When she joined Washington University in late October of 2016, Michelle Gelven quickly noticed the large boxes of plastic cutlery available in the Alumni & Development’s common kitchen. While many of her colleagues bring prepared meals in a reusable container, avoiding the use of a disposable box, most of them were still using single-use cutlery at lunch.
Non compostable, non recyclable plastic cutlery represents 6 million tons of waste that inevitably end up in the landfill every year according the organization One Green Planet. However, the hard truth about disposable items is that their biggest environmental impact occurs before the product is even used. Given the amount of energy and resources going into manufacturing and transporting products, the use of disposables is inherently a non-sustainable choice that should be avoided when possible.
That is exactly what Michelle Gelven had in mind when she decided to introduce reusable options in the kitchen of her department. When working at the Saint Louis Zoo as a special event coordinator, Michelle had been instrumental in orchestrating green initiatives into both public and private events, a success that led her to replicate the efforts in her new position at WashU.
The first step was to create an educational poster to assist people in sorting their waste. With the help of the Office of Sustainability and support from the Department’s Executive Director Steven Rosenblum and Senior Associate Director Julianne Smutz, Michelle sends a clear and engaging message to her colleagues with the poster displayed in visible and strategic areas.
Thanks in part to Michelle’s personal investment along with A&D, the department’s kitchen is now equipped with a set of reusable cutlery available for everyone to use. In order to encourage people to change their habits, Michelle and her team have had to put away the disposable cutlery in drawers, making it less accessible and therefore less likely to become the “default choice”.
Through this initiative, Michelle is inviting people to change their daily routine which can be challenging. Michelle states, “It’s hard because this comes down to a matter of convenience. Everyone is busy, and people use plastic cutlery once, throw it away, and don’t have to mess with it again. It’s easy. I had a few co-workers jokingly wish me ‘luck’ in regards to getting people to actually make the change, and also to clean up after they’re finished, but I’m happy to report that people seem to have really taken to this adjustment.”
Most people in the department appear to be receptive and even to make more efforts in sorting their waste properly. In addition to cutlery, Michelle called for her Arts & Sciences Alumni & Development fellows to bring extra mugs and cups from home to the common kitchen. So far, over 20 mugs have been added to the kitchen, a success that benefits the whole department!
As a result of Michelle’s initiative, the department has completely stopped buying plastic cutlery. A significant outcome for the department’s wallet and for the environment. As a certified Green Office, Arts & Sciences Alumni & Development was also able to earn innovation points thanks to Michelle’s initiative. Let this project serve as inspiration for other creative solutions to creating a greener WashU!