Kate Emden wants to wage war on wasteLouis Ashworth

Over summer, I was lucky enough to spend two months working as an intern for a sustainable development foundation. Arriving pretty clueless, I was quickly absorbed in a project on waste management. Environmental work at its sexiest, you might think. And you would be correct, dear friend, because the joke is on you and waste management is actually fascinating. It’s basically one big fat juicy problem-solving exercise, so if coming up with creative real-world solutions is your thing, you need to get on this.

I mean, don’t get me wrong, the situation is also . Like, really, really bad. At approximately 1.3 billion tonnes per year, municipal solid waste – the stuff we chuck into bins in our rooms, gyps and departments without a second thought – is being generated at a faster rate than any other environmental pollutant, including greenhouse gases. With increasing urban development, that number is expected to shoot up, doubling by 2025, according to a World Bank report. And this mega production of waste is predictably having a pretty dire effect on the environment. Some sources report that there will be more plastic than fish in the sea by 2050, and the open or landfill dumping of waste is also a serious health problem around the world. Clearly things cannot be left to continue as they are. The exciting part, however, is that unlike so many unfathomably fucked up things about the world, there are, in fact, solutions.

It is important to note first that many methods proposed to ‘manage’ waste – landfills, incinerators, dumping into the ocean and waste-to-energy plants – are themselves subject to criticism from environmental, health and economic perspectives. Recycling is definitely a big step up, but in its current form remains an imperfect solution. Vast amounts of resources and energy are used in the transport and treatment of recyclable materials, and many recycling processes themselves still produce a considerable amount of waste. The real answer is that we need to re-think our treatment of our stuff. Once waste is produced, there will always be further resources wasted on managing it, in addition to the resources which went into producing it and which, once the object is discarded, will end up at the bottom of a landfill or ocean. In a world with limited resources, we can clearly see that such a practice is unsustainable and frankly irresponsible. We need to stop focusing on managing waste, and instead think about not producing it in the first place.

So, cards on the table, the real dream is to move from our current disposable culture to a circular economy and wonderland of re-usability. We need to leave this dystopia of single-use plastic products and unrecyclable packaging mania, in favour of a world of cradle-to-cradle design and beautifully thought out, long-lasting, reusable products. Obviously, this Grand Plan requires a lot of infrastructural changes – banning disposable products, incentivising businesses to use clean designs, widespread awareness campaigns and so on. However, behavioural and attitudinal change is also essential. As individuals, we need to start thinking about what happens when we buy products with unrecyclable packaging, when we use disposable cups, when we accept laminated flyers at freshers’ fairs that we will keep in plastic Domino’s bags for all of five seconds. Whenever we throw *anything* in the bin. And then we need to act.

Okay, so this may all sound like a bit too much of an effort. Caring takes energy which is often in short supply in the average student’s life. (It definitely is in mine.) That’s part of the reason I’m doing this column, though. My aim, throughout Michaelmas term, is to see just how much effort it would actually take to try and minimise the waste we produce as students and then report back. This will hopefully  streamline the process for anyone else who wants to try, or at the very least get some people to talk about trash.

Helpfully, as part of my research for the internship, I came across the Zero Waste blog-o-sphere. This small but incredibly well-followed part of the environmentally-inclined internet is made up of activists, raising awareness about the current state of waste production and management by publicising their ‘Zero Waste’ lives. By adopting fairly non-radical lifestyle changes, like refusing plastic straws and making their own toiletries, they manage to produce almost no trash that isn’t then reused or recycled in some way. The waste that they do produce? In a seemingly inevitable overlap of environmentalism and 21st-century blogging, the trademark of these Zero Wasters is to keep it all in a mason jar (and then Instagram it a lot – see @trashisfortossers for more details).

Me and my new bfKate Emden

Over the coming eight weeks, then, I’ll be putting their techniques to the test, finding out how easy it is to live Zero Waste in Cambridge. I may mess up. It may be a disaster and just add to the list of things I need to worry about like, I don’t know, getting a grad job and stuff. But any headway made is headway nonetheless, and a reduction in waste production (lol rhymes), even if not to zero, will still be better than my current levels.

Crucially, as part of this little experiment, I don’t want to have to compromise on student life. This means you can look forward to articles on how to picnic and punt, snack and study, and whatever else it is we’re meant to be doing here, without producing any trash. Perhaps more pertinently, we’ll see how easy it is to get wasted without waste. Any tips or feedback, feel free to contact me on kpoe2@cam.ac.uk. Otherwise, much reusable love, and see you next week.