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Peace House residents collect trash in week-long mindfulness exercise

| Monday, November 19, 2018

Chicken wing bones, a pizza box, used floss, peeled tape, fruit stickers, granola bar wrappers, worn contacts and an empty Planters Mixed Nuts container are items typically found in a trash bin. This past week, however, they were some of the many pieces of garbage a group of Notre Dame students carried with them wherever they went.

The activity was conducted Nov. 12-16 as an initial week-long push for environmental mindfulness.

Serena Zacharias | The Observer

Residents of Peace House collected trash Nov. 12-16 in an effort to promote environmental mindfulness. The group presented their findings Friday, highlighting the importance of preventing overconsumption.

Juniors Maria Pope, Greg Campion, Misha Sweeney and Whitney Lim participated in the exercise as residents of Peace House.

“Peace House is ultimately a living community that seeks to have at its core values of social and environmental justice,” Pope said. “We are concerned about anything and everything that has to do with human rights, and do our best to live those values day to day.”

Pope said members of Peace House decided on this exercise in response to Notre Dame’s culture of “extreme consumerism.” By consuming less and more mindfully — which means limiting processed foods that come in wrappers, buying in bulk, carrying reusable containers, recycling products and composting food — the students produced a much smaller amount of waste.

On Friday, a few students who participated in the exercise met at Peace House to discuss the trash they collected throughout the week and reflect on the experience. Sitting around a dining room table, each person produced a plastic bag, jar or bottle that held their trash for the week. 

“We produce a lot more trash than we think, and this exercise made me super conscious of how much trash I produce,” Sweeney said. “I rejected some food options and I lived differently because of it, and it wasn’t really a big inconvenience.”

The group also spent time discussing the harmful effects of landfills in terms of environmental and ethical issues.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, Americans generated a total of 262.4 million tons of municipal solid waste in 2015, which translates to 4.48 pounds of trash per person per day. This garbage piles up in landfills for years, posing a number of environmental threats, which have been exacerbated as consumption increases

In 2016, landfills produced 14.1 percent of human-related methane emissions in the United States. Over the years, bacteria decompose waste in landfills under conditions without oxygen. These conditions generate methane. Methane’s ability to absorb large amounts of energy contributes to global warming. Landfills also present a threat to groundwater and surface water, as rain draws out chemical contaminants from the waste. This liquid, termed leachate, must be carefully monitored to ensure waste materials have not escaped from the landfill.

In addition to these environmental effects, the group commented on the moral problems related to producing large amounts of waste.

Pope said the exercise highlighted how people have lost a connection to the products they consume.

“When you just use freely, and not think about the trash you’re producing or where the things you’re using comes from, it centers your world on you, what you need and what you can get,” Pope said. “When you’re forced to decenter and be aware of what you’re consuming, where it comes from [and] the effects it’s going to have, it spreads your worldview and removes you from your immediate needs or wants and forces you to think about the culture and the society that you’re in, how you interact with other people and how you affect your community.”

Campion echoed this sentiment, discussing the ethical issues surrounding overconsumption.

“I think a nice thought experiment is to just think about a really mundane item like a pencil or a granola bar wrapper and try to imagine the supply chain it came from,” he said.  “Consider how much energy went into transporting and manufacturing, how many people were involved in the process and whether they worked in dignified conditions and enjoy the same quality of life that we do or not, and then also contemplate about what happens when you’re done with it.”

Lim, who fit all her waste for the week in a small Ziploc bag, said she believes one person can make a difference if they can spread their message.

“Our money is a vote — we can make choices, even if they’re little,” she said. “There’s supply and demand and if we demand less, supply is going to change.”

Focusing on Notre Dame, Campion urged people to learn how to use the waste system on campus properly, and join GreeND, an organization which focuses on sustainability and environmental issues.

The group agreed to strive to integrate some of the practices they adopted this week into their daily habits, in an attempt to be a more mindful consumer. In this way, chicken wing bones, a pizza box, used floss, peeled tape, fruit stickers, granola bar wrappers, worn contacts and an empty Planters Mixed Nuts container will not just be trash to them.

“It doesn’t end today really,” Sweeney said. “It was a week, but it was a week to create more consciousness, which I personally will attempt to carry out to some extent.”

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