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By Samantha Mocle

Karen Urdaneta: Your Move (Leaves Spring 2020)Karen Urdaneta '20 is one of several Lasell University Honors Program students who have tasked themselves with environmental research on plastic production, food waste, and fashion scrap reduction, to name a few. Their work points to the price of convenience being more than the environment can handle.

In a world where convenience is king, it is no surprise that single-use water bottles, fast fashion garments, and plastic grocery bags are common household staples. As consumers, we like to save time and money. Allison Wheeler '20, another Lasell Honors student, acknowledges that those factors will not go away any time soon. But, she hopes that individuals will add the environment to their list of things to save. 

More than five trillion pieces of plastic weighing in excess of 250,000 tons pollute our oceans alone, according to Greenpeace's 2019 "Packaging Away the Planet" report. The same research points to 90 percent of all plastic ever produced not being recycled. 

The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) notes that one-third of all food produced for human consumption - nearly 1.3 billion tons annually - is wasted. Toxic chemicals used to produce clothing and other synthetic items taint waterways, while 60 percent of annual clothing purchases end up in landfills that burn off those chemicals into breathable air. 

Lasell "Save the Planet" Water Bottle Icon

And yet, the magnitude of those numbers doesn't quite match public perception. A 2018 study from the Pew Research Center found that of 26 participating countries, global climate change was viewed as the  top threat in half of them. In the United States, "roughly a quarter believed climate change to be a minor threat, while 16 percent said it is no threat at all." To top that off, only 31 percent of those surveyed in the U.S. felt that climate change affected them personally, yet a majority felt it affected their local area. 

Environmental threats and climate change can feel too intangible - or believable - for some to see on a personal level. Yet, individual actions are a critical point of impact in tackling a world that increasingly relies on convenience without environmental consideration.

Act Local, Think GlobalWheeler knows that it is not convenient to remember your tote bags, reusable cups and bottles, or to research sustainable behaviors. She acknowledges that busy careers, parental responsibilities, and financial resources can be a barrier to a more sustainable lifestyle. It takes work. 

She wonders, "How do you convince people to care about this as much as everything else?"

Aaron Toffler, director of policy for Boston Harbor Now, acknowledges that struggle. 

"Those barriers are real," he says. "There is no such thing as a perfect environmentalist when you have competing interests such as children or household finances. You have to balance them but also make the environment part of the calculation."

For example, he says, you might weigh the convenience of disposable diapers against reusable ones. How much waste comes from the former, and how much water is used to launder the latter? That's the level of thinking he hopes the general public will shift to. 

Paper, Plastic, Glass Containers"The decision that is environmentally responsible is not always clear," says Toffler, who served as associate dean for two years and associate professor of environmental studies at Lasell University from 2008 to 2019. In his current role, he's tasked with enhancing public access to Boston Harbor while protecting it from climate change risks.

"All I ever ask people to do is to make it part of their process. Big changes come from individuals who ask questions and change small practices. That affects supply and demand."

Take New England favorite Dunkin'. The coffee company announced plans to eliminate all Styrofoam cups by 2020 "to serve both the planet and people responsibly." Dunkin' COO Scott Murphy acknowledged that many communities and college campuses began to push back with individual bans. That, says Toffler, is how individual actions impact community behavior, which in turn impacts corporate decisions.

"It's similar to voting," he says. "If people act sustainably at a higher rate, then they can control more of the conversation about issues at hand. You can only do what is within your means, but if someone else sees you doing it, they might, too." 

Those kinds of modifications fall into the theory of social psychology, or the idea that individual behavior is determined by one's external environment. 

Lori Rosenthal is a psychology professor and Dean of Lasell University's School of Humanities, Education, Justice & Social Sciences. Social psychology, she says, shows that the placement of items and ideas directly impacts behavior. For example, people are more likely to recycle if a bin is within sight or if their town provides home receptacles. 

"I can talk until I am blue in the face," she says, "but the truth is that you still might go to the store and leave your reusable bags in the car. Then you take the plastic bag at checkout because it is more convenient to not go back out. A store could help nudge that behavior with a sign in the parking lot: 'Did you remember your bags?'" 

That, she says, gets people to think twice and eventually convert that question into a habit. Another way to get people to rethink their choices? Money.

"We are very miserly with our thinking ability. We don't want to make decisions that take energy and time," says Rosenthal. "When it effects our pocketbook, we suddenly think about it a lot more."

Earth Day: 50 YearsThat's part of the theory of behaviorism, or the idea that people do everything as a way to maximize rewards and minimize negative repercussions. If you charge people for something they need, adds Wheeler, it will change their behavior. The same goes for rewarding environmentally positive actions.

Examples include charging for plastic bags at grocery checkout but crediting customers for every bag they bring from home. Rewards - such as Starbucks' 10 cent discount for bringing a reusable cup - do add up for both your wallet and the planet. 

"You can buy one or two reusable cups for $20, and save nearly $40 in a year if you drink a cup a day," she says. 

Process, Profit, and Planet

In general, says Toffler, the public is more educated about environmental problems than in the past. It is the prioritization of planet and profit - not one over the other - that tests corporate and municipal resolve in the face of climate concerns.

