Officials announced this week the University met its zero-waste goal for the calendar year. That goal is based on GW’s waste diversion plan, “Roadmap to Zero Waste,” which describes how GW aims to reduce consumer consumption and waste through a series of eight initiatives, like expanding recycling and compost programs. The news sounds like a victory, but a critical look at the waste plan itself reveals that there might not be cause to celebrate just yet.
While certainly well-intended, the plan has serious conceptual failings that hinder its potential to be a sustainable, cutting-edge plan toward waste reduction and diversion. In fact, not only is the plan not productive enough, but nothing about it is “zero waste.” Officials simplistically view waste through a narrow definition – after it has been placed in a waste bin by the consumer and up until GW sends the materials to a waste management or recycling facility. This limited perspective fails to consider the waste, pollution and natural resource degradation involved in disposing of materials, as well as what happens to the waste material once it leaves the University. GW needs to implement initiatives that consider the entire lifespan of waste, from production to waste management facility, and take specific aim at reducing the overproduction of materials.
The University considers recycling to be a sustainable means of achieving “zero waste” – an idea that suggests that if materials are managed in a certain way, they won’t produce any “waste.” Five initiatives in the waste plan specifically apply this idea, all advocating for the expansion of campus recycling programs. But if you take GW’s approach, you ignore all of the processes that go into material production and everything that happens after you put your waste materials in the recycling bin. These materials didn’t fall from the sky, and they don’t evaporate into thin air once you put them in the bin. GW needs to evaluate how these materials got here and what happens when we throw them away.
Look at a commonly recycled material – plastics. Plastic production alone, not including potential emissions from the production of additives, accounts for about just under 1 billion tons of carbon dioxide production annually, making it a very significant contributor to climate change. This figure does not factor in the destructive physical process of extracting oil for plastic production, which is notorious for polluting food and water supplies. So before consumer plastics even reach the consumer, they have already gone through a wasteful and exploitative production process. Any remotely productive action plan to reduce waste must orient itself around efforts to significantly curb over-production.
Despite the environmentally deleterious process of production, one that accounts for 97 percent of all waste, popular discourse around sustainability has hammered the idea that consumers are producers of waste with the responsibility of properly disposing their waste materials, even though only 3 percent of total waste passes through consumer hands. Upon a critical look of that idea, not only is it revealed that this idea was carefully and forcefully propagated by corporate interests in plastic, but it also becomes clear that even if we ignore the unsustainable nature of the economic production system, there’s nothing sustainable or “zero waste” about the process of recycling either.
Prior to 2017, about 70 percent of U.S recyclables were sent to China due to its high natural resource demand, low contamination standards, and competitive pricing for waste materials. This was a globally popular practice, with China importing about half of the world’s plastic waste since 1992. In theory, once the recyclables arrived in China, they would be repurposed into new products, but only 9 percent of plastic ever produced has been recycled and around 12 percent burned, with the rest going to landfills or the natural environment. If GW aims to have a progressive waste diversion plan, it can’t rely on recycling as a means of achieving it.
But if we again ignore production and the fact that recycling has never been a sustainable means for reducing waste, we still find that recycling itself is still a lot more of a complex and unsustainable process than putting a bottle in a bin. In fact, in order for plastic to be refashioned into a new product, it requires the use of virgin materials, energy and is a polluting process that results in the production of materials that are often significantly more toxic and environmentally damaging than their virgin counterparts. This process is especially detrimental with plastics that are challenging to recycle because of their functional need for increased use of additives as well as the fact that the structural properties of polymers only allow plastic to be recycled once or twice before it is unusable.
GW needs to implement a more meaningful waste diversion plan. There are several steps the university can take to move forward. GW should pressure GWorld partners to adopt programs with reusables – like meal purchases only delivered in reusable containers or requirements to pick up groceries in reusables – and stop selling products that use single-use materials. GW has already adopted similar initiatives where it has encouraged GWorld partners to reduce food waste by sending it to off-site composting facilities. The University should eliminate the use of single-use plastics in Pelham Commons and opt for compostable alternatives while also promoting the use of reusable utensils that can be incentivized with dining discounts.
GW should also implement and expand gardens and gardening spaces on campus and use compost collected on campus to maintain their fertility, as opposed to sending our compost to an industrial compost facility. A garden would be particularly useful on the Mount Vernon Campus, where food insecurity is a pressing issue. Instead of requesting students store compost in their personal freezers, an unreasonable and often infeasible request, GW should institute compost storage spaces in residential halls to encourage participation in the composting program.
GW should also expand its first proposal, which calls to conduct a waste audit, and include data collection about producers and brands of disposed materials. After collecting that data, GW needs to take administrative action toward producers that are responsible for the greatest production of waste. Officials could release data so consumers know which corporations are responsible for producing the most waste. Finally, GW should add an initiative that collects data about where waste and recycling materials are sent and what happens to them when they reach their respective facilities.
If and when the University takes steps to target the root cause of waste and systemic overproduction, it can effectively and genuinely contribute to a sustainable future.
Karina Ochoa Berkley, a sophomore majoring in political science and philosophy, is an opinions writer.