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Ask Me What’s in My Bag

By Sustainability Office on May 2, 2018

– Miranda Gilgore ‘18 and Revee Needham ‘18

With an increase in the amount of waste that Colgate has sent to the Madison County landfill (see below) in the past few years, two students wanted to raise awareness issue of waste. Miranda and Revee are interns at the Office of Sustainability who have been collaborating to tackle waste issues on campus. Together they have sorted trash for a waste audit and Miranda attended the PLAN Zero Waste Conference. Inspired by students at NYU and Tufts for their zero waste weeks, recruited 22 students and staff members to participate in Colgate’s first “Carry Your Trash” week. Participants were given a clear plastic bag to display their trash for the week of April 2nd-9th and the chance to win stainless steel straws and bamboo utensils.

We decided to make the week “Carry Your Trash” and not “Zero-Waste” because we recognized there were some privileged ideas surrounding zero waste. While it’s aspirational, and for some people, completely possible to keep all your trash for a year in a mason jar, it’s not always feasible. Going zero waste is a process that requires initial investments in reusable items and the time to create many other items. So, we decided to not have a zero waste week, but instead, encourage participants to live their lives as normally as possible in an effort to help them realize their role in waste production.

Due to health concerns, we didn’t recommend placing any food waste items in the bag and encouraged noting when this waste was produced whenever possible. Traditionally, a zero waste challenge involves composting any food or organic waste, but we were unable to do this.

Colgate. Colgate does have a compost pile at the Community Garden, but it is unmanaged during the winter.For support and ideas, we created a Groupme group with the the participants. Largely, we encouraged participants to do their best, as it wasn’t a competition, and to approach the week as “challenge by choice.”

From Revee’s perspective: I was inspired by watching numerous zero waste videos and by making some changes in my life before the week began. While I recognized the inherent privilege associated with living a zero waste lifestyle, I was confident that I could implement some big changes in my life. During the week, I modified my behavior to avoid generating trash, whether that was by not using a paper coffee filter, bringing my own mug to grab coffee, or making my own iced tea. For the trash that I did generate, I noted instances where that waste could have been avoided, such as by making my own almond milk, buying reusable cotton rounds, or making my own spice mix. Whenever I mention zero waste to someone there is a huge misconception that in order to use the term you need to be 100% zero waste. While that is obviously the goal, I’ve learned that it’s actually more of a zero waste journey, with incremental changes over a long period of time. This has been a main topic of conversation in the Zero Waste Facebook groups that I joined for support and new ideas. Another goal I had personally, and maybe for a future rendition of the week, is to keep track of how much plastic I was generating. While it is recyclable, I’m aware of the negative health impacts by ingesting plastic particles, the impact on plastic litter in the ocean, and its dependence on fossil fuels. Many Zero Waste blogs advocate for avoiding plastic as much as possible because it is often downgraded when recycled, whereas glass and aluminium are much more easily recycled.

From Miranda’s perspective: This undertaking has been something I’ve wanted to do for a while now and I was so excited to finally be doing it! Though one of the primary goals of the project was to raise personal awareness of what trash each of us produced in a typical week, I was amazed and inspired by all of the positive feedback I received from so many people. I generally try to be quite mindful of the waste I produce, but I noticed that I was hypersensitive to the trash I was producing during the week and modified my behavior slightly to minimize this as much as possible. Although this may make the week artificial to some degree, being pushed to that awareness means that I discovered zero-waste solutions that I may not have otherwise. I am also cognizant of the fact that I was not always putting trash associated with products I was using in my bag. In some cases, mostly food, I didn’t empty the package and therefore still needed  the packaging. In other cases, such as school supplies, clothing, etc., I had thrown away the packaging upon purchasing the product before the week started. In other instances, like catered or ordered food, the packaging and other associated trash was removed before the product even got to me. Despite all this, I still think Carry Your Trash Week was a worthy project and definitely a success worth repeating! See all of the landfill waste that I generated for the week below.

From participants’ perspectives: Maria Dascalu ‘18 noted that she uses paper towels quite a bit, coming to the solution that she could start bringing a towel up the hill to dry her hands. Ana Tobio ‘18 found that her biggest contributor was tea bags and their packaging, realizing she could reduce waste with loose leaf tea. We also recognized that the participants were not a representative sample of the Colgate community, and wondered how much more trash others produce on a daily basis. Angelica Greco ‘18 pointed out that brown bag lectures produce large amounts of waste, which could be avoided with people bringing their own plates and utensils, or by having the caterer provide reusable dishware.

One of the biggest problems in tackling waste is the lack of agency in limiting the disposal of waste. Once it’s placed in the bin, it seemingly disappears and is out of sight and out of mind. This week caused participants to confront the trash they produce by carrying it around for others to see. Overall, it was a good opportunity to raise awareness for not only the participants but for everyone else who stopped to ask: “What’s in your bag?


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