SFU students take the Zero Waste Challenge

Managing studenthood with environmental responsibility isn’t as easy as it looks…

Image courtesy of The Peak

By: Jessie Harper and Kimberly Huynh

Jessie’s story

My journey with zero waste living began while I was living in downtown Vancouver in a 180-square-foot apartment. I had a bar fridge, a tiny piece of countertop, and a sink. I did all my cooking on a hot plat

e or in a toaster oven. I was also a full-time student working 30 hours a week to support myself and living mainly off of debt, as many of us do. I had to be creative with my grocery shopping because if I bought too much, I wouldn’t be able to eat it all before it went off, or worse, it wouldn’t even fit in my fridge. Buying less packaged food helped save valuable fridge space. Another main reason I started to reduce my garbage was because my place was just so small and stuffy. I would take the trash out three times a week so it wouldn’t smell, and each time I was amazed at the amount of trash one person accumulated. One day, I saw an ad on Facebook for Nada, a zero waste grocery pop-up shop. It was only a short walk from my work, so I went after a shift. Transitioning to a reduced-waste lifestyle didn’t happen overnight, but I haven’t looked back.


Kimberly’s story

Trying to generate zero waste as an SFU student is rather difficult and within 24 hours; I failed. But honestly, I kind of expected this.

I’m generally the type of person to think twice before trashing something. I’ll always ask myself if there’s a way that I can cut down on waste, or if I can recycle or compost what I do need to get rid of. That said, I’m that person who gives people the look whenever recyclable or compostable objects are thrown straight into the trash. I just never understood why people carelessly threw things into the garbage when they didn’t have to.

When I started the Zero Waste Challenge, I thought that I would generally have an easy time. I thought that I would at the very least last a whole 24 hours without generating waste, but boy, was I wrong.


Jessie’s story: Starting the challenge

This weekend was the first time I’ve pushed myself to try and generate no waste at all. The main challenging thing about zero waste is that it takes a lot of forethought, something I generally lack. Being prepared is the number one way you can avoid generating garbage, because most waste is created for our convenience. Take away coffee cups, plastic cutlery, plastic bags, you name it. What it really comes down to is saying ‘no’ to a lot of things, and substituting the essential things with sustainable, reusable options. I discovered the impact of carrying a water bottle, having a set of cutlery in your purse or car, saying ‘no thanks’ to a straw in your drink, and choosing to refill a container instead of buying prepackaged food . . .


Kimberly’s story: Off to a rough start

I think it’s worth pointing out that a rule that I had set for myself was that both trash and recyclable objects were considered waste, but compost wasn’t. This definitely made the challenge a lot harder than I had originally anticipated.

Within the first few hours of my day, I had used paper. And thus, failed the zero-waste challenge essentially as soon as it had begun.  

Paper is probably something that we overlook in our daily lives as students.

I’m sure that there are many students like me who prefer to work with paper rather than the computer. I enjoy taking notes by hand on looseleaf or writing on lecture slides that I print out before class. Also, when taking notes on readings and what-not, I prefer taking notes on paper or writing my notes out on the computer and then printing them out later. I do this because I feel that I work best with paper; I retain much more information when I’m writing things out rather than when I’m typing them out. For students with a paper preference, a zero waste lifestyle seems impossible. As a side note, another issue with taking notes by hand is that I go through tons of pens and highlighters!

Additionally, many SFU classes require students to use paper; for example many professors ask that students hand in a hard copy of their assignments. If you think about it, that’s a lot of paper. I’ve had a handful of courses which require papers that are up to 20 pages. Think about it: 20 pages x 150 students in the class = 3,000 pages. SO. MUCH. PAPER. I personally have a stack of all hard-copy papers that I’ve had to hand in throughout the years just sitting in my closet gathering dust. Sigh.


Jessie’s story: Friday

I work full-time at an office and take classes online. I usually bring oatmeal to work every morning for breakfast. My office has cutlery, dishes, and mugs so I don’t need to worry about bringing them from home. For lunch, I brought a meal in a Tupperware container, but forgot about scaps . . . My office doesn’t have a compost. So I put the scraps back in my Tupperware and took them home to compost.

Another thing I’d forgot to prepare for was coffee. Yes, my office has mugs, but they only supply individual creamers and sugar packets, and despite having spoons, most people use disposable coffee sticks. I sacrificed my morning coffee.

