Amid a growing low-waste movement, some Northwestern students are making their own sustainable lifestyle changes.
Last July, Sofia Schillace stood in her kitchen, stirring beeswax and coconut oil in a stove-top double boiler. Once it melted and combined, she poured the mixture into a reusable tin and packed some away to bring to school. Schillace, a McCormick second-year, says the lip balm and face lotion she makes goes a long way. Just two tins of lip balm usually last her most, if not all, of the year. She started making her own lip balm years ago because she was allergic to some commercial brands. Now, she does it to limit the production of waste that will eventually end up in the landfill.
Schillace is one of a number of students at Northwestern University striving to be zero-waste or low-waste. Besides refusing plastic straws or plastic bags, these environmentally conscious students are making lifestyle changes ranging from creating their own beauty and cleaning products to buying in bulk or secondhand.
Producing exactly zero waste is nearly unachievable, but those who call themselves “zero-waste” aspire to get as close as possible. Those who acknowledge they still create a substantial amount of waste or think the term is misleading often prefer the term “low-waste.”
“[Low-waste has] a complicated definition because it means different things to everybody,” Schillace says.
For her, trying to live low-waste means anything from eating leftovers to avoid food waste to carrying around her black thermos, reusable utensils and Tupperware to steer clear of using disposable silverware and containers.
“I definitely get made fun of my fair share because I show up with my [reusable] coffee cup and my Tupperware full of stuff, and people laugh at me,” she says.
But Schillace isn’t deterred. She also shops at thrift stores and uses public transit or rides her bike whenever she can. Instead of hauling a shower caddy filled with plastic bottles, she uses solid shampoo and conditioner bars, which she finds last much longer.
Schillace considers herself low- waste and started her journey when she realized their actions didn’t match with her environmental values.
“I remember thinking ... I keep talking about sustainability, but I’m not doing anything about it,” Schillace says.
Schillace was a senior in high school when she came across a social media post for Plastic Free July, a global campaign during the month of July to reduce or completely avoid single-use plastics. She decided to join the movement and convinced her family to participate, too.
Usually, her family would produce a full bin of trash every week, but Schillace says they cut that almost in half during Plastic Free July.
“Even though that month wasn’t necessarily that successful, it started a broader conversation with my parents and my family about changing our lifestyle a little bit, which has continued to have impact,” Schillace says.
At Northwestern, Schillace only empties her trash once or twice a quarter, while her roommate empties hers once a week.
Those who follow a low- waste lifestyle often begin with small, achievable actions and gradually increase from there. Second-year Hannah Julie Yoon started with switching from tampons and pads to a menstrual cup, a small, tulip-shaped device made of medical-grade silicone or latex rubber.
Though they are the most widely used option, tampons and pads have substantial monetary and enironmental costs. According to a September National Geographic article, the average menstruator will use anywhere from 5,000 to 15,000 pads and tampons in their lifetime — most of which will end up in the landfill. And at $5 to $10 a box, that can add up quickly. Menstrual cups, on the other hand, usually last a couple years (sometimes up to 10) and range anywhere from $10 to $40.
Going low-waste can help save money in the long run. Instead of buying a pound of rice packaged in plastic, for example, Schillace buys in bulk, allowing her to buy the exact amount she needs using her own bags.
Yoon says autonomy over purchases makes it easier to follow a low-waste lifestyle in college than living at home.
For example, an Albatross stainless steel safety razor costs about $25 — a pricey up-front cost compared to a Gillette Venus 3-pack of razors for $6.99. However, according to Gillete Venus’s website, if you only shaved twice a week, you would need to replace your razor every four to six weeks. For a whole year of shaving, that means anywhere from nine to 13 Venus razors, which could cost anywhere from $63 to $91.
And that’s just one year. If properly taken care of, safety razors can last for multiple years. A year’s worth of Albatross recyclable blades costs only $7.50. Recyclable blades save a considerable amount of money and keep a whole trashcan of plastic razors from ending up in the landfill.
“Because you are the one in charge of buying your essentials, it feels good to be able to make the conscious choice,” Yoon says.
Producing exactly no waste is nearly unachievable, but those who call themselves "zero-waste" come very close.
The ability to compost food and eat vegetarian foods in the dining hall can make low-waste living easier. However, Schillace believes she created more food waste at the dining hall than while cooking at home. At the dining halls it’s hard to know by looking at a dish if she’ll like it, and by the time she’s filled up her plate and tasted the food, it’s too late.
According to the Real Food at NU (NURF) website, the average Northwestern student discards about one pound of food a day when eating at the dining halls. That’s about 4,300 pounds of food waste a day at dining halls alone. Outside that, busy schedules can make it hard to prepare for unexpected situations that create waste.
“If I’m just out for class and I realize, ‘Oh shoot, I need lunch and I haven’t eaten yet,’ and I’m running to grab something between classes, I’m not always as prepared for those situations,” Schillace says.
Another aspect of Northwestern that can make being low-waste difficult is the culture surrounding late-night eating. Cheap and quick food vendors like Burger King often generate a lot of waste from disposable packaging.
Last spring, NURF started an initiative to install compost bins and make signage clearer in Norris to curb food waste. While they’ve been able to set up manned bins for short periods of time, they are still working on a system to make sure the bins stay free of non-compostable items if installed long-term.
Besides being in greater alignment with her values, Schillace has also found a positive change to her mental and physical well-being since beginning her low-waste journey.
“When I first started, I thought, ‘This is better for the environment, so I’m going to do this,’” Schillace says. “Then, the more I looked at the things I was replacing, the more I realized that the natural things that I was doing made me feel better.”
Instead of bagged chips or packaged popcorn, fruit like kiwis — Schillace’s new snack of choice — not only come without packaging, but also tend to be less processed and healthier.
Although low-waste lifestyles can save money in the long run, some upfront costs can pose a barrier. It also can take time to prepare for situations with waste, and not everyone has that luxury.
“Privilege 100 percent plays into this,” says Simone Siew, a low-waste blogger based in Chicago and recent graduate of Indiana University. “And then it doesn’t even account for the fact that climate change disproportionately affects low- income communities who often have the least resources to change what’s happening to them.”
Despite these barriers, Siew and Yoon both believe that those with the necessary resources should work to lower their impact.
“If you are economically privileged, which many people on this campus are, it is so easy to go zero-waste; it is so easy to go even low-waste,” Yoon says. “The solution is right there.”
And though reducing waste is one step toward sustainability, Siew believes real change has to happen on a larger scale.
“The problem is bigger than one person,” Siew says. “Yes, everyone needs to do their job. But we’re in the sustainability crisis due to institutions, fossil fuel companies, policies ... My biggest tip is to vote and to speak up regarding climate change.”
While institutional change has a more large-scale impact, students’ individual life changes aren’t inconsequential. Schillace says that, at the end of the day, low-waste is less about the actual reduction in waste and more about a greater shift in attitude.
“It’s one start to that momentum that needs to happen for actual significant change,” she says.
For now, Schillace will keep filling tins of lip balm and carrying her thermos, no matter what anyone says.