Zero Dark Zero Waste: UCSB’s Struggle for Sustainability
Needless to say, UCSB’s ongoing sustainability achievements are impressive. Perhaps this zeal for environmental awareness is what prompted the UC Office of the President nine years ago to set a campus-wide goal of achieving zero waste operations by 2020. This may sound like an easy project, considering all that UC Santa Barbara has done in the way of sustainability. However, there are visible potholes in this road to zero waste. Campus coffee shops and food services continue to serve items in cardboard cups and containers. At on-campus businesses, single-use snacks wrapped in cellophane and plastic abound. Students, who rely on blue books, scantrons and printed handouts, have few alternatives for in-class materials. Considering this zero waste goal’s looming deadline, is UCSB still on track to achieve wastelessness?
The gate to the compost lot is hard to open.
The space itself, behind Isla Vista Elementary School, is well maintained and incredibly neat, despite it being a glorified dirt lot. Rows of newly sprouted veggies line the central path, and the lot’s back end is verdant with all the trappings of a healthy edible garden. The care of this space is the result of the hard work of the Department of Public Worms (DPW), a student-run organization through UCSB’s Associated Students. While DPW specializes in compost, its sister program, Associated Students Recycling, deals with the collecting and sorting of campus recycling.
“If I say anything wrong, just correct me,” Lindsay Bogott said to coworker Inez Schwartz, as I settled on top of a stack of cinder blocks before our interview. “I’m still pretty new.”
Bogott and Schwartz are two student employees through DPW and part of a larger group of students who serve as the backbone of UCSB’s daily sustainability efforts.
“We gather all of the pre-consumer compost materials from campus dining commons,” Bogott explained, “as well as the post-consumer waste from some UCSB housing. We also have the brand new student farm where we’re growing vegetables and other things to donate to the food bank.”
Additionally, Bogott says DPW has been working with the Coral Tree Café, a campus coffee shop, on the Café’s plan to initiate a reusable container program. Students would pay a one-time fee to purchase the container, either bringing it home or returning it that same day for a token to use for another container at a later date. This mirrors an identical project the same shop attempted in 2011, where customers saved 10 cents per purchase by bringing their store-issued to-go box. Though an encouraging article was written about the project pre-deployment, it either never took off or was never finalized.
DPW employees are a familiar sight on campus, riding bike-trash can hybrids through the university, sorting and collecting the trash of their peers. One of the biggest ways DPW contributes to UCSB’s zero waste goal is how they divert pre-consumer food waste.
“We pick up whatever the dining commons have used and take it for our various composting efforts, such as our worm bins. We feed the worms with the food from the dining commons and then they help produce worm tea,” Schwartz said.
“Worm tea” is a term that lovingly refers to the liquid concentration of worm feces. Rich in microbes and minerals, this stuff is gardener gold.
“Anyone in the community can use it,” Schwartz continued, “so it’s kind of this circular system where we’re taking something and making something productive out of it.”
For a program so integral to both UCSB and the outlying community, you would expect a bustling workforce.
“Last year, we were really short-staffed,” Bogott explained. “But this year, we have about twelve people.”
In all fairness, this sparse staffing can be partly attributed to the intricacies of the gig. Compost, as it turns out, is a finicky business, and DPW employees train and research extensively on their own time in order to handle it with care.
“You have to be really specific about how you sort the waste,” Bogott said, “ because otherwise contamination will ruin everything.”
Regardless, university support can sometimes be hard-earned.
“There are spots where you feel like, ‘Oh, I wish I had some more support from the school in this area, or ‘this seems lacking,’” Bogott said.
In 2018, the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education merited UCSB a gold rating by the Sustainability Tracking, Assessment & Rating System (S.T.A.R.S.), a self-reporting framework that measures universities’ sustainability performances. There is no doubt that UCSB will capture the title again this year, as it has every year since 2012. UCSB Sustainability Director Mo Lovegreen noted the hard work of UCSB students in a local article detailing the achievement. It’s true that a large part of the zero waste initiative is driven by the efforts of DPW and ASR. By contrast, student engagement in the initiative seems to range from inconsistent to nil.
