My Personal Carbon Footprint
Personal efforts aren’t the end-all and be-all of environmental protection. Rather, much of the work needs to be done on a societal and systemic level. Still, there are many things that consumers can do every day to be a bit more environmentally friendly.
To evaluate my environmental habits both in the US and Germany, I used a Germany-based footprint calculator suggested to me by a German resident. This calculator measures one’s impact on the environment in GHA or Global Hectares. Using a series of questions, it determines one’s personal impact, in addition to the baseline impact of the society they live in. (This is 1 GHA for Germany. When calculating US footprints, I have used 3 GHA as my baseline.)
My personal footprint for my time in Germany came out to be 5.7 GHA, compared to Germany’s average of 5.3 GHA. A German native I live with took the test as well and scored 5.2 GHA, slightly below Germany’s average. My footprint for a standard year at Amherst is 7.5GHA in comparison to the US standard of 8.2. For a clearer view of what these numbers mean, I need to analyze my habits at Amherst and abroad.
A major difference between my time in Amherst and in Germany is my diet. In Amherst, I eat meat and fish several times a week and have other animal products (milk, butter, cheese) with almost every meal. These animal products have a large environmental impact. In Germany, however, I have greatly reduced the meat and other animal products I eat. Here, I have meat perhaps once or twice a month, and cheese or other milk products generally once a day.
Heating and energy use is also notably different. In Amherst, I have no control over the heating in my living space. Frequently, especially during winter, it is far too warm inside for my comfort, forcing me to open windows despite the freezing temperature outside. In Germany, that isn’t a problem. I keep the inside of my apartment very cool, just warm enough that I am comfortable wearing a sweater indoors. This saves quite a bit of energy. In Germany, I also tend to dry my clothing using a drying rack instead of using a dryer as I do at Amherst.
The most notable difference, though, is travel. In an average year at Amherst, I avoid all flights by using Amtrak to travel between Amherst and California. This is of course a lot of train travel, which has its own environmental effects, but is far less harmful than flying. I also travel very little throughout the school year, almost never ride in cars, and rarely take buses further than Northampton. On the other hand, I had to fly across an ocean just to get to my university here in Germany. I travel frequently around the country by train, take buses on long school trips, and occasionally travel in rented or borrowed cars. Overall, I have been far more mobile while in Germany. This is the single largest factor accounting for my German environmental footprint.
Obviously, my US footprint is larger than my German footprint. Given the US’s standards both socially and industrially, that is no surprise. What is interesting to me is that my relevant footprints are smaller than the US average, but larger than the German average. This surprised me because I have changed many of my personal habits while in Germany in an attempt to be more environmentally friendly, whereas in the US it was a goal of course, but not one I pursued very actively. Ultimately, I think this difference comes down to my increased mobility in Germany. If we compared my US and German habits without looking at travel and without including the country’s baseline impact, I believe there would be a notable decline in my environmental footprint between this year and last.
What Amherst Can Do
Proper waste management is a complex endeavor. Systems and facilities must be put in place, labor is needed, and the public has to be taught how to manage their trash and why it is important. All of this takes time and money.
Let’s take another look at the GDR and West Germany. As we saw in my last post, the GDR had a highly efficient recycling system, SERO, in which citizens were compensated for returning recyclable materials to facilities. This was successful in large part because of the financial incentive—it gave citizens a reason to put in the effort. This incentive did also cost the state a bit, but the cost was worth it because raw material was expensive and difficult to obtain, meaning that recycling was highly valuable. This is a nice example of economic motivations encouraging environmentally friendly systems.
Unfortunately, that isn’t always the case. While the GDR’s recycling systems were superb, their overall waste management was not. Many of the country’s landfills were subpar and poorly managed. The country simply didn’t have the space or resources to manage their trash correctly. Because of that, trash was dumped in landfills that contaminated farmland and drinking water. To make matters worse, Western Germany actively took advantage of the GDR’s economic misfortunes. Tons of West Germany’s garbage was imported into the GDR, in exchange for “hard currency” that helped to support the GDR’s economy. Much of this trash was particularly toxic or otherwise hard to manage, further contaminating the GDR’s soil and water.
Too often, states and institutions in positions of power pass their problems off to someone less privileged and less able to manage them. We, here at Amherst, have the resources needed to protect the environment. We can, and therefore should, put in the time, effort, and money needed to do our part. It’s a social responsibility to do what we can, in order to take the strain off of those who don’t have the resources needed to do as much.
A brief list of my suggestions for Amherst is below. Most of these tie into waste management, as it was my main area of focus for this fellowship. Others are more general and are based mainly on my observations at Amherst.
- Place more compost bins throughout campus. In Germany, compost or “biowaste” bins are almost everywhere. This proliferation ensures that useful food waste can continue to contribute to the ecosystem. In Amherst, to my knowledge, only Val and some dorms have compost bins. While this is a great start, more can definitely be added. Additionally, I am unsure what variety of bag is currently used to line these compost bins, but ensuring that biodegradable bags are used is absolutely crucial.
