The Toothpick Question


I went to a UBC sustainability event yesterday on integrating sustainability into curriculum. It was sponsored by the Centre for Interactive Research on Sustainability and the Centre for Teaching, Learning and Technology. As it was over lunch, the organizers were kindly feeding us. Julian Gonzalez was the guest speaker. He has a very eclectic and interesting background; besides working on his PhD, he also works with a consulting company called EcoPlan. Julian gave a brilliant presentation on his PhD work. He and his research team developed an innovative sustainability leadership course and ran it at UBC in 2011. A key component of his philosophy is: instead of thinking we need to have all the answers, we need to ask better questions.

Earlier I’d noticed the toothpick in my sandwich. It had a little piece of plastic on the end of it. UBC has an organics pick up program and composts at an on-site facility. As with any compost system, backyard bin, curbside collection, or large scale in-vessel unit, plastic does not belong. The wooden toothpick is compostable but the plastic would be considered a contaminant.

I held up the toothpick. “We’ve got to get catering on board,” I said to my neighbour who works for the UBC Sustainability Initiative. “Yes,” she said, “but it’s actually a safety concern.” “How’s that?” I asked. Apparently that bright little piece of plastic keeps people from biting down on sandwich-coloured toothpicks.

Ah, liability issue in other words. So then I asked, “Why do I need a toothpick in my sandwich in the first place?” None of us at the table had an answer for that one.


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