EcoReps Attend Students for Zero Waste Conference

Posted on December 9, 2016

On November 12, three EcoReps traveled to Durham, New Hampshire to attend the Students for Zero Waste (SZW) Conference organized by the Post-Landfill Action Network (PLAN). Amber Lin '19, Maj Halaweh '19 and Cecilia Shang '18 share their thoughts and takeaways from the conference in this Q&A.

students at conference Cecilia, Maj, and Amber pose with "Fill" the Landfill monster

Why did you attend this conference?

Maj: The concept of zero waste is something that I have heard about for the past several years but have never really explored, and I wanted to learn more about it. The conference was important for networking purposes and for learning more about what other peer institutions are doing in the field of sustainability. Upon attending this conference, I realized that the concept of zero waste is not new nor is it something foreign to me. I grew up in a family where it was important to recycle and compost and be conscious of one’s carbon footprint. We were, by no means, a zero waste family, but the concept is not something that would have been strange or out of the ordinary for my family.

Cecilia: Since coming to Princeton and being more involved with sustainability on campus, I’ve taken a more action-oriented and practical approach to issues such as waste, and for the better I think. While I was previously aware (and often distraught) about issues such as food waste, landfills, etc., I never really knew how to begin to be involved in a solution. 

Amber: I actually first wanted to attend the conference as a general sustainability conference, rather than going in with a “zero waste” mindset. I think that just goes to show, as mentioned in the conference, that waste is one of the least thought about parts of the overall sustainability question. It was kind of a wake up call during the opening remarks that the conference was only going to be about waste.

Tell us about something you learned at the conference that surprised or shocked you?

Maj: I learned that a lot of electronic waste (e-waste) is taken to Ghana and illegally dumped there. Many people use the dumping grounds to make money by extracting precious metals from electronics. This is done by melting away the plastic cover and then taking the precious metals out. This process of extraction releases nasty things into the air, which the people picking through the garbage breathe in. It can also cause severe health problems for anyone near the dumping grounds.

Cecilia:  I guess one thing that surprised me, although not in a bad way, was just the culture on other campuses around waste and sustainability, and the passion, creativity, and motivation that other students showed around sustainability! It was honestly really motivating.

Amber: As mentioned in the previous question, the sheer impact and size of zero waste really hit me during the opening remarks, which carried with me through the rest of the day. I was so excited to meet so many people from other campuses implementing similar sustainability programs! I was also surprised at all the companies present dedicated to creating a zero-waste product in their particular field - it completely opened my mind to the idea that zero-waste is very very possible and there are already many alternatives. The challenge is to encourage people to use the alternatives.

What is one major takeaway from the conference that every Princeton student should know?

Maj: Reducing waste is not actually that hard to do. Simply changing from buying a plastic water bottle everyday to using a reusable water bottle is an easy thing. Or, you can opt to buy things that are not packed individually (e.g. instead of buying a 10-pack of individually wrapped crackers, buy a pack of 50 crackers and put them in reusable containers).

Cecilia: “Waste” itself is a value label, not a noun in the same way that a ‘dog’ or ‘table’ defines something. Your broken boots are not trash until you throw them into the garbage. One part of reducing ‘waste’ is simply seeing the potential and value in things we might carelessly toss without second thought! There are so many alternatives to a landfill. For example, much of daily ‘waste’ (e.g. old clothes, leftover food, to-go food packaging, old printed readings, etc.) could be recycled, repurposed, repaired, or reimagined!

Amber: Reducing waste is important - waste is a HUGE part of the sustainability challenge and should not be overlooked. Students need better education on why reducing their waste is actually impactful so they’ll willingly change their habits, not to mention that it would save them money too.

What can Princeton students do in their daily lives to reduce waste?

Maj: 3 Rs - REDUCE your use of resources (take a shorter shower, turn down the heat), REUSE things you use everyday (carry around a water bottle, fix something when it breaks), RECYCLE things you don’t need anymore that are plastic, cardboard, glass or aluminum!

Cecilia: Source reduction: Challenge yourself to get/use/purchase less ‘stuff’ in the first place! Bring a mug to Witherspoon cafe for that coffee/latte (you save 25 cents as well), skip the plastic bag and use your backpack for purchases, swap or donate clothes instead of throwing them out, do readings on your laptop/print them multiple pages to a sheet, etc. Also, read up on the recycling guidelines because contaminated recyclables can end up being thrown in the landfill, and some of the rules aren’t so intuitive!

Amber: From a practical standpoint, I think knowing how to work with university services related to recycling, laundry, etc. is an easy way to reduce waste. The Office of Sustainability does so much - there are signs everywhere and there's lots of information on the website, but signs don’t do anything if they're ignored. If students actively pay attention to signage in their daily lives and have a convenient source of information when they have questions, they'll be able to reduce waste effectively.