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‘I’d like a bagel … hold the bag’ Minimizing waste at Brandeis

Published: March 26, 2010
Section: Opinions

ILLUSTRATION BY Leah Lefkowitz/The Hoot

Do you think you could go a week without producing any waste while living here at Brandeis? Even if you’re an eco-superhero, the answer is probably not. A few weeks ago I decided that, for one week, I would carry all the waste that I produced (excluding toilet paper) with me for a class assignment in which each student of SOC 114b: Utopian Communities was asked to positively change one aspect of their life.

Given all the simpler options of things to change, why did I choose to inflict myself with this environmentalist escapade? Because, prior to this week, all I had was a very vague idea that making trash was a bad thing. That’s it. I had no strong factual evidence to support what I was doing, just a very basic ideology of, “Hey, we should try to be less wasteful.”

Not so surprisingly, producing as little waste as possible turned out to be rather difficult. On day one of my experiment I woke up, washed up in the bathroom, mentally patted myself on the back for remembering not to use a paper towel, then walked up to Einstein’s for a morning bagel before class. I was promptly handed my bagel … in a paper bag. I thought about giving the bag back, but they were busy, and I figured it would just get thrown away. So I kept the trash, and added it to my bag.

I quickly realized eating was by far the most waste-producing area of my life. From grabbing individually wrapped Balance bars between classes to heating up a SimplyAsia Pad Thai for dinner, food packaging waste seemed almost impossible to avoid. I tried to be aware of what I was buying, and dutifully added all packaging waste to my bag. At the same time, I was carefully eating every morsel I was given to prevent my ever-growing garbage bag from smelling like rotting food. By the end of the week, my total generated trash (including recyclables) amounted to the size of a small backpack, weighing about a pound.

Throughout my weeklong experiment, as I began to literally feel the weight of my waste, I quickly became more interested in discovering the reasoning behind this madness. A friend loaned me his copy of Colin Beavan’s fabulous “No Impact Man,” which tells the story of a man who tried to live in New York City for a year with no net environmental impact. According to him, and a study by the Environmental Protection Agency in 2006, the average American produces 4.6 pounds of trash per day. Around 80 percent of this trash comes from products we only use once, often for only a few minutes. Paper towels. Napkins. Plastic utensils. Bagel bags. OK, so we produce a lot of trash, and a lot of it is unnecessary. But why is that such a bad thing, and why should you, as a concerned Brandeis citizen, try to reduce your personal waste?

Have you heard of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch? It is exactly what it sounds like: a gigantic swirling mess of garbage in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. The lowest estimates say it’s a little bigger than the state of Texas. The larger estimates say it’s twice the size of the continental United States. Within the garbage patch, plastic material is six times as prevalent as bio-matter. Needless to say, this is somewhat destructive to the marine ecosystem.

Still not convinced? Think about landfills—how they are continuously increasing and contributing to pollution that is deadly to everything on this planet, including us. Think about Wall-E. Think about deforestation—the trees sawed down to produce the bags your bagel comes in—and how fewer trees equals more carbon dioxide equals global warming. Are you thinking “Bah, climate change! That stuff’s for hippies!”? OK, think about your wallets. Being less wasteful will often save you money. If you use a reusable mug to get coffee at Einstein’s, you save a dollar. If you get coffee every day, you’re saving $7 a week. Seven dollars a week! Go buy yourself a double scoop ice cream cone, you eco-friendly stud.

But the question remains: How do we live producing minimal waste at Brandeis? Well, simply enough, by following what you’ve seen on little green triangles since infancy—reducing and reusing. Lately we’ve been so intently focused on recycling that we seem to have forgotten these other two arguably more vital angles of the eco-triangle. So, check out the bulleted list of ways to reduce and reuse at Brandeis. Check out the facts. Ask yourself right now—is this paper bag protecting my bagel worth the destruction of our planet, and ultimately, the human race? It may sound silly and over-exaggerated, but we need to start somewhere. And in the immortal words of Rage Against the Machine, “What better place than here? What better time than now? All hell can’t stop us now.”