Amid COVID-19 pandemic, UC Berkeley organizations push sustainability initiatives

Photo of Berkeley trash compactors
Theo Wyss-Flamm/Staff
CalPIRG has been campaigning to raise awareness to the consequences of single-use plastic. The ASUC has also worked on sustainability initiatives.

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Environmental organizations on campus have spent the COVID-19 pandemic spearheading several sustainability initiatives, including a focus on single-use plastics.

CalPIRG’s Plastic-Free Seas campaign began in the fall of 2019 to push UC Berkeley to take action on the global ecological, health and environmental damage caused by single-use plastic, according to a CalPIRG press release. Spearheaded by Nicole Haynes, then CalPIRG chapter chair for UC Berkeley and Plastic-Free Seas coordinator, the campaign garnered campuswide support from organizations including campus dining halls, independent cafes and campus retailers.

The Plastic-Free Seas campaign also gained support from various campus environmental organizations, according to Kira Stoll, the chief sustainability and carbon solutions officer in UC Berkeley’s Office of Sustainability.

In the spring of 2019, the ASUC Zero Waste Student Advisory Committee — an organization connecting various campus environmental groups — was rebranded as the Zero Waste Coalition, according to the UC Berkeley Sustainability and Carbon Solutions website.

Zero Waste Coalition chair Julia Sherman said the Zero Waste Coalition serves as an “umbrella” organization that includes the Student Environmental Resource Center, or SERC, CalPIRG and the Office of Sustainability.

According to Stoll, the CalPIRG campaign became a policy that involves eliminating or swapping out all nonessential single-use plastics on campus by 2030.

The policy, called the UC Berkeley Single Use Elimination Policy, was brought to Chancellor Carol Christ’s Advisory Committee on Sustainability in March 2020. On March 12, Christ signed off on the policy, according to the CalPIRG press release.

“All of them have been really helpful in ensuring what the students are writing and drafting makes sense and is accessible,” Sherman said. “It’s been a huge testament to being able to rally the troops across campus.”

According to Sherman, after an official announcement in April 2020, Sabina Mahavni, the SERC Lead Zero Waste Policy & Outreach associate and former news reporter at The Daily Californian, was brought on as a student lead to help develop a roadmap for the policy.

Mahavni said her role consists of meeting with every single campus department, campus retailers, labs, food vendors and other locations that produce plastics to develop individual roadmaps.

Mahavni added that she spent summer 2020 working with SERC’s research team to break the roadmap down into 10 different project sectors. These sectors include food service, packages, electronic waste and universal waste, according to Mahavni.

In each sector, assigned researchers work with campus stakeholders during weekly meetings, Mahavni said. The researchers examine which plastics are being used in a specific sector and attempt to figure out what plastics could be easily swapped out or how to integrate reusability into the sector, Mahavni noted.

Mahavni said she hopes to present the completed UC Berkeley Single Use Elimination Policy roadmap to campus’ Zero Waste Working Group in May.

“It is a great example of how Berkeley’s environmental advancements are kind of born,” Stoll said. “We’ve always had a tradition at Berkeley of student-driven ideas and goals. This is one of the new and fresh initiatives.”

While organizations under the Zero Waste Coalition were able to work on the UC Berkeley Single Use Elimination Policy, some of their other projects were impacted by the pandemic. SERC’s three-dimensional filament recycling and electronic waste collection efforts have been stagnated by a lack of access to physical campus buildings, Mahavni added.

Sherman said during the pandemic, the Zero Waste Coalition has been unable to continue campus waste management efforts, tabling and in-class presentations. The coalition, however, managed to create the Zero Waste Lab program for undergraduates to conduct research, and they have managed to host almost 70 students this year, according to Sherman.

Both Sherman and Stoll said the pandemic gave their organizations time to reflect on the work they do and focus on the bigger picture; for the Zero Waste Coalition, this meant focusing on how UC Berkeley’s waste has affected people of color and low-income communities. According to Sherman, the Zero Waste Coalition was able to co-host a workshop on accessibility and environmental justice in the zero waste movement with the Students of Color Environmental Collective in March.

In the coming semester, the Zero Waste Coalition hopes to continue running the Zero Waste Lab and expand its efforts on environmental justice education, Sherman added.

According to Stoll, the Office of Sustainability plans to form a staff sustainability community practice, where staff from all departments can learn about sustainability and how to apply it to their work.

“It’s going to be great to see people again and be back on campus,” Stoll said. “I believe those of us in sustainability will have a renewed focus when we come back.”

Contact Tarunika Kapoor at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @tkapoor_dc.