Earth has a problem. Recently, the nonprofit organization Ocean Voyages hauled over 40 tons — 80,000 pounds — of floating garbage out of a tiny portion of the Pacific Ocean in 25 days. Much of this was nonbiodegradable plastic. We humans have produced over 19 trillion pounds of plastic, less than 10% of which has been recycled. If this waste was spread over the land area of the world, we would be staggering though about 18 pounds of plastic per square foot everywhere we walked.
UT’s initiative to become a zero-waste campus, if fully realized, would resolve the plastics problem and more. Waste contributes to several related problems — the climate crisis, the loss of biodiversity from environmental degradation and the unsustainable loss of materials future people will need.
The climate crisis
Project Drawdown lists 100 ways to solve global warming. Reducing food waste is third on his list. As food decays, it releases methane, a potent greenhouse gas that warms much faster than carbon dioxide over its life. Looking at carbon dioxide emissions, industry emits over 20% of U.S. greenhouse gases to make the consumer goods you and I purchase. By reducing reusing and recycling, we will cut our greenhouse gases. Of course, we must also cut our fossil fuel use, but the zero waste initiative definitely helps fight climate change.
Science has just scratched the surface of understanding the complex interdependence of our natural world. We’re losing species every day, and degrading ecosystems at alarming rates. The wonder and possible benefits of extinct species will never be recovered. The cascade of consequences from losing key species could be devastating, far worse than in the saying, “For the want of a nail, the shoe was lost; for want of a shoe, the horse was lost … the battle was lost.” Habitat loss and climate change are the two biggest culprits in loss of biodiversity. The tons of waste — nearly five pounds per day per person in the U.S. — adds to this loss.
We use natural resources at a rate far greater than is sustainable. Consumption is far beyond our needs. Do Americans really need an average of 19 pairs of shoes per person? Overconsumption not only worsens climate change and threatens ecosystems, but uses resources that future generations need.
The University of Texas is not the only school working toward zero waste. UT earned a silver rating in the Sustainability Tracking, Assessment & Rating System of the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education, but 152 colleges and universities rank higher with a gold rating and five have reached platinum. Achieving the goal of becoming a zero waste campus should move UT up.
So what will it take? UT has adopted the zero waste initiative. Isn’t that all we need? We are racing down the road toward an uninhabitable planet. To reverse course, we need to adopt good policies at the local, state and national levels. These policies will help reverse the trend of overconsumption. But, as with the zero waste initiative, we also must adjust our lifestyles — and we all need to join in. A single person makes little difference in total waste, but total student efforts at the hundreds of schools moving towards zero waste add up. The first few cans recycled in 1970 hardly made a dent in our total waste, but today we recycle over a third of our waste, nearly 100 million tons — not enough, but far from nothing.
Students can lead the way to a better future. Who would have believed that one 16-year-old Swedish girl, Greta Thunberg, sitting on the steps of her parliament with her school strike for climate sign and a leaflet that said, “You adults are s------- on my future,” would have inspired millions to join her cause? Thunberg calls for the biggest international climate strike yet and asks adults to “step up and join us.” Please join the Austin Climate Strike and Texas Capitol Rally at noon on Sept. 20 at the Texas Capitol south steps, add your cans to the growing imaginary mountain of recycled materials and participate in UT’s zero waste initiative. Mother Earth will smile.
Hendricks is a member of the Executive Committee and co-chair of Climate Change Committee at the Austin branch of the Sierra Club.