Unsustainability is coded into May Balls

Iván Merker 13 February 2018
Image Credit: Cantab12

CUSU has recently voted to support the Sustainable Balls movement, working together to create greener May Balls (and, presumably, also June Events and garden parties). For example, they will campaign to have a Green Officer in every organising committee.

There is surely a lot to do, as CUSU pointed out. May Balls produce greenhouse gases and an excessive amount of waste. Balls also result in a large amount of food and drink waste.

However, while even a comparatively small cut in the pollution and waste can make a lot of impact for such a big event, May Balls will never exactly be green. To see why, we should look at the structure of these events.

At a May Ball (or June Event or a garden party, though on a smaller scale) people expect to have unlimited foods and drinks for the whole length of the event (which in the case of May Balls should be close to ten hours) as well as attractions that can justify the price of the ball, £150-200. This whole setting is built in the college grounds.

During this, of course, people get drunk.

If you have had the privilege to clean up after a larger party, you may have realised the sheer amount of drinks that people just leave lying around after drinking half of it. They put their drinks down and forget about them.

The key here is that if revellers have the opportunity to easily have another one drink, they will not cling onto their old one for environmental reasons, (especially not if they already had five of them).

Also, having unlimited food and drinks, given the price of these events, means that there will likely be more food than will be consumed. After you had paid what the equivalent to the weekly rent in a more expensive college, you don’t want to remain hungry or thirsty at 5am after partying all night. But this can only be ensured if there is some extra food at hand, ready to be served. Well, no surprise, some of that food goes to waste.

Food and drink is also served in single-use cups, increasing waste. The alternative- reusable cups and crockery- requires a lot of logistics – collecting and washing all the cups before the others run out, while drinks are served at several locations. As a result, it should not be a surprise surprise that everyone goes for single-use.

May Balls also offer a wide range of attractions. Of course, there are musical events (from your favourite college band to big names), but even more importantly from an environmental perspective, there are other attractions as well.

If I say firework, that doesn’t exactly shout zero pollution. Yet, fireworks are the main attractions in many high-profile May Balls, such as Trinity. My college, Sidney Sussex, made our two main courts into a punting lake. While that must have been a wonderful experience, again it sounds like a big waste of water.

Perhaps May Balls could be greener but in their current form they would never be really green. This means that perhaps the time has come to rethink our May Week traditions.

They should be made sustainable, but they should also be made less elitist, more inviting and accessible to lower-income students in a time when the (not exactly unfounded) image of Cambridge elitism starts to grow on the University.

A £150 Black Tie ball with big names and fireworks can be fun, but in 2018 it sounds more and more like a remnant of the past.