Zero Waste Ambassador Blog: My Changed Perceptions on Waste

My Changed Perceptions on Waste

By: Layth Mattar, Senior in Emory College, Arabic and Biology double-major 

Emory, and its community, has been an extremely impactful part of the last four years of my life. It has changed my understanding on a variety of subjects ranging from science to society. I feel like something all undergraduates can agree on is that we have grown –  intellectually, emotionally, and socially  – because of our Emory journey. A personal example of this growth would be my conception of waste as it has drastically changed from what it used to be four years ago.

My conception of waste before attending Emory was best described as wishful thinking. It is impossible to not be exposed to climate change education these days, and when I was in high school, I was taught, by both my community and the media, that recycling and changing my more wasteful habits, such as long showers and leaving the lights on all the time, were all I needed to do to help combat the worsening conditions of our global climate. Emory pulled back the curtain on that kind of thinking and revealed to me what really needed to be changed in order to lessen humanity’s impact on the environment. 

Emory demonstrated to me through both educational materials and its own example, that institutional change on all levels of society is what is necessary to combat a catastrophic climate future. Emory does not beat around the bush when discussing the impact of waste on the planet. Academically, it provides a plethora of seminars focusing on how humans have altered the environment, not to mention that Emory faculty  are encouraged to integrate green education in some form in their existing classes or to create new sustainability courses. Furthermore, they are encouraged to decrease classroom waste creation either by excluding physical handouts or increasing virtual options.

On a societal level, Emory has taught me how each part of a community can contribute to waste reduction. At the individual level, each of us have the ability to avoid purchasing items that utilize a lot of wasteful and hard-to-recycle materials, such as single-use plastic. Furthermore, when waste is generated, disposing of it responsibly is extremely easy when living on Emory’s campus as each living unit is supplied with recycling and compost bins. On the larger institutional level, Emory helps with waste diversion by making proper disposal as easy as possible for the individual. Waste collection areas are plentiful and intelligently located and designed. For instance, landfill bins are not found outside of buildings and there are plenty of different receptacles that deal with a specific type of recyclable waste. Waste generating components of Emory campus such as the dining halls and other student services are regulated in order to minimize waste production and are not allowed to use extremely wasteful single-use plastics, such as Styrofoam. Furthermore, in-depth and easy to comprehend resources of waste reduction are always available.

Through my time at Emory I have realized that simply doing my duty and acting responsibly is not enough, but that the whole community, the individuals, the corporations, and the regulatory bodies, need to be actively working together to reduce communal waste production. Furthermore, my previous misconceptions of being overly inconvenienced or the process of being green would be extremely expensive have been squashed. Living while trying to generate less waste has not made any sort of significant impact on my day-to-day. While I understand that my experience is anecdotal, it is an experience that is shared by many. Regarding the expenses of living a life with less waste, if the entire community works together then the impact is hardly felt. Emory makes it easy and cheap to live with less waste. Imagine what could happen if all levels of government and the larger and more powerful corporations also attempted to lessen the generation of waste by changing production and shipping habits while also providing more opportunities for the individual and smaller corporations to properly dispose of their waste.

My previous wishful thinking has been replaced with an active call to action. I utilize  single-use plastics as little as possible. I support companies that are using waste reduction production methods, and I avoid corporations that have made little to no change from previous wasteful habits. I participate with the election of officials at all levels of government who place environmental policies and regulations as key points in their campaigns. I do what I can, not what I wish I could.

Some people may still call my habits nothing more than wishful thinking, but I disagree. While they are small in the larger scheme of things, they do contribute to a grand future. I think the vaccine rollout has been a great example of this. You cannot vaccinate everyone in a day, but through consistent action more individuals will become immune to COVID-19. I cannot force entire industries to change their habits overnight, but if others and I begin fighting with our wallets and depriving these profit driven corporations of cash, they will hopefully either comply with our wishes of a healthy and environmentally safe future or they will buckle under stubborn stagnation and go out of business.

My call to action is why I joined wonderful Emory groups like the Zero Waste Ambassadors (ZWA) program. Through this program, I am able to educate my community members on how to deal with their waste or reveal to them ways of reusing the materials they already have. The great thing about programs like the ZWA is that the service provided is immaterial and can be shared freely. A lesson taught by ZWA to a single person can then spread to their roommates or friends. This would hopefully lead to a less wasteful and more environmentally educated community.

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