May Balls are the highlight of the year for many students but many come at a high environmental costEd g2s

14 May Balls have signed up to Sustain-a-Ball’s ‘25 Drive’ scheme, which encourages long-term sustainability in Cambridge May Balls and June Events.

In the past May Balls have been criticised for their exclusivity as well as their wastefulness. Sustain-a-Ball is an accreditation scheme, set up in 2016 by Cambridge University Environmental Consulting Society, to try and combat their environmental damage.

They have a framework of different ideas and policies that are given to event organisers in a Sustain-a-Ball handbook, and the events aim to tick off as many of these strategies as possible.

Strategies range from encouraging guests to offset their carbon emissions, to reducing waste, to committing to a certain proportion of vegetarian food, to encouraging contractors to travel to events in as few vehicles as possible.

The 25 Drive, launched last Friday, (16/10) is a new project aiming to increase the longevity of the Sustain-a-Ball plans. The project includes an annual set of eight broad goals - including re-usable decorations and responsible food - that should be achieved by the Summer of 2025.

“When committees ‘handover’ to each other, sustainability is often ‘reset’, and similar goals are set once again. The ’25 Drive will aim to directly interrogate this problem by acting as a longer-term framework upon which successive committees can each act and contribute to greater and more ambitious [sustainability] goals than they would be able to in only one year,” a spokesperson for Sustain-a-Ball said.

The 14 May Balls to have signed up are Corpus Christi, Darwin, Downing, Emmanuel, Homerton, Jesus, King’s, Murray Edwards, Newnham, Pembroke, Sidney Sussex, Trinity Hall, Trinity and Wolfson.

In addition to this Clare and Queens’ both signed the ‘Sustainability Pledge’ which states that events will focus on sustainability when planning, but did not sign up to the Accreditation Scheme.

All other colleges planning events this year signed up to neither ‘The 25 Drive’ nor the ‘Sustainability Pledge’.

The ‘Sustainability Pledge’ promises to embed “environmental awareness and sustainable thinking” ...into the organization and execution of the Event by ensuring that a role exists on the committee that is fully or partially dedicated to the sustainability of the Event, and that the individual fulfilling this role attends an ‘Introduction to Event Sustainability’ meeting held by ‘Sustain-a-ball’.”

A spokesperson for Sustain-a-Ball told Varsity: “the very symbolism of May Week events, often scrutinised and criticised for their air of ‘excess’, taking part in a scheme in which they actively engage with policy that encourages them to think critically and take action to reduce their environmental impact, is important now more than ever.”


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“Initiatives like Sustain-a-Ball are significant not just in the direct intervention of event sustainability, but also in that their existence raises awareness of the urgent need we all have to change the way we think about waste, consumption and energy. I hope that the introduction of “The ’25 Drive” enshrines this message as a core principle in May Week planning not just now, but permanently.”

While the spokesperson was pleased that 14 colleges had signed up, they expressed frustration at the fact that “30% of May Week Events this year haven’t subscribed to the accreditation scheme - the time to take action is now, not next year, not even tomorrow. If the university can commit to divesting by 2030, it’s shameful that we, the same body of students calling for that divestment date to be sooner, cannot commit to sustainable policy ourselves.”

Last year the pledge was signed by all but five May Balls.

In total 20 May Balls or June Events are confirmed to be in the process of planning to take place in the Summer of 2021. However, there are still question marks about whether they will go ahead this year after all were forced to cancel their plans last March.