The turn to zero waste: A call for better sustainability at Williams

Allie Campbell

 On Claiming Williams Day, I attended a panel on sustainability at the College. The purpose of the event was to critically review the College’s current sustainability targets, which focus almost exclusively on emissions goals that should be met by the end of 2020, and to brainstorm a new set of goals that will take us beyond 2020 and accommodate a broader definition of sustainability not limited to emissions-related concerns. The panel asked us to consider sustainability challenges unrelated to emissions that should be addressed moving forward. One issue that got a lot of air time was waste, the general consensus being that the College does not do enough when it comes to composting and recycling. At first, I agreed. Waste is filling up the world, contaminating our water, food and air. It is damaging ecosystems and threatening human health. Obviously, we need to mitigate these issues. The best way to do that? It seems, more composting and recycling. 

Reflecting on Thursday’s panel, I’m not sure that we were focusing on the right problem. The issue isn’t only sustainable waste disposal. Rather, it begins with a throwaway culture that maximizes convenience at the expense of environmental limits. Any product we throw away – or recycle or compost – was at one point manufactured using fossil fuels, water and other finite resources. Recycling or composting an item does not erase its environmental footprint or negate its wastefulness. Whether or not we choose to dispose of our waste in sustainable ways, we are exploiting our environment if we choose to create waste in the first place. Proper, sustainable waste disposal is important. No doubt. But it’s equally important to reduce the amount of waste produced in the first place. This certainly seems to be the case, especially given recycling’s inherent and growing shortcomings. 

Recycling is becoming less and less feasible economically. In the past, the U.S. depended on China to import and process our recyclables. As of 2018, however, China enforced new restrictions on the quantity and type of waste they would accept. These regulations were the result of an effort to reduce domestic pollution, but the global impact of these changes has caused more harm than good to the environment. Now, the U.S. struggles to find markets for recyclables and a large portion of U.S. waste that was once recycled ends up in landfills. Last month, I toured the TAM Recycling Center in Pownal, Vt., the facility that processes the College’s recyclables. Despite shifts in global markets, TAM still manages to sell its material to be recycled. This means that anything recycled at the College will be recycled – at least for now. Many other parts of the country are not so lucky. 

Additionally, recyclable products can only be recycled a limited number of times before they are processed to a degree after which they can’t be recycled any more. Recycling (when global markets allow it) doesn’t actually prevent waste. Rather, it delays it, pushing off the point at which materials necessarily become trash and have no future anywhere but a landfill. 

It seems that recycling and composting aren’t the end-all-be-all magic bullet to waste that we make them out to be, but rather glorified, band-aid solutions to half the problem. They address (or rather, attempt to address, when markets allow it) one side of the coin that is wastefulness. They offer a more sustainable solution to waste disposal that, while important, doesn’t prevent wastefulness in the first place. Waste-related sustainability goals at the College should not be limited to revamping recycling and composting. In order to truly combat waste on campus, it is also essential that we confront habits of creating waste. To-go containers, plastic cups and utensils, paper coffee cups, napkins, drink bottles and cans, excess food — all of these items can be composted or recycled, but even better would be to avoid using them at all. In fact, all of them can be easily replaced with reusable substitutes. Instead of these wasteful, single-use options, try using your own reusable food containers, to-go mugs, utensils, water bottles, straws and shopping bags. Repair damaged belongings before you replace them. Take advantage of consignment and thrift stores. As we approach 2020 and imagine a new set of sustainability goals for our campus, let’s challenge ourselves not only to recycle and compost whenever possible but also to minimize the waste we produce in the first place. 

Allie Campbell ’21 is a prospective environmental studies major from Hollis, NH.