EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the first in a monthly series of columns about a group of professors at the University of Maine at Augusta undertaking the Zero-Waste Challenge, trying to avoid sending trash to the landfill or incinerator.
Received wisdom says that it takes a minimum of three weeks to form a habit. The faculty and staff at the University of Maine at Augusta, where I teach English and women’s and gender studies, are taking an entire semester to see if we can alter some of our routines to improve the health of our planet.
This year, our annual university-wide theme focuses on climate change, and because this topic can feel very overwhelming, our community wanted to model a form of individual effort that will both reduce our own carbon footprints as well as inspire others.
Hence, the UMA Zero-Waste Challenge was born. Our collective goal is to reduce our home and office waste over the course of the semester and figure out which good habits we can maintain for the long haul.
While there are many ways to address climate change, and we will be discussing this subject in classes, panels and events throughout the academic year, scientists and community organizers believe reducing personal waste streams is effective.
“Stop Trashing the Climate,” a report co-authored by the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, Eco-Cycle and GAIA, argues a zero-waste approach is among the fastest, cheapest and most effective strategies to protect the climate. It asserts that significantly decreasing waste disposed in landfills and incinerators could reduce greenhouse gas emissions an amount equivalent to closing 21 percent of U.S. coal-fired power plants or significantly improving national vehicle fuel efficiency.
Zero waste is not an all-or-nothing endeavor. While a very small percentage of Americans have managed to reduce their waste to virtually nil, we believe all attempts toward our goal count. In other words, the efforts of people who can reduce their waste streams by 30 percent are as valuable as those who are able to reduce their trash output by 70 percent.
One statistic on waste generation estimates the average American creates 4.43 pounds of garbage per day. We want to see how challenging it is to make a sizable dent in that number.
The faculty and staff at the University of Maine at Augusta are already very waste-conscious. We have reused interdepartmental envelopes for years, and our college has been repurposing scrap paper for decades. All toner cartridges get recycled. If something can be reused or upcycled in our office, it will be.
My colleagues are also consummate consignment and thrift-store patrons. Many of us are already composters. However, this semester offers us an opportunity to be even more mindful about what we consume, how we consume it and what that means to our larger environment.
Over the course of this semester, we will learn about five basic tactics advocated by seasoned zero-wasters: refuse, reduce, reuse, recycle and rot.
The first tenet, refuse, is the most important. It may also be trickier to manage than it initially appears. It involves rethinking consumption more generally, and not buying or acquiring items we do not need, including excess food, household items and clothing. It also means not accepting things like toothpaste samples from the dentist’s office or junk mail. An advanced practitioner may also refuse unneeded gifts (we’ll see how that goes!).
Reducing the number of products we use also sounds easier said than done. This can mean ceasing to use single-serve products, such as individually wrapped snacks, which can be challenging, especially for those of us with children at home, as well as disposable products like paper towels and plastic produce bags.
Other approaches include buying in bulk, using products that multitask (such as vinegar and baking soda for cleaning), and simply using less in general (smaller dabs of toothpaste and shampoo, for example).
REUSE AND RECYCLE
As mentioned, the university community is already practiced at reusing and recycling, but there are always new tricks we can learn. We also can commit to more repairing, borrowing and upcycling. Moreover, we will become more cognizant of our local recycling rules and try to be more effective about the things we can and should recycle when we have brought them into our households and offices and have no more use for them, like paper, cardboard and glass.
Finally, there is rot, or the compost of organic compounds, which is mostly food. This is one of the better-known ways to reduce garbage in landfills, and many of us already practice this at home. However, there are different levels of composting, and I, for one, have never before composted things like pet fur, nail clippings and household dust, which is advocated by several zero-waste experts. Some members of our community will try to compost for the first time.
Breaking down the approaches to zero-waste efforts this way is helpful as it makes the process feel more manageable, but ultimately, our success will hinge on how effective we are at establishing and then maintaining new habits, like bringing our own food containers and bags to the store, eschewing paper napkins in favor of cloth and cutting down on the number of catalogs we accept.
My colleagues and I will take turns in this column documenting our challenges and successes in attempting zero-waste living. We hope not only to find strategies we can employ for the long term, but also to inspire others to do the same.
Lisa Botshon is a professor of English and women’s and gender studies at the University of Maine at Augusta. She is currently researching back-to-the-land memoirs written by Maine women. She may be contacted at: