There are ways to balance the economic benefits of a beverage company sponsorship with our commitment to reducing plastic waste on campus
By THE EDITORIAL BOARD
It’s a question every environmentally minded individual has asked themselves: what difference can one person really make? Does recycling, riding your bike or toting around reusable utensils matter given global corporations’ mass production of single-use plastics and contributions to world carbon emissions?
Sometimes, it feels like the answer is no. But at UC Davis in the coming months, as the university decides whether or not to re-sign an exclusive pouring rights contract with PepsiCo, students and administrators have the opportunity to consider alternatives to receiving funding from one of the three largest producers of plastic in the world.
Pouring rights contracts, which are relatively common at universities, give companies such as PepsiCo or Coca-Cola exclusive rights to selling their products in on-campus food markets, as well as allowing these companies to advertise on school scoreboards, certain merchandise items and so on, in exchange for sponsorship.
Under UC Davis’s current 10-year contract with PepsiCo, this funding goes toward Registered Student Organization grants, athletics and scholarships, as well as providing some funding for campus sustainability in the form of recycling bins located near PepsiCo vending machines. In addition to funding students’ academic and athletic pursuits, the contract also benefits students because of the sheer number of choices the company offers; an “exclusive” contract might seem limiting, but part of the reason why UC Davis chose this contract is because in addition to Pepsi, PepsiCo owns Cheetos, Gatorade, Doritos, Lay’s, Mountain Dew, Naked juice, Ruffles, Tropicana, Yachak yerba mate and much more.
But despite the benefits the contract provides, there are several reasons why The Editorial Board believes that the committee making this decision must undergo significant consideration of alternatives before signing another 10-year contract with PepsiCo. To begin with, as mentioned earlier, the company is well-known as one of the world’s top plastic polluters — not a title that seems in line with UC Davis’s goal to treat the university as “a living laboratory dedicated to developing, testing and providing solutions to address the world’s most pressing issues,” including sustainability and climate change, according to the university website’s sustainability page.
PepsiCo also largely produces items that are high in added sugar. These items are often cheaper than healthier alternatives, and much more common around campus as well under the contract, meaning that students will likely be drawn to the combination of low prices and high availability. This disproportionately affects low-income students, in discord with projects like the recently opened pay-as-you-can AggieEats food truck that specifically seek to make healthy, nutritious food financially feasible and convenient for food-insecure or low-income students.
In light of these complicated factors, what are the university’s options?
If UC Davis chooses not to re-sign the contract with PepsiCo, they will have to find funding for the programs that the pouring rights sponsorship supports somewhere else. Instead of one exclusive contract, the university could explore signing smaller deals with local or more sustainable beverage and snack companies, compiling funding from many sources and still maintaining a variety of food and drink options.
More likely, if the university chooses to re-sign, there are plenty of ways they could modify the contract to retain funding while offsetting some of the negative consequences. To begin with, UC Davis could simply sign a shorter contract, such as a two- or five-year deal. This would give us more time to look into alternative funding and beverage-sourcing options, as well as give PepsiCo an economic incentive to move toward a less plastic-heavy future so that their increasingly sustainability-focused consumers want to re-sign contracts with them five years in the future. Or, we could change the contract to reserve a portion of the food and beverage offerings, such as 20%, to be sourced from local, sustainable companies, in support of healthier, more environmentally friendly alternatives and in support of the local economy.
In terms of where the funding from the contract is currently going, campus sustainability is listed on UC Davis’s website as one of the five uses of the money, but these projects don’t appear to be well-documented or widespread. The website lists only installing recycling bins in 2019 and 2020 as an example of how this portion of the fund has been used. While we understand that the primary goal of this funding is to support student athletics and scholarships, the negative environmental consequences of the contract might better be counteracted if a larger portion of the funds were earmarked for campus sustainability — maybe this funding could be given to continue campus sustainability projects like the Sheepmowers that used to be funded by The Green Initiative Fund, now that its previous funding has dried up.
And as far as addressing concerns about promoting healthy, nourishing foods and beverages, UC Davis may be able to apply its own research to the problem. A recent study found that putting warning labels next to menu items with high levels of added sugar reduced the likelihood that consumers would purchase these items. PepsiCo isn’t likely to be in favor of a change specifically targeted toward decreasing sales of many of its products, but it could be a step toward encouraging healthier choices for students.
We all have a natural tendency to prefer benefits in the short term to those in the long term — it’s easy to want to hold on to the promise of guaranteed funding and convenient access to a myriad of our favorite snacks and drinks, as opposed to environmental goals that can feel vague and uncertain. UC Davis often claims to be a leader in sustainability and that sometimes means making choices that seem radical or unpopular at the time. Reducing single-use plastic waste and changing our country’s culture around added sugars are projects that will only be successful if we’re motivated by a vision of the future that is better for us, better for the next generations and better for the plants and animals that we at UC Davis are so fond of.
In a few weeks, the UC Davis Beverage Rights Industry Working Group will decide whether or not to request bids from large beverage companies, including PepsiCo, to sign a new pouring rights contract. While they deliberate on their decision, we urge them and the UC Davis administration to consider creative amendments to future contracts, if not ending the practice of an exclusive pouring rights contract altogether, and to make their decision with not just the next 10 years, but the long-term future of our campus and our planet in mind.
Written by: The Editorial Board