Student Orgs Work To Promote Sustainability, Zero-Waste Initiatives – Onward State

Student organizations and clubs all across campus have been working tirelessly for years to advocate for and educate the Penn State community about climate action.

Just recently, however, some students in prominent campus organizations have come together for one specific goal: producing zero waste.

Operating without waste can be quite challenging at first, especially for organizations and events as big as Homecoming or THON. However, there are many smaller, more sustainable, and achievable steps that students can take to reduce their waste production.

“Zero waste is just eliminating different waste from your life,” Louise Shaffer, a member of the Student Sustainability Advisory Council (SSAC)’s zero-waste working group, said. “So, not throwing your waste out in the trash, trying to recycle, compost, or reuse different items instead of letting them have a one-time use. There’s a lot of aspects to zero waste, but mainly just diverting things from going to the landfill.”

In mid-March, the University Park Undergraduate Association passed a resolution supporting student organizations making the zero-waste pledge. Specifically, it outlined that student organizations should aim to reduce 80 to 90% of their waste within the next five years and completely eliminate waste within five years after that.

But Penn State as a whole has fallen behind some of its Big Ten counterparts in its waste reduction goals. Schools like Ohio State, Michigan, Michigan State, and Maryland have already adopted waste reduction goals and been adamant in their advocacy.

“Penn State has already made these commitments and said that it is committed to sustainability and has so many researchers working on this issue. It’s really something that so many people at Penn State care about, and the students care about,” said Faith Gongaware, another member of the SSAC. “It’s something that Penn State has advertised as something that they’re excelling in when realistically, they’re not really actually doing it. It’s kind of something that they have already made this commitment to and then just aren’t acting upon it.”

Penn State Homecoming currently has a five-year sustainability plan that addresses waste reduction, environmental, economic, social sustainability, and more.

The plan includes programs like “Recycle Your Float,” which strips parade floats of materials and provides them to local businesses to be used and repurposed.

Meanwhile, students involved in THON make personal pledges to support sustainability through efforts like eliminating single-use water bottles and reusing games, decorations, and more.

Other student organizations on campus committed to having a more sustainable future have access to the Post-Landfill Action Network (PLAN) Membership was purchased by UPUA in early October. Through it, schools have unlimited access to manuals and resources, leadership training and workshops, and discounts to zero-waste companies.

Anne Lai, UPUA’s director of sustainable waste management, said there are many misconceptions regarding a waste hierarchy where the general public actually overvalues recycling when, in reality, materials are just steps away from winding up in landfills anyway.

It’s up to Penn State to take large-scale action against climate change and support zero-waste initiatives. But for now, students themselves can take action on a smaller scale to create meaningful change, too.

“The reason why students need to be in this realm is that it really is one of those things where individual actions can eliminate so much waste,” SSAC member Emily Ciganik said. “It’s definitely a lot to ask people like, ‘We need you to change your behavior because it’s the best thing to do.’ But once people start to understand how pervasive plastic and waste are and how hard it is to be broken down, their actions should change.”

You can learn more about SSAC, its zero-waste goals, and other sustainability initiatives here.