“We have workers emptying the bins every single day and the bins are always so full, it’s insane,” Bogott said when I interviewed her between garden beds at DPW’s compost lot.
“It’s also insane how much waste we go through, and how many people don’t know how to sort their waste. A lot of people think that things are recyclable when they’re not; it’s pretty crappy.”
Sitting outside of a campus coffee shop on any given day, the source of Bogott’s frustration is visible. It’s more common than not to see students sticking garbage in incorrect bins, buying single-use plastics like there’s no tomorrow or not bothering to put their trash in a bin at all. The weirdest thing Bogott has seen in her time sorting university trash?
“A used condom. I was like, really? You think that’s gonna get recycled?”
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“I would be highly but pleasantly surprised if UCSB becomes completely zero waste by 2020,” said Ranjit Deshmukh, an assistant professor in the environmental studies department. Deshmukh noted that part of UCSB’s sustainability success lies in its tepid climate and the fact that it doesn’t have a medical school, which tends to require higher energy usage.
“It’s already 2019 and I still find plenty of errors that Gauchos make in sorting their waste between recycling, composting and landfill. That’s the first step in becoming zero waste.”
This neglect of sustainable education within the student body is matched and certainly not helped by UC Santa Barbara’s chosen franchise food stops: companies like Subway, Jamba and Starbucks, whose business models depend on single-use packaging. UCSB’s decision to partner with these fast-food giants while also marketing themselves as a leader in campus sustainability is laughably ironic, and that’s just bad for business.
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The student groups actively promoting sustainability on campus are well versed in proper waste sorting and minimization, but that’s a microscopic minority in a university of 25,057 students.
The website of UCSB’s zero waste committee notes that “students must work together to minimize water and energy use, make more sustainable purchases, and recycle/compost as much as we possibly can” — a fine proposal, with little to show for it. UCSB quite literally has not found a way to engage the general student body in sustainability efforts. The only lead I found while researching UCSB’s efforts to educate students led to a blog post describing UCSB’s Sustainability Week. Over the course of seven days, infographics featuring information on how much water it takes to grow an almond and reminders to turn off your lights when you leave the room are featured in the dining commons. These sorry facts are not what students need to be learning in order to enact change. Though Sustainability Week does what it can to prompt students to reflect on their daily choices, its marketing strategy is passive at best. When faculty experts and students directly involved in sustainability don’t see changes in how the general student body handles its waste, it points to a large miscalculation in the university’s zero waste timeline. The university has honed in on building design and structural development and has left behind one of the most vital components to its 2020 goal: its own students.
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UCSB’s Sustainable Practices Policy breaks down its zero waste goal into five parts. The first is dedicated to the university’s dedication to waste reduction. The second voices its support of integrated neutral emission, waste and energy goals. The third details the university’s plans to reduce municipal waste per capita. The fourth dictates that by 2020, the entire campus will be zero waste with the exception of the medical center, noting that the bare minimum of its definition of “zero waste” will mean “90% solid waste diversion from landfill.” The fifth and most explicitly ill-commenced aspect of the policy states that by 2020, “the University will prohibit the sale, procurement or distribution of packaging foam, such as food containers and packaging material, other than that utilized for laboratory supply or medical packaging and products.”
2019 is nearly over, yet muffins are still wrapped in cellophane at the campus corner store and campus “to go” foods, like sandwiches and salads, are still sold in plastic packaging. Students are throwing used contraception into the compost. Can we expect to see any of this change in the coming weeks?
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In order for UCSB to consider itself a true leader in university sustainability, it must reevaluate its commercial relationships, but more importantly, provide students with some semblance of sustainable practice. Incoming first years are required to attend presentations on safe partying and academic success but are never taught the numerical values of differing recyclables, or what really happens to the products deemed “compostable,” not to mention waste minimization on a larger scale. These are values that must be used and practiced just as regularly as good study habits and could be integral to the success of UCSB’s zero waste plan. And while its goal certainly won’t be met within the next month, with increasing student engagement and activism, it could be sooner than we think.
Emma Demorest is a third-year writing and literature major who thinks it’s going to take more than a reusable straw to save a turtle.