"It will be expensive [for those entities], but we have proven ourselves to address big challenges in the past," he says. 

One regulatory solution is to put a financial burden on those who don't act sustainably. For example, Rosenthal's hometown charges residents for trash removal based on the size of their bin. 

"The impetus is that if I pay less, I get a smaller trash bin which means I need to recycle or compost more. And the real goal is that I might reduce the overall amount of waste I produce or otherwise pay more to create more," she says. 

Composting, says Karen Urdaneta '20, is ideal because it is part of a zero-waste loop. The Lasell sociology major interns for CERO, a Boston-based composting cooperative. "The accumulated waste gets brought back to local farms and is put directly into the soil that produces more food," she says. 

A bonus: The cost can be neutral.

"Organics make trash very heavy. You have to pay to take that away or get fined. It can actually be cheaper for businesses to pay for composting," she says. 

RECYCLABLE PRODUCTS DO NOT NECESSARILY  GET RECYCLED, EVEN  IF PUT IN THE PROPER RECEPTACLE. MANY WIND UP BURNED IN LANDFILLS. DON’T FORGET TO REUSE AND REDUCE FOR IMPACT THAT YOU CAN SEE.The zero-waste loop, also known as circularity, is something that Meagan Neville '07 hopes to see more of in the fashion industry. Neville owned Danbury, Connecticut, boutique Workspace Collective, and is currently studying sustainable design at the Fashion Institute of Technology. Her view is that circularity will drive the future of eco-friendly fashion. 

"You have to think about designing the process, not just the garment." For example, Neville cites sneaker brand Puma's method of grinding up rubber from used or leftover products to create playground surfaces instead of sending it to landfill. 

Fashion Design and Production student Haley Pelletier '20 is conducting Honors Program research around mathematics and design. 

"Most designers are not taught that the choices they make can impact the environment. So much can be reused. I'm using math to determine equations and other variables to help place pattern pieces on fabric in a way that sustainably reduces scrap and water waste." Math is a universal language, giving Pelletier's project significant opportunity to change the face of sustainable fashion design.

But, says Neville, just as critical is a look at production. 

"The details are important. Natural fabrics such as bamboo are agriculturally sustainable. But when you take a hard bamboo tree and try to turn that into a fiber, it doesn't come naturally." It requires 32 toxins to break down bamboo into a fiber. So the source is sustainable, but the procedure isn't. 

"Retailers tout that they're making uniforms or bags out of recycled plastic bottles, but again, how do you get a soft fiber from that hard plastic? How can a consumer understand what is actually clean versus greenwashing?"

Adds Wheeler, "You can buy something thinking that it has a positive environmental impact, but that isn't always the case."

Take the recent push to reduce consumption of dairy milk: If you're looking for an eco-friendly substitute, almond milk is actually at the bottom of the list with its extreme water usage. That kind of thinking isn't encouraged on the package, so how do you make it stick?

Corporate transparency is the ideal solution. But, says Urdaneta, sustainability and the future of our planet will always be a two-part issue. 

"Individual education and action goes hand in hand with corporations being more mindful in their operations. We have to work collectively. My professor gave the example of cleaning up trash on beaches: It is great to do, but trash will appear again tomorrow. The next step is to assess what you pick up and let those companies know that their products are not being disposed of correctly."

Wheeler emphasizes that pointing fingers gets us nowhere. "What a lot of people are missing is that you can't just blame corporations and government, but that every single person has to look at their own impact."

Eco EducationLindsey Kenna '12 is an environmental educator for New York's Lake George Association (LGA). The popular summer tourist destination provides year-round drinking water for the area, and that can become problematic when the local population swells from 3,000 residents to nearly 3 million. With more people, says Kenna, comes more litter. 

"Polluted stormwater is the biggest human threat to Lake George. Litter runs off into the lake during storms and contaminates the drinking water," she says.

Kenna provides year-round education to the local area youth on sustainable behavior and natural resource appreciation, and takes up to 60 children per day on the LGA's Floating Classroom. She frequently observes how comfortable and motivated they are with environmental responsibility. 

"Most students that we encounter in these programs have been raised in a world where environmentalism has become a part of their everyday lives," she says. "They're motivated to make tangible changes."

OUR EVERYDAY  ACTIONS HAVE A   DIRECT EFFECT ON THE HEALTH OF OUR PLANET…It starts small. Pick up your litter, or throw out a piece you see on your way to the car. It costs nothing but not doing so could increase municipal costs, for example, if Lake George's water was deemed unsafe to drink. In that case, the town would need to invest in a costlier water system and those who depend on the lake for drinking water would need a new source - and neither of these scenarios, says Kenna, is a cheap or easy fix.

"We have to think long-term," says Urdaneta. She and Wheeler acknowledge that this can be heavy to process, and more daunting to put into play. They suggest small actions - such as nixing plastic produce bags from your grocery store routine - as a way to change household habits. 

"People should feel like the steps they take are necessary but easy," adds Urdaneta.

"Our everyday actions have a direct effect on the health of our planet - and we in turn are dependent on that. You have to step back and have compassion for something greater than yourself."