broader world.  We are still setting record breaking temperatures in March and the April flowers are still blooming a month early.  I still flew home at 30,000 feet where my United airplane released large amounts of CO2 into the atmosphere at dangerous levels, and I still rode home from the airport in a fossil fuel burning cab.  On the other hand, through my intentional efforts, I did manage to create awareness in my own life, about how often I reach for a disposable product, and how I can lessen the amount of waste I produce simply by carrying reusable containers with me when I leave the house for a meeting or conference.

This sense of creating a heightened sense of awareness on how our actions effect the broader environment is at the core of what we do at Ramah Outdoor Adventure.  Let’s face it:  Our community at camp is a tiny one.  Even if we only used disposable plates, which we do not—we use high grade China dishes, and even if we used tons of electricity, which we do not—most of our buildings use no electricity, it would not have a significant impact on the broader fight against greenhouse gasses and reduction in solid waste being sought in our country.  Instead, we live our lives at camp in a sustainable manner and teach environmental ethics, not because we alone are going to change the world, but rather if we can role model how to live in concert with the environment at camp, and then each of our campers go home and model this for three to four other people who then can model it to an additional three to four other people and so on, slowly, we really will be able to create lasting change.

Rarely at camp, do we tell our campers WHAT to think.  However, numerous times at camp, we present a series of facts or ideas to our campers and require them TO THINK.  For example, asking campers to take a look at the amount of garbage we produce as a community in our chadar ohel (dining hall) enables them to be aware of how much waste we produce as a community.  We leave it to them to determine whether this is an acceptable of unacceptable amount for a camp of our size.  Ultimately, a group of engaged, critical and passionate youth will be able to go on and engender serious change in the world.

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