Earth Week Zero-Waste Challenge with Brian and Yunae

This past Earth Week, Brian Lavinio ‘24 and I (Yunae Zou ‘27) undertook a challenge to keep all of the trash we produced throughout the week and compare how much we produced. Brian and I are both interns at the Zilkha Center, and we wanted to undergo this challenge as part of our ongoing efforts to better understand and illuminate waste at Williams. Brian and Yunae two students hold side by side holding up small clear bags of trash

For some background, the college itself has been actively working on waste reduction with our Zero Waste Action Plan. In 2023, Williams received the Atlas Zero Waste Bronze Certificate. Just in case you don’t have the time to read through this 37-page report on trash, the gist is that our college’s waste situation isn’t terrible, but we still have a long way to go in terms of eliminating the unnecessary waste that our campus produces. Given this, interns like Brian and I continuously work to tackle waste-related issues. 

A recent step Williams has taken to reduce waste was President Mandel signing the Break Free from Plastic Pledge, a commitment aimed at reducing single-use plastics on campus. Now, the college will convene its first Plastics Task Force, eliminate all non-essential, non-compostable, and/or single-use disposable plastics with readily available alternatives, establish a procurement policy for the long-term elimination of these items, and strengthen campus-wide systems to ensure the proper collection and management of plastic-free alternatives.

Based on data from a waste audit conducted by the Zilkha Center in 2019 with the help of CES and Grounds staff, Brian and I realized that much of the waste we produce by weight is actually divertable and thus doesn’t have to end up in landfills. This stems from a problem of improper disposal practices. In other words, students often throw away materials that should be composted or recycled like food, paper, and glass. Because of this, the EcoReps team created a waste education social media campaign to both teach and motivate students on the topic of properly composting and recycling. Check out the videos we made on the Zilkha Center instagram page linked here. 

Beyond problems with waste diversion, Brian and I were still curious about all of the trash students produce that isn’t able to be recycled or composted. So, we devised an Earth Week challenge to help us gather qualitative data on a small scale. By tracking our waste through Earth Week, we hope to better inform ourselves so that we can properly educate our peers and deduce campus-wide trends.

Here’s what we gathered (both literally and figuratively)! Two small clear trash bags with various wrappers

Yunae: In my trash bag, I collected snack wrappers, a yogurt container that didn’t have a recycling symbol on it, plastic packaging from an online order, tissues, and a sock with a hole in it. 

Based on this, I’ve realized that a lot of the trash I produce comes from product packaging, and that I can reduce this waste by being more intentional about what (and how!) I’m buying as a consumer. For example, instead of throwing away trash from an online order (I was buying shampoo and conditioner), I could opt to buy in-person instead by walking or taking a bus to a nearby store. I’ve also recently learned that tissues, along with napkins and paper towels, are compostable, so another way to reduce my waste production would be to properly divert certain materials from ending up in landfills. 

Lastly, to address the sock, throwing away old clothing can seem like a fact of life, but (as I have recently learned) disposing of textiles is technically banned in Massachusetts! If you have old clothing that is in poor condition and can’t be donated, you should recycle it by dropping it off at a collecting location near you. Plus, there are many ways to prevent unnecessary textile waste from the get-go. For example, buying good quality clothing that will last longer is a better option than buying cheap fast-fashion clothing items. Besides, pieces of clothing like old t-shirts and jeans can often be repaired, upcycled, or even downcycled to extend their textile lifespan. 

Brian: I was surprised by how empty my trash bag was at the end of the challenge. I estimate it was less than half full, with the most prominent items being snack wrappers and tissues/ napkins. All of the wrappers came from items purchased off-campus at stores like Stop & Shop and Walmart, or items I brought to campus from home. Interestingly, the largest piece of trash was not items in the bag, but the bag, itself. I normally dispose of the trash bag and use a new one each time I fill my trash bin, but after this challenge, I plan to reuse the bag as many times as possible before disposing of it. I am grateful that the custodians in my dorm place containers of trash bags in each suite so students don’t have to walk down to the basement each time they need a new bag, but I fear this incentivizes students to only use the bags one time before discarding them. Perhaps, if the locations where students could procure plastic trash bags were limited, the amount of bags in the waste stream would decrease. I know I would be incentivized to reuse my bag if I had to walk to the basement each time I wanted a new one. 

To conclude, waste reduction is not an easy undertaking, but it is absolutely worthwhile when it comes to living more sustainably and caring for our planet. Trash is a major source of pollution, and it creates a disproportionate burden on marginalized communities. Waste processing facilities and landfills tend to be in low-income communities of color, and they result in greater health risks to the nearby populations. Because of this, reducing waste is one of the most significant issues we face today at the intersection of environmental and social justice. The environmental justice implications of landfilled and incinerated single-use plastic prevent Williams from upholding many of its commitments at the intersection of community, diversity, equity, and inclusion – and sustainability. 

Through this challenge, Brian and I both learned more about our trash production and how we can be better with zero-waste practices. We hope that you too have learned something new! For now, some of the best ways Williams students can reduce their waste is through reducing unnecessary purchasing/packaging, properly disposing of recyclable and compostable materials, and through intentionality with our purchasing powers. 

Written by Yunae Zou ‘27, EcoRep and Brian Lavinio ‘24, Break Free from Plastic Intern