By Jericho Rajninger
Quantifying Waste in the United States:
The U.S. produces so much waste that this waste can be quantified using Olympic-sized swimming pools as negligible units of measurement.
Annually, the U.S. produces over 250 million tons of garbage. That averages to about 1,700 pounds for every person in the U.S. every year. Containers and packaging — materials that are used only once before disposal — account for almost one third of this waste. Paper, a majority of which goes to recycling facilities, makes up 25 percent of landfill waste, and plastic products make up about 15 percent. Unlike paper, plastics are notoriously difficult to recycle. Instead, these plastics tend to break down over time into microplastics, which can be found virtually everywhere on Earth — in soil, water, air, even food. The effects of microplastics on human health and the environment are a growing concern.
What Does Zero Waste Really Mean?:
Zero waste is an effort to limit the creation and disposal of waste in a way that entails more than recycling and composting. While these waste management practices are important, they are small components of a more comprehensive effort to reduce waste. Zero waste ideology reimagines products from the outset— from design and production to distribution and disposal — in a way that eliminates all resources that cannot be reused, recycled or composted. Rather than treat sustainability as an afterthought, the zero-waste movement focuses on prevention, creating an economic system designed around reuse and a circular economy.
“Circular economy” refers to an economic system that abandons an extractive linear model (for example: “take, make, waste”) for one that is designed to replenish the environment. Many schools of thought exist under the umbrella of a “circular economy,” and while they differ in method, all place great value in preserving the natural world. A well-known application of the circular economy concept, dubbed “Cradle to Cradle” by visionaries Michael Braungart and Bill McDonough, positions design as a regenerative force that respects and even mimics natural systems.
Zero Waste at UC Berkeley
At UC Berkeley, the Zero Waste Research Center serves as an incubator for sustainable student-led projects including peer waste education, vermicomposting, e-waste recycling, and more. This collaborative space encourages students to think beyond their immediate classrooms towards university-wide waste reduction solutions.
- What Is a Circular Economy?: https://www.ellenmacarthurfoundation.org/circular-economy/concept
- The Problem — Our Throwaway Lifestyle: https://www.cleanwateraction.org/features/problem-our-throwaway-lifestyle
- You Eat Thousands of Bits of Plastic Every Year: https://www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/2019/06/you-eat-thousands-of-bits-of-plastic-every-year/
- San Francisco’s Quest to Make Landfills Obsolete: https://www.politico.com/news/magazine/2019/11/21/san-francisco-recycling-sustainability-trash-landfills-070075
- Why We Should Rethink Zero Waste: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JLS6nGrsZqo
- Can the Zero Waste Movement Survive Coronavirus?: https://www.refinery29.com/en-us/zero-waste-living-sustainability-during-coronavirus
- Examples and Resources for Transforming Waste Streams in Communities: https://www.epa.gov/transforming-waste-tool/examples-and-resources-transforming-waste-streams-communities-1-50
Ethan: How are college students reducing waste on campus? This is Ethan Elkind of Climate Break. I spoke with Jenny Chiu, Zero Waste Research Lead for the Student Environmental Research Center at UC Berkeley, to learn about the impacts of municipal waste — and what students are doing to help.
Ms. Chiu: When you’re drinking water from a plastic water bottle, the plastic water bottle actually took two times as much water as the water inside the plastic water bottle to make. We think, usually, about waste as “that plastic water bottle” and how it ends up in landfill, but there was the whole resource extraction that started with fossil fuel in order to make that plastic. How did the water get there? What communities were impacted?
Ethan: Chiu points out that, often, this plastic is simply non-essential.
Ms. Chiu: Why do we have so much waste? Thirty percent of our waste is packaging. We don’t really need that much packaging.
Ethan: At Berkeley, students have undertaken projects in peer waste education, vermicomposting, e-waste disposal, and reuse of 3D printer filament. The goal: close the loop for waste on campus. Chiu emphasizes that, while it may require more effort from students, managing waste responsibly is important.
Ms. Chiu: Someone walks up to a trashcan and they’re like, all right, I don’t know what I’m doing, I’m just going to toss this in the landfill. Or they’re like, well, that compost bin is kind of far away, I’m just going to toss it in the landfill. That actually has really tangible impacts on our climate.
Ethan: For more information on waste diversion at UC Berkeley, and for more climate solutions, visit climatebreak.org or wherever you get your podcasts.
Extended Edition Transcript
Ethan: Welcome to Climate Break, your source for stories on innovative climate solutions being developed at UC Berkeley and around the world, shared by the experts themselves. I’m your host, Ethan Elkind from Berkeley Law Center for Law, Energy and the Environment. Maybe you’ve heard the phrase Take Make Waste. It’s a catchy motto to describe a harmful economic system, one that often doesn’t consider its impact on the environment. The end product of this system, waste, has become so central to our daily lives it’s often hard to identify, let alone reduce. But there’s a limit to how much trash our planet can bear. And the scientific consensus is that we’ve just about reached it. To learn more about waste reduction and diversion, I spoke with Jenny Chiu, Zero Waste Research lead for the Student Environmental Research Center at UC Berkeley. She shared a startling statistic.
Ms. Chiu: It takes 22 gallons of water to make one pound of plastic, which means basically when you’re drinking water from a plastic water bottle, the plastic water bottle actually took two times as much water as the water inside the plastic water bottle to make.
Ethan: While our Take Make Waste mindset extends far beyond plastic water bottles, these bottles can provide a useful example of the extractive nature of linear economies. Today, practically every human activity leaves some form of garbage in its wake. The production and disposal of this garbage releases potent greenhouse gas emissions, polluting the natural world every step of the way.