After work, my husband and I went grocery shopping. This was probably the biggest challenge of the weekend because I usually always make compromises for perishable food. It’s essentially impossible to buy some things like cheese, yogurt, and frozen fruits without plastic in a regular grocery store. We purchased a lot of vegetables using cotton produce bags instead of the store-supplied plastic ones. I just wash these with our laundry and reuse. We purchased milk in a glass bottle, ginger beer in glass bottles, steaks from the butcher section in compostable butcher paper, and some Diet Coke in recyclable cans. Even so, this shop did accumulate a bit of garbage. There was a tag on the asparagus, the sticker holding the steak papers together, and the twist ties on the bunches of herbs. While the rules of this challenge were to see how long I could go without generating waste, I wanted to keep going and see how the rest of the weekend went.

In terms of cooking at home, this weekend we only used food that would create no garbage. We do our best to purchase everything possible from stores that allow refills or bring your own container, such as Bulk Barn and The Soap Dispensary.

Because this challenge was so short-lived, I didn’t have to face long-term items creating waste. Items like makeup, clothing, and shower products, that are all made of or wrapped in plastic, are the most challenging to sacrifice and change for me. People who can go a month without throwing one thing away are in a whole different ball park and I admire them from afar, for now.


Kimberly’s story: Pesky paper

It’s safe to say that I’ve come to the conclusion that a zero waste lifestyle is not plausible for students because of our dependence on paper. So, how can we minimize the use of paper? I’ve done the following things:

  1. I print my notes double-sided when I can and make sure that two to four pages are printed per sheet. As a bonus, I don’t know if it’s just how my brain works, but I feel that I retain a lot more information when I have two pages of notes per sheet printed because I don’t have to flip around pages as much. Printing like this also saves money since the library charges $0.11/page, which adds up! I could have saved so many trees (and my own money) if assignments didn’t require being printed a certain way. Unfortunately, most of my classes require APA citation, which doesn’t allow for two-sided printing.
  2. I usually use recycled pieces of paper when I study, like the blank side of used paper. You could also do this with flashcards, or make your flashcards out of scrap paper.
  3. I love using a whiteboard to study because I’m not throwing away paper. I just have to erase and then write whatever! There is, of course, the waste that the dry-erase pens create when they run out of ink, though.
  4. I use a piece of paper until I no longer can! I have a bunch of paper by my printer that has only one side used, so I’ll save it so that I can print (eventually) on the other side.

Above all, I think the most important thing that students can do to minimize the amount of paper they use is to think before they print. Do you really need to print something out? I know that I admitted to being one of those students that likes to work with paper, but the least I can do is make the conscious effort to minimize my waste as much as possible.

I’m interested to see if SFU students 50 years from now could avoid the paper waste as profs finish the move towards digitalization.


Jessie’s story: Saturday

On Saturday afternoon we were invited to our friend’s birthday party in a nearby park, and my husband suggested we ride our bikes and pick up a Slurpee on the way there. The bike riding sounded very in line with my challenge, but the Slurpee? This time I thought ahead and brought a reusable tumbler with a straw and got my Slurpee in that. The guy at the counter couldn’t have cared less, and charged me for the smallest size despite my letting him know how large my cup was. I will admit, it was nice to tease my husband that I got more than he did, for less price and less waste.

Sometimes I’m scared to ask people to accommodate me, but generally when you tell them why, they are really understanding. For example, checking out at the grocery store, the cashier automatically started to put our steaks in a separate plastic bag. When I stopped her she seemed offended, but when I explained my challenge, she was very understanding. Later that night I went out for a drink with some friends for St. Patrick’s Day. I will admit, I stopped for McDonald’s on my way home, but my burger was wrapped in paper and came in a paper bag that I brought home to compost, so no garbage! It can be done.


Jessie’s story: Sunday

My challenge came to a screaming halt on Sunday afternoon at none other than Ikea. If someone (your mom) offers to drive you somewhere and buy you food, the answer, as a broke student, is generally yes. We had lunch in their cafeteria which didn’t come in the way of my challenge since they have dishes, cutlery, glasses, the works. If we put Ikea on a spectrum with other mega companies in terms of sustainability, Ikea is doing pretty dang well. They pack their furniture into flat boxes not just so it fits into your car better, but so they can ship more product in smaller spaces. Why pay to transport air? They are also converting over to all LED in their light fixtures which, compared to incandescent bulbs, use 85% less energy, designing functional home waste sorting systems, and always looking to use more sustainable packaging and materials for their products (like mushroom styrofoam). I purchased a few things for the house, as one does at Ikea, and though there was no devilish styrofoam, there was plastic wrap and that’s a wrap on my zero waste weekend.

I lasted 64 hours without generating waste (minus a few produce stickers). While this is an awesome personal accomplishment, it has only empowered me to go further and implement more. If anything, don’t feel overwhelmed by the want to make a change for the better. The more we do, the less goes in the landfill.