It could also be helpful to increase the transparency of what happens to our biowaste. Where does it go? How is it composted? What does that process look like and how can students be more involved?
- Emphasize the importance of compost. Despite the commonality of biowaste bins, many sanitation programs in Germany still run regular campaigns on the importance and proper use of them. It has been found that when the public is aware of how useful compost it, they sort their trash more carefully and are less likely to contaminate biowaste with other items. Amherst could easily product an informational campaign for this purpose, utilizing posters, social media, and events on campus. This would also be a good opportunity to use media such as photography, film, or other artwork. If the public finds the design of a campaign visually striking, they are more likely to take note of it.
- Introduce scrap paper/notebook collections. As a college, Amherst produces a lot of paper waste, whether it is from printouts with one side blank, or half-full notebooks. Placing scrap paper collection points in every dorm would allow students to make use of paper that would otherwise go to waste.
At the end of the year, any leftover scrap paper can be collected. Notebooks can be given out at the beginning of the following year to students who need them. Other scrap paper could be printed on or otherwise reused.Some dorms already do this, at least at an unofficial level. For example, at least one of the Greenways has a box in their common room designated for scrap paper.
- See if it would make sense to separate recycling further. Depending on the facilities available through the city of Amherst, it may make sense for the college to introduce new varieties of recycling bins to campus, such as glass or plastic bins. Cardboard and paper recycling is already available but should be more publicly advertised.
- Introduce giveaway/free bins for students. Donation bins are scattered throughout the dorms already. However, why should all items be shipped off campus when there are students right here who could use them? Either encouraging students to take items they could use from the donation points, or creating separate giveaway/free bins would allow students to give and take directly from each other.
To get a bit personal here, I have rescued many useful items from donation bins, including my winter coat. However, in such a privileged environment, actions like that are easily shamed. We need to change the culture so that reusing items is acceptable and encouraged! hat is why the introduction of specific free bins would be helpful. Taking free items is a bit less stigmatized than taking items that are intended to, for example, be taken to Goodwill.
- Encourage the use of reusable menstrual products. Several of the resource centers already stock menstrual products. Unfortunately, traditional menstrual products create large amounts of waste. Stocking information on reusable menstrual products would be a minor and helpful step. Stocking reusable menstrual products that students could take would be a better, but more expensive, step. The college may, for example, balk at the idea of providing menstrual cups for $30 each, but it seems a minor investment to help students avoid tons of trash through their lifetimes. Additionally, if all single use menstrual items are swapped out for reusable pads and menstrual cups, then the college may ultimately save money by providing each student with supplies once rather than repeatedly throughout their college career.
To make the introduction of reusable products a success, students would have to be educated on them. This could be done through the resource centers or presentations with the SHEs. There are a lot of misconceptions about reusable menstrual products so this is a vital step.
- Stock food products with less packaging in both Val and Grab & Go. This isn’t doable for all products of course, such as the individual peanut butter packets in Val, but some things can be done. For instance the small plastic condiment and ice cream cups in Val can be phased out completely, as students can simply use small bowls instead. Similarly, travel cups are rather unnecessary. Students can be encouraged to bring their own travel mugs for coffee and tea, or alternatively, they can simply be allowed to take (and then of course return) Val mugs. This already happens but if it were recognized officially it could be done in a far more efficient manner. For example, dish pick up points could be established in various points throughout campus. This adds some labor for Val staff but the decrease in waste and increase in returned dishes is likely worth it.
- Challenge students to produce less trash. Students love games and challenges, so this would be a good way to get everyone involved. In fact, I believe similar challenges have already been run, at least for freshman dorm.
- Offer workshops on repair skills, especially sewing. If students can fix something themselves instead of throwing it away, that prevents a lot of waste. Simple tools such as screwdrivers can also be made available for students to borrow so that they can repair simple electronics or furniture.
- Change the lights in the dorms so that they can all be turned off at night. If that’s not doable, then change them so only emergency lights stay on. I understand that certain codes are in place to guarantee that hallways are navigable at night in case of an emergency, but there must be some way to achieve that goal more efficiently than just preventing hallway lights from ever being turned off.
- Encourage people to avoid flights for travel. This could be achieved partly by partnering with Peter Pan buses and Amtrak to offer students discounts on long distance travel. Financial incentives aren’t the only way to achieve this goal, though. A social change would also be needed to make long bus or train trips seem more desirable. A campaign of some variety could be implemented for this purpose. The first step would be making sure that students are aware that this is even an option. The second step could be giving students who have traveled via bus or train a venue to share their tips, tricks, and experiences.
A similar method could be encouraging students to stay in the area during winter break (and other vacation periods). Especially over winter break, it is very difficult for students to stay in their dorms, which means that they are nearly required to travel. For people such as myself this means that I have an extra trip across the country. While many students would still travel home to see family over the holidays, increasing support for students who wish to stay in the Amherst area would allow at least some students to avoid this extra trip.