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  • Getting to Green

    An administrator pushes, on a shoestring budget, to move his university and the world toward a more sustainable equilibrium.

In praise of plastic
May 13, 2011 - 1:30pm

Normally, I hate plastic. I hate it for how it's made. I hate it for how it feels. I hate it for how it promotes planned obsolescence. I hate it for how it (when used synechdocically) encourages consumerism and masks the effects of the bowling-pin economy that's becoming the norm. (Bowling-pin -- small on top, not much in the middle, a whole lot at the bottom.)

But this time I'm going to make an exception. For today (and today only), I'm singing the praises of the worst form of plastic -- a credit card.

It seems that MasterCard (working in concert with Brighter Planet) has come up with a marketing incentive for their corporate accounts which automatically tracks the GHG emissions generated by business travel. Which, of course, they're in a good position to do.

Years ago, if you traveled on business for Greenback U, you had to make your reservations through our contracted travel agency. At that time, travel agents could get meaningful commissions from airlines, hotels, etc. I suspect that the university arranged for a portion of those commissions to be rebated back to us in one form or another. But since the appearance of travelocity, expedia and the like, travel agency commissions have shriveled. There's not enough commission left to make rebates workable. And folks prefer the convenience of making their own reservations online.

So currently, there's no central point at which information about university-reimbursed travel comes together. Some of it gets paid for using corporate credit cards issued specifically for that purpose. Some gets charged to corporate cards issued for handling general expenses like office supplies. Some gets charged to personal credit cards and reimbursed at the end of the month, or on a trip-by-trip basis. There's no single form of paper that captures all of it, and no travel-specific records are maintained.

So, when it comes time to inventory Greenback's annual greenhouse gas emissions for the ACUPCC, university-sponsored travel is one of the most difficult numbers to estimate. There's just no comprehensive store of data -- any kind of data -- from which to start.

This MasterCard initiative sure looks like the first step towards a solution. After all, if MasterCard is doing it, can Visa be far behind? Or Discover? Or American Express? And how long before corporations demand that (at least some) personal cards have access to the same feature?

Once the data exists in some number of databases, a way to consolidate it will likely evolve. And another GHG guesstimate will get replaced with information that's better grounded. (Even for air travel.)


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