The Office of Sustainability and the Eco Reps launched their annual Earth Month programming with the Zero Waste Week Challenge last week, which began on March 31 and ran through April 7.
The challenge required participants to clip a plastic bag to their backpacks or bags to store any trash that they accumulated throughout the week that is not recyclable or compostable, according to the Office of Sustainability’s website.
Tina Woolston, sustainability program director, learned of Zero Waste Week from a student with whom she taught an ExCollege course in 2010. This student had originally participated in the challenge at The University of California, Davis. Zero Waste Week has become an annual event ever since, and Woolston has continued to encourage engagement from students in her Sustainability in Action class.
Woolston explained that the public nature of Zero Waste Week — in which one’s trash is easily visible to others through the bags provided by the Office of Sustainability and Eco Reps — allows for participants to reevaluate their relationship with trash. Woolston further noted that one of the biggest challenges for those who have engaged with Zero Waste Week in the past has been the embarrassment that people feel about their waste.
“Is it that we shouldn’t have trash, or we’re embarrassed about our own trash?” Woolston said. “There are a lot of values around trash — whether it’s good or it’s bad, or how close you should be to it.”
Kristen Kaufman, the Office of Sustainability’s recycling and waste reduction coordinator, noted that these sentiments toward trash allow for reflection and education during Zero Waste Week.
“We don’t care when we throw [trash] away for someone else to deal with it, but when it’s attached to us, we do care,” Kaufman said. “You’re basically just carrying around the burden of the waste you produce for one week, and the other 51 weeks of the year, someone else is doing it … it’s just this practice and mindfulness and reflection and education.”
According to Eco Rep Maya Sze, who planned this year’s Zero Waste Week, keeping track of waste brings students to evaluate their behavior and consumption habits.
“Most people are quite surprised by how much they produce … once they see that, they can begin to take steps to reduce some of their waste,” Sze, a sophomore, said. “Let’s say you figure out that you eat a lot of chips … maybe instead of getting a lot of tiny bags of chips, [you will] just get one big one.”
The challenge also serves as an educational tool for how to dispose of waste.
“Another goal of zero waste week is simply to teach others about what is recyclable and what is compostable. For example, many people think that coffee cups are recyclable but they actually aren’t,” Sze wrote in an email to the Daily. “When you’re thinking about what to put in your ziplock bag, things like this will come up. Items that you thought were recyclable actually aren’t.”
According to Kaufman, this aspect of the challenge is educational for participants and also beneficial to the safety of workers in recycling facilities.
“If the wrong thing is in the wrong place, it can shut things down… at [recycling] sorting facilities,” she said. “That costs a lot of time, costs a lot of money, and the people working there also have to climb into the machinery and dig it out, and it’s an occupational hazard.”
Kaufman noted that people often do not often think about where their trash goes or who handles it after it has been disposed of.
“I think people are more or less kind of familiar with the environmental implications [of landfills] … but I think people are still discovering and learning more about all the justice implications,” Kaufman said. “Landfills are disproportionately located in low-income, BIPOC communities, which is an incentive for not putting stuff in the trash or not producing trash.”
Woolston hopes that the challenge will allow participants to think more intentionally about how much waste they produce, as well as the areas and communities that are affected by it. She believes the public aspect to Zero Waste Week allows for social diffusion on Tufts’ campus.
“Our office’s mission is to help change the culture at Tufts to be more sustainable,” she said. “Something like this changes people’s mindsets and therefore how people see them acting, and that can end up changing the culture of a place.”
Sze echoed Woolston’s sentiments.
“Hopefully in the future, when [participants] buy something, they’ll think about what they learned from Zero Waste Week and maybe that will influence their choices,” she said.