by Sierra Garcia, '18
In less than seven months, thousands of students will move off campus in a mass migration to summer jobs and internships, or in the case of the senior class, to their post-grad lives. Over the course of a just few days, these same students will also condemn tens of thousands of pounds of furniture items to the landfill. Couches, mini-fridges, cushy chairs, futons, mattresses, printers, and microwaves will pile up by the hundreds along the Row and other residential hubs—and many of these items will still be entirely functional, or even in great condition.
SSS and the First-Generation/Low Income Partnership (FLIP) teamed up last year to repurpose the better quality furniture items to incoming freshmen. Our efforts served the dual purpose of keeping over 4000 pounds of ‘waste’ out of the landfill, and providing fifty freshmen with free furniture and other dorm supplies at the beginning of this academic year. The event that we named the FLI (First-Generation/Low Income) Drive will be an annual event and is in the process of garnering official administrative support.
Yet the necessity for the event in the first place speaks to a larger cultural apathy, an overlooked but dangerous obliviousness to the impact of our waste. To be sure, most people would try and sell their furniture or mini-fridge online before resorting to the dumpster, but once the offending item is out of sight it is largely out of mind. Nobody claims to be a proponent of waste, yet the fact that our used items must end up somewhere, and be dealt with by someone, is often ignored for the sake of convenience.
There are several implications of a useable item being thrown ‘away’, or left out on the curb. The item must be transported to a landfill, where it can take up space for centuries depending on the material (in other locations the trash might be incinerated, but burning trash isn’t as in vogue in the US). The disposal also implies that a new version of that item will be made to replace it, in some other part of the world, with other laborers and resources. And for certain things, like fridges or batteries, components like coolant need to be extracted first so they don’t contaminate the air or soil.
An especially salient example for Silicon Valley is electronics waste. Electronics like old laptops contain small quantities of toxic substances, that can contaminate water and soils when concentrated together in a landfill area. The health risks resulting from proximity to electronic waste sites when not disposed of properly are severe (see here for a detailed account of this issue, and how African countries like Nigeria bear the brunt of the human toll for Western electronics consumption.) Outsourcing the disposal of waste to poorer countries is a clear-cut and egregious environmental justice issue. Solving these problems will require fundamental and lasting shifts in how we think about and value stuff--any of the countless things that we use, consume, and toss each day. Most importantly, these impacts cannot be disparate, but must be part of a larger collective shift towards new norms.
Changing behaviors and attitudes is an extreme challenge. Yet I believe that confronting this challenge will be increasingly important in the twenty first century, regardless of technological progress. At Stanford we can design ingenious apps and program away diseases, but I challenge us as a community to shift towards personally enacting the mundane solutions hiding in plain sight.
Rethinking the waste we make can mean making the effort to donate food instead of throwing it out*, ensuring that your mini-fridge goes to a person who can use it instead of the dumpster at the end of the year, or even something as simple as buying compostable cups instead of red solo cups** for your next party. Perhaps in this way, we can individually and collectively work for a cultural shift towards intentionality, and away from who we are now: a society that wastes 40% of its food and deposits, on average, over 2000 pounds of trash per person each year.
It won’t be easy.
*(If you’re interested in this, please consider volunteering with the Stanford Project on Hunger (SPOON) to help redirect hundreds of pounds of food to local people in need each week)
**(Red solo cups are NOT recyclable, compostable, or anything other than landfill-able at Stanford. This is true in many places, including most of the US.)
Environmental Justice Impact
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This is a forum for students to share their writing on intersectional environmental topics, curated by Students for a Sustainable Stanford. Writers of all backgrounds, abilities, and perspectives are welcome.