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How to Engage 17 million Young Americans in Zero Waste

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PLAN conference students getting food with their own platesHave you ever been asked to bring your own coffee mug to a conference? I recently attended one that was “bring-your-own everything”—mug, plate, silverware, and napkin. About half of the 400 attendees did, sporting everything from mason jars to camping gear to use for their lunch and snacks. Conference organizers provided a tub of reusable silverware from Goodwill for the rest, as well as a washing station for people to clean their utensils between meals. At the end of the all-day event, there were a lot of proud faces—only two pounds of “trash” were headed for the landfill.

The gathering was the third annual meeting of the Post-Landfill Action Network (PLAN), a non-profit student group with a presence on nearly 100 campuses nationwide and some significant momentum for growth. The organization’s mission is to empower students with the necessary skills and information to implement Zero Waste initiatives on their campuses, everything from starting a move-out program to going plastic-free on campus.

Having been at far too many “recycling” conferences where I’m talking to a sea of disposable coffee cups or where dinner was served on disposable polystyrene plates with disposable plastic forks, I have to tip my hat to PLAN for walking their talk. But even more important is what I heard at their conference. These students are keenly aware that achieving Zero Waste is more than changing individual behavior— it requires collective action to create systems that support Zero Waste, both on campus and beyond.

PLAN conference logo

Founded in 2013 at the University of New Hampshire, PLAN is growing rapidly, with a goal of reaching 300 campuses by 2020. That’s ambitious but achievable, in part because they are tapping a prime population: History has shown repeatedly that young people can be powerful change agents, and there are 17.5 million active college students in the United States today. They can help us move farther and faster to achieve Zero Waste at the local level, even as national policies are likely to shift away from climate mitigation and sustainability.

The Campus-Community Parallels

College and university campuses are a lot like small to medium-sized cities. They often run their own power plants; they install and repair their own streets; and they house and feed thousands or even tens of thousands of residents. Hundreds of daily decisions must be made that impact people’s lives and collectively have a big impact on our planet and local economies.

Campuses are also the leading incubators on waste reduction: think tray-less kitchen dining, refillable coffee mugs, reusable take-out boxes, bans on bottled water, fix-it clinics to repair broken products, and move-out programs that resell used furniture to next semester’s students. There is a lot the rest of us could learn from PLAN and other student groups about how to reduce waste in our own communities, businesses, and schools.

There is also strong parallel between creating change on campus and creating change in the larger community. Both require a dedicated group of citizens, or students, who need to partner with the local government, or administration, to first gain buy-in and then implement the Zero Waste programs and services. The goal, in both cases, is to institutionalize new Zero Waste systems so that when the students graduate and move on or when the citizen group dissolves, the programs remain strong.

Embracing Student Leadership

So with all we have in common, why there isn’t a closer connection between campus efforts and our community efforts? I know that students are young and inexperienced, making many of them naïve and overly ambitious. They can also be impatient. But I’ll argue that their zealous enthusiasm, idealism, and penchant for activism are invaluable and should be seen as much-needed assets, rather than faults.

Both campuses and cities can benefit from collaborating, especially when it comes to materials management. A city cannot reach its diversion goals without the participation of the students and the college, often the largest waste stream in the community. On the flip side, as students pursue their waste reduction initiatives, they often run into sizeable obstacles—the lack of local infrastructure and programs, such as composting facilities. Campuses can, in turn, help support the city’s investment in this new local infrastructure in two ways: Their large flow of discards can help facilities run more cost-effectively, and having a group of well-spoken college students and campus staff voice their support for Zero Waste initiatives can go a long way to building the political backing necessary for city councils to move these programs forward and quickly.

Students at PLAN conference

An Invitation to the Table

In the past six months, I’ve heard experts at three state recycling conferences talk about how to engage younger people in our industry and broaden our diversity. I think that engaging with the campus Zero Waste movement seems a great first step. As an industry, we can start by inviting students to the table and offering scholarships for them to attend conferences, workshops, and trainings. When they do, we need to encourage their active participation as panel moderators and participants. We need to create room for them to showcase their latest campus innovations and we need to allow their enthusiasm to inspire the rest of us.

PLAN is doing a tremendous job of training our industry leaders of tomorrow, and these student activists are a tough crowd. In their lives, these students walk their talk on Zero Waste. Let’s accept this as a challenge. We talk big about “reduce and reuse” before recycling—so let’s join them by doing more to make our industry conferences a Zero Waste experience.

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This blog originally ran on Waste360

Kate Bailey is the project director of Eco-Cycle Solutions and works with citizens, government staff, and elected officials to implement Zero Waste solutions around the U.S. 

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