Sustainability and the Berkeley Bubble

Grass Roots

Carli Baker/Staff

I realized I was outside of the Berkeley Bubble when I noticed my friends back home had two trashcans in their kitchen. Both filled with trash. My hands at the time were filled with various bottles and cans from the night before, and as I looked around desperately searching for a recycling bin, I felt like a bit like Dorothy from the “Wizard of Oz,” minus the technicolor. Oski, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Berkeley anymore.

My friends aren’t environmental terrors or anything. But, like most college students, cleanliness is not their priority, and the contents of their trash can reflect that attitude. So I did what any self-respecting hippie would do. I found a paper bag and made my own recycling bin. I made it my task over the break to divert as many of their bottles and cans from the landfill and into the big recycling bins they pay for along with their other garbage costs. I rinsed out bottles, crushed cans, flattened boxes and trekked the 50 feet from the kitchen to the recycling bin as often as my winter break hibernation allowed.

Sadly, Sacramento County doesn’t have composting, so all our food waste usually ended up in the trash, destined to rot in a landfill. If only my friends would let me start composting in their backyard! I used to be shocked at the wasteful nature of most American cities, but I’m starting to learn how to lead by example rather than lamenting others’ poor environmental choices.

So when I’m with my friends back home, I preemptively tell store clerks that I don’t need all my groceries double-bagged, I turn the thermostat down at night and offer them my giant collection of sweaters, and I suggest thrifting as an alternative to the mall. Many choices like this go without saying within the limits of the Bay Area — I’m thankful to have learned so much about waste diversion since coming to UC Berkeley almost three years ago.

Berkeleyans in general are great about recycling. But I’ve noticed that many of my fellow Bears tend to neglect the two other R’s of waste reduction — reducing and reusing. To remedy this on my end, one of my recent guilty pleasures has been addictively perusing the Internet for ways to cut down on my personal waste. Like who knew that you could make awesome chunky yarn out of that old Calapalooza shirt you’ve never put on? Learning about all the wonders of creative reuse has made me a much less consumptive person, and I’ve definitely become more thoughtful about how my daily activities reflect my environmental beliefs.

However, there’s a fine line between being that quirky Berkeley kid who brings her snacks in burlap bags and tea in mason jars and being that asshole who feels the need to put her environmental prowess on display. It was hard sometimes not griping at my friends when they threw their cigarette butts by the river (Smoky would not be pleased) or when they came home with 15 new plastic bags from the grocery store I knew they’d never touch again.

But I’m not their parents. I’m not there to tell them that they’re bad people — they aren’t, by the way — or wave my Berkeley superiority flag in their face. Yeah, sometimes I’ll tell them there was a trash can nearby, or invite them to borrow my reusable bags, and it usually works. It may be that I’m an nonconfrontational person by nature, but I don’t think that vilifying and calling out people is the most effective strategy to create lasting change. It has to come from within to really stick and become a lifestyle.

I’ll be the first to admit that its a lot harder recycling and trying to be sustainable without an infrastructure like Berkeley’s to support you. But that doesn’t mean we don’t have to try. And if you ever want to try your hand at a more sustainable lifestyle, I always have an extra reusable spork to share.

Contact Carli Baker at [email protected] or follow her on Twitter: @carliannebaker.