Ms. Chiu: We think, usually, about waste as “that plastic water bottle” and how it ends up in landfill or recycling, but there was the whole resource extraction that started with fossil fuel in order to make that plastic. How did the water get there? What communities were impacted? So it’s really hard to really quantify the impact that waste has on the environment. But it definitely is a climate change contributor and is definitely causing a lot of negative impacts for those living near landfills or those living near incinerators.
Ethan: The Zero Waste Research Center at UC Berkeley is led by students intent on finding another way: a more sustainable circular alternative to the industrial systems now embraced by much of the world. Its founding goal was to help the campus reach near zero waste by 2020. Now that the deadline has arrived, I asked Chiu how much more needs to be done.
Ms. Chiu: Zero waste is actually a term that’s kind of defined differently between different organizations sometimes. For the UC system, that means 90% landfill diversion, which is by weight 90% of our trash is not going to the landfill. So whether that’s compost or recycling, that’s kind of how we measure it. In 2018, I believe we hit 54% of landfill diversion, which is definitely not at 90%. But we’ve also seen that per capita, so per person on campus, there has been a decrease in waste generated per pound since 2012 to 2013.
Ethan: Now dubbed Zero Waste by 2020 and Beyond. Berkeley’s effort to reach 90% landfill diversion is far from complete. That’s where the Zero Waste Research Center comes in. Student-run initiatives are taking steps to help the university continue reimagining how it handles waste on campus.
Ms. Chiu: For our center, one of our direct projects is the Vermin Composting Project. So each week they plan to start out with 20 pounds of food waste from Clark Kerr. So that’s one of the campus dining halls, and they feed it to the worms in the bin and they’re able to create some good compost that’s able to go out to student gardens.
Ethan: Still, Chiu says waste sorting habits on campus can sometimes be lackluster. Many students simply don’t take the time to evaluate their waste or dispose of it responsibly. Part of the problem could be a lack of awareness. Students may not care about the impacts of their waste because they may not realize their waste can be harmful. Education in this case is crucial.
Ms. Chiu: With our green team especially, there’s like peer to peer education happening. They educate the vendors on campus. Recently, the Zero Waste Coalition was able to reach about 5000 students by just having a quick five-minute talk in the beginning of class. People see waste as like, out of sight, out of mind. Like once I toss it, I don’t think about it. So it’s really hard to not only educate students, but get them to really care enough to make that maybe extra two steps to the compost bin.
Ethan: While composting correctly is important. Waste at UC Berkeley involves far more than food scraps and dining halls. After identifying and researching waste streams particular to campus, the Zero Waste Research Center discovered an interesting source and a solution.
Ms. Chiu: For our project specifically, we wanted to really be innovative about the waste management systems because a lot of waste management in the U.S. has kind of stalled. But part of what we’re looking at is plastics. With 3D printing on campus – I believe there’s around 100 3D printers, and 50% of those prints usually fail or, you know, a lot of 3D printing is still in prototyping. So it’s not really meant to be the final product. So those things can actually be ground down and turned back into 3D printer filament.
Ethan: Rather than being thrown away, these scraps can be fed through a machine that reprocesses the plastic.
Ms. Chiu: We do have a project that works on making sure that filament is the right diameter, the right consistency, able to just easily go back into the 3D printer and work again.
Ethan: The Zero Waste Research Center has explored a variety of strategies to reduce and divert waste on campus. One option is to simply reuse or recycle the trash the school generates. This is what Chiu just described with the 3D printer filament. Another option is to avoid unnecessary waste from the start, purchasing products in a responsible way so as to avoid having to reuse or recycle them later on. Chiu hopes that in the near future, we’ll become more mindful of this upstream waste.
Ms. Chiu: 30% of our waste is packaging. We don’t really need that much packaging. I don’t know if you’ve seen the meme where Whole Foods peeled orange for you and then put it in plastic to give to you because I guess there was no suitable natural alternative for that packaging. So a lot of it is also kind of dealing with the upstream impacts of waste, which is why a lot of campus deals with, how can we have better purchasing guidelines, how can we make sure that when things are coming in, we’re not already bringing so much waste to campus.
Ethan: In many ways, universities serve as valuable microcosms of the world. Student bodies are like self-contained cities, large and diverse populations that can help provide models for effective climate solutions at local, state or even national levels. Chiu believes the work she’s done with the Zero Waste Research Center demonstrates how waste can be addressed on a much larger scale.
Ms. Chiu: I think that part of it is just: work really closely with your constituents. UC Berkeley and City of Berkeley have meetings where they talk about their respective goals, and the City of Berkeley has the Single Use Disposable ordinance, and UC Berkeley tries to help educate the students about what that means and also make sure that on-campus restaurants also have understanding of these ordinances and what that could mean for their businesses. I think just having that open dialog is so important, especially as a lot of the times in government, things can get caught up in bureaucracy or things can get really complicated with a lot of policy, and it’s just important to keep in touch with the people that you’re trying to work with and the people that are impacted by your policies and really care about them.
Ethan: For Chiu and her peers, people count just as much as the environment. Beyond waste diversion, the research center holds social justice as one of its core values. Recognizing the ways in which race and wealth often determine how vulnerable an individual is to environmental harms.
Ms. Chiu: The waste and environmental justice are really linked, and waste is something that touches people’s lives from the start of the product to the finish, and is landfill where it really just goes away?
Ethan: Chiu’s Right. Much of the waste humans have already produced is here to stay. But by recognizing where waste continues to occur and designing it out of our lives, we can ditch our Take Make Waste world for one that’s more mindful, sustainable and just. For more interviews with climate experts discussing groundbreaking research. You can visit our website at climatebreak.org. We’ve gathered additional information and resources there to help you remain up to date on the latest climate change solutions. I’m your host, Ethan Elkind. See you next time on Climate Break.show less