While you may not realize it, the culture you are living in today is full of paradoxes. You wake up, glance over at the little plastic succulents arranged on your desk, and almost tear down your tapestry as you roll out of bed onto your new ultra-plush carpet: made just for dorms! Afterwards, you flip on the incandescent light in your Target lamp and quickly pop up from your fuzzy chair, realizing you’ve forgotten to pick up your clothes from the dryer last night. After running back to your dorm, you throw a bagel on a paper plate and hastily shove a Fiji water into your backpack. Finally, you’re ready to hop on the bus and make it just in time to your Intro to Sustainability class.
A clash exists between two values that America’s youth seem to have: going “green” and having an abundant amount of aesthetically pleasing products. The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign has magnificent initiatives encouraging sustainable practices among the student community, from composting leftover dining hall food to having energy-conscious signs in dorm rooms. Students on campus reaffirm their supposed green values by reminding others to not litter and ride their bikes to class. Yet, while many college students do engage in environmentally friendly activities, our generation is forgetting about another crucial aspect of sustainability that results from the consumerist values of American society.
One reason why many parts of your morning may have resembled the scenario described above is because our society is obsessed with the accumulation of shiny, new stuff that fits today’s trends. The widely recognized slogan of the 70s designed to encourage sustainable practices Reduce, Reuse, Recycle is usually stripped down to just the last word. We have no problem reprimanding our roommates for tossing paper into the garbage can, yet may find it strange if they use a metal fork on-the-go. America’s consumerist values imply that it is acceptable, if not better, to buy multiple disposable products meant for short-term use, rather than one item built to last for a long time.
Our nation’s preoccupation with regularly buying trendy products that are easily updatable, replaceable, and disposable is not new- but in fact has a long history. Since the Industrial Revolution, the world has been consuming resources at a rate higher than ever. The revolution allowed products to be available in enormous quantities for unprecedented low costs, making them available to all, and resulted in the economy skyrocketing.
This unlimited access to cheap, new stuff led to the era of Mass Consumption, and it began to be socially expected for people to possess the latest model of the latest “revolutionary” product. Why would you settle for the old model when you can toss it and buy the newer, better one? This mindset soon turned into people buying new items based solely on their appearance rather than durability. To produce all these goods, Americans are said to use more than one-quarter of the world’s energy, according to the New York Times.
This, in turn, brings us back to your morning. There are so many things you could have done in a much more environmentally-friendly way before you’ve even found a seat in your sustainability class. Yet, the culture we live in encourages mass consumption of brand-new products that fill your life, and consequently, your dorm. The tradition of ecologically harmful consumerism was not established as a cultural norm by our generation, but we are the ones who have the power to change this norm. Instead of going through countless new items every hour, day and year, we need to discover more ways to reuse the things we already have and reduce further consumption of resources. Here are a few tips, specifically for dorm-dwellers:
Plastic plants vs. real plants: Instead of following the trend of decorating your dorm with plastic plants, opt for purchasing real plants instead. Succulent plants require minimal water, making them easy to take care of. Real plants do not require artificial materials and energy for production, and can naturally freshen the air of a room.
New dorm decor vs. thrift and resale store finds: Rather than purchasing all new dorm decor at big-brand department stores, online resale shops and thrift stores offer unique, affordable finds that are much more environmentally friendly. Reusing items that are in still in great condition is more sustainable than purchasing brand new products that required a lot of energy to be produced.
New furniture vs. UIUC Dump and Run: A great way to encourage sustainable practices on our campus is by participating in the annual Dump and Run. The University YMCA helps keep over 20 tons of used, quality goods out of Champaign-Urbana’s dumpsters and landfills each year by letting community members drop off unwanted items and reselling them for low prices. Instead of buying all new furniture for your living space next year, attend the Dump and Run event and check out the great variety of items you can find for a discount price. For more info about Dump and Run dates visit their website at http://universityymca.org/dump_and_run/.
Incandescent vs. LED lights: While incandescent light bulbs may be slightly cheaper to purchase upfront, LED lights are twice as efficient and have a much greater lifespan. According to Viribright Lighting, the energy consumption to use an incandescent bulb over the course of 10 years would be $90, while an LED light would only cost $18. By spending a bit more on lights for your living space now, you will save much more money and energy in the long run.
Electric dryer vs. clothes rack: Although electric dryers are seen as the primary method for drying clothes, they require a lot of energy to operate. Instead of having to wait for your clothes to dry in the basement of your dorm building, purchase an expandable drying rack for your room. A drying rack does not use excessive energy to dry your clothes, since you simply need to hang them on the rack overnight to air-dry.
Paper plates vs. reusable dishware: While paper plates as well as plastic silverware may seem convenient, the amount of plastic that is wasted by using these items daily is unsustainable. Instead of constantly purchasing disposable plates and silverware, try switching over to washable dishware. Ceramic mugs and plates along with metal silverware can be used time and time again, eliminating the disposal of materials that took a significant amount of energy to manufacture.
Plastic water bottles vs. water pitchers: Many college freshman purchase large packs of water bottles for their dorm as their main source of drinking water. Yet, simply purchasing a water pitcher and a reusable water bottle is much less wasteful. You always have the option of filling up your water bottle from water fountains stationed throughout campus, most of which are equipped with a filtered stream for bottles. Having a reusable water bottle reduces plastic waste and the energy required to produce plastic water bottles and outsource water.
Overall, keeping these tips in mind will help you begin to reverse the environmentally unsustainable way most Americans are living today. To begin to reduce our nation’s ecological footprint, we have to begin taking the first steps.