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Davis, California

Saturday, September 18, 2021

Student stinks up dome for research project

To some, Brennen Bird’s newest experiment may seem like a science fair project gone terribly wrong.

Bird, a senior nature and culture major, is saving every piece of trash he generates for an entire year – and he’s keeping it in his room.

The project, which he calls, “Operation Zero Waste: Less We Can,” aims to raise awareness for the waste people produce. On a more personal level, Bird is hoping that by the end of the year, his weekly trash pile will have no non-biodegradable packaging material, like plastic or aluminum.

He began the project on New Year’s Day. That week, he accumulated 7.44 pounds of non-biodegradable material – and that’s after the holiday, when trash from partying can really add up, he said. He was ashamed at his use of plastic, which requires large amounts of energy to recycle, if it gets recycled at all.

“I’m pretty convinced that plastic is the devil.”

That plastic, among other items, sits in his loft in the Domes, a sustainable housing community on campus. Last week, his trash totaled to about 10 pounds of non-biodegradable and biodegradable material.

“My room has become my personal trash receptacle,” Bird said.

However, he has taken several measures to keep the stink down and the environmentalism up, such as personally composting all biodegradable waste and washing all packaging before storing it. He measures the waste first, to keep track of the total waste, but only at the end of each week. It starts to stink a little bit by the end of the week, but the smell is manageable, he said.

Even his roommate isn’t too bothered by the concept of living in his friend’s own trash – a deal he said he certainly didn’t sign up for in his lease agreement.

“To be honest, it’s been an adjustment, but it’s a good change,” said Bird’s roommate, Eli Austin, a senior design major. “His project has really opened my eyes to the trash we produce, and it’s influencing me and our community in a great way.”

Bird presents and weighs his trash every Thursday night in the Domes’ community center, the yurt. He said that a lot of his fellow “domies,” or neighboring dome residents, came to last Thursday’s presentation, where he laid out the past week’s trash. Though he doesn’t have a faculty sponsor to support his research and he’s not receiving research units, he still considers what he’s doing to be a positive difference.

“I honestly don’t believe I can change the world,” he said. “The only thing I can change are my habits; my actions.”

The project is more of a project on himself than anything, he said. However, he will be interