For Farrer, studying environmental science came with a deep existential dread. After spending the first post-college months applying for jobs, she now works at the California Academy of Sciences. Every day, she thinks about the future of the planet. She does her best to live sustainably, but doesn’t think we can get by.
While the United States represents 4% of the world’s population, it accounts for 12% of all the waste produced in the world, according to a report 2021 from the advocacy organization Environment America.
“It’s unfair to everyone because we often send our waste overseas, especially our recyclables.”
Before going to college, Farrer used to bring certain types of recycling to her high school, as she knew that not all types could be recycled at home. While taking Garbology, she learned that the system wasn’t working as well as she thought.
Plastic is difficult to recycle because there are so many different types, and many of them cannot be melted together. Paper can only be recycled five to seven timesaccording to the EPA.
“In the past, I viewed it as an individual effort and everyone should do their part,” says Farrer. “And then, learning more, I realized that the best thing I could do was probably to do less waste. I sometimes feel hopeless. I feel sad. I feel frustrated. Lost. Definitely angry, but sometimes full of hope.”
Right now, our planet is in the middle of the sixth mass extinction, because a large part of the distinct species die. She thinks that even if humans wipe us out, life will come back. At least, that’s what happened after the previous five mass extinctions.
“There will be life on this planet in the future. I just won’t be around to see it thrive,” Farrer says.
But before accepting this as fate, things can be done here and now. At the individual level, people are not good at recycling properly. Professor Hughes has seen nappies, greasy pizza boxes and unrinsed yoghurt pots in the recycling bins. Most plastics, like the shells containing the berries, aren’t even recyclable in many cities.
“All of this reduces the quality of the contents of these recycling bins,” says Hughes. “And sometimes those just have to go straight to the trash.”
Claire Parchem graduated from Santa Clara University in 2016, but still remembers a project where she discovered that menstrual pads were worse for the environment than tampons – due to the amount of material they contained. use. After taking the course, she became addicted to waste and got an internship at Waste Management. Today, she is responsible for the startup AMP Robotics, which programs AI-driven robots that sort waste from recycling.
“It’s like this triangle with a suction cup on it,” says Parchem. “He moves almost like a spider. He’s so fast in the way he attacks the recycling and puts it in the different boxes.”
Despite the temptation to be pessimistic about the future of the environment, students say Professor Hughes keeps things exciting and positive.
“It feels like a mountain of terror,” says Oli Branham-Upton, a junior who took Garbology in 2022. “But I think classes like this that are specific enough to cover a certain dimension of things that we can control in the crisis climate, are important.
After graduating, Branham-Upton hopes to work at the intersection of racial and environmental justice.
“At the end of the course, I want the students to be uplifted,” says Hughes. “I want them to know that there are visions for us to move towards a cyclical society.”