Every year, piles of trash are left on Berkeley streets when students move in or move out, polluting neighborhoods and stormwater. It also is a massive waste of money and resources. During this time, students collectively trash millions of dollars of still-usable consumer goods. This is lost wealth that could otherwise go towards food, rent, tuition or other activities.
The robust system of textbook rentals and buybacks shows that it doesn’t have to be this way. Most books avoid the tall heaps of garbage, going on to have second lives. Similar approaches could help cut down on the piles of furniture and housewares as well.
Both the city of Berkeley and UC Berkeley have goals to get to zero waste by 2020. Diverting everything from the trash can to a compost or recycling bin is only part of it. Zero waste is also about putting materials to their highest and best use, reducing consumption and reusing things. In practice, however, students living in Berkeley face several challenges that lead to low rates of reuse. Let’s examine these issues and their potential solutions.
- Places and services for reuse
Ikea furniture, fast fashion — reuse is hard when products don’t last. Used goods could provide an affordable alternative. While Berkeley has a number of vintage and thrift stores and places selling furniture, such as Urban Ore, they’re nowhere near the scale that would be necessary to supply nearly 10,000 new students every fall with the quantity of chairs and clothes desired.
What’s needed are larger-scale, easier-to-use versions of UC Berkeley ReUSE that are cheaper and more efficient than clicking the “Buy Now” button or going to the store. The Berkeley Student Cooperative’s free piles are one example — these are rooms where people leave behind clothing, school supplies and more, located steps from students’ bedrooms, open 24/7 and completely free. Furthermore, building a full-sized thrift store on Southside should be a priority.
The knowledge it takes to fully understand options for reuse and proper recycling could easily fill the syllabus of a 1-unit DeCal. While that is an option to consider, a more immediate and accessible option would be a quick visit to any of these informative sites:
The city’s Zero Waste Programs and Services website.
The website of the Ecology Center, which collects recycling from any building with less than 10 units.
StopWaste’s website has information and links for Berkeley, Oakland, and other parts of Alameda County.
Recycle Where’s website tells you where couches, batteries, and other unusual things go.
- To fix the waste problem, fix society.
When I was the waste reduction coordinator at a 58-person student co-op, I saw that behind every exceptionally large pile of trash was some kind of personal crisis — break-ups, stress, evictions, or mental health challenges. In a perfect world, everyone would take the time to be a good green bin-hugging Berkeley citizen. In reality, most of us have plenty of more urgent needs than figuring out where to put an unwanted chair.
Here is where zero waste goes from being an approach to handling materials to being a social model. Providing economic security and smoothing out the bumps in life are critical to minimizing the disruptions that lead to waste. Give people second chances and allow them to put their time and energy to the highest and best use, and clean sidewalks will follow.
Alfred Twu is the Chair of the Zero Waste Commission.