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Friday, June 24, 2022

Who are we really trashing?

Mia Clement takes an analytical look at the reasons behind the University's recent bans on certain traditional post-exam festivities.

In light of Oxford Climate Justice’s campaign report, which found that between 2015 and 2020, Oxford accepted at least £8.2 million in research grants from fossil fuel companies, advocating for divestment from fossil fuels is at the forefront of climate activism in Oxford. However, while this movement pushes for the University itself to move away from its past onto a sustainable, greener future, the continuation of trashing by Oxford’s own students students hinders progress.

Trashing is an annual tradition that sees students spray each other with alcohol, flour and confetti – a practice that began in the 1970s when friends of students taking their finals waited outside the Examination School in Oxford city centre. However, due to its conspicuously decadent nature, trashing has become a source of controversy in recent years. In 2018 university authorities launched an offensive against the practice with its ‘what a waste’ campaign and announced that trashing could lead to disciplinary action and a £300 fine.

For the University, trashing is an image problem, especially in greater discussions of student privilege and entitlement, as well a financial and environmental problem. The city of Oxford has problems with homelessness and food insecurity, and the mountain of wasted food as a result of trashing can be considered offensive. As a result, while steeped in university history, head authorities have discouraged the practice of trashing, marking it wasteful and disruptive to the local Oxford community.

Moreover, on their website page the University further details detrimental effects of trashing, including the waste of food that could be donated and wasted expense, disruption to those still studying or in exams, and students and residents being admitted to hospital due to slipping on trashing materials. Importantly, from an environmental perspective, using non-biodegradable goods is harmful to animal life, and paint also damages the environment.

Plastic pollution has a direct and deadly effect on wildlife. Containing toxic chemicals, this can increase the chance of disease and affect reproduction. After ingesting microplastics animals can suffer for months or even years before they die. The most important environmental impact from paints is the release of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) during the drying process after the coating is applied. Once in the atmosphere, VOCs participate in the formation of ozone, and dissolved in water or other solvents directly damages aquatic ecosystems and leads to terrestrial degradation. While trashing is a day’s worth of fun, its environmental impact can be far-reaching, and irreversible.

Companies such as EcoTrash, which was formed in 2019, offer a wide range of products including biodegradable confetti, coloured powder and eco-glitter, and have made progress from the plastic trails and waste left after exam season, but what about the wasted food and drink marking the streets of Oxford and having a direct impact on local flora and fauna?

In tradition, many students jump into the river at Christ Church meadow, disrupting the community of local wildlife but also producing a massive amount of litter on the river banks and polluting its waters with shaving cream or worse. A build-up of shaving cream or other artificial products in water bodies creates a layer of by-products on the surface. This can cause algae to grow quickly. These ‘blooms’ of algae may produce toxins that harm other life in the river. When the algae die and decay, this uses up much of the oxygen in the stream. Without enough oxygen in the water, its inhabitants will suffocate. As a result, EcoTrashing could provide a solution to this waste but only to an extent. In their first year in Trinity 2019, Oxford students from 28 colleges, bought over 500 bags of biodegradable confetti, over 440 bags of coloured powder made from 99% cornstarch and over 260 white sashes, all in composite delivery bags. However, EcoTrash sells shaving foam, a crucial trashing ingredient and plastic features in some of its packaging. It therefore does not address the issue of food packaging, drinks, cans and more being scattered across Oxford. 

With Post-exam trashings costing the University £25,000 a year, as Cherwell revealed, security staff were also paid £20,000 in overtime in 2017 to control celebrations, while a further £1,881 was spent on hiring barriers to manage pedestrian flow. A further £3,500 was reimbursed to Oxford City Council, who clean Merton Street following trashings. This presents the elite nature of Oxford and the high cost of its student body’s privilege; financially, environmentally and socially. Student campaigners including Oxford SU, Oxford Climate Society, Oxford Climate Justice Campaign, and Oxford Nature Conservation Society joined forces to welcome the University of Oxford’s new ambitious Environmental Sustainability Strategy. This will establish a new Oxford Sustainability Fund which will make £200 million available for sustainability initiatives over the next fifteen years.

Should there not therefore be a focus on sustainability when looking to ensure climate mitigation and adaptation? With the University pushing once again for change, stopping such decadent and wasteful celebrations should therefore be the next step. 

Image credit: Sheng P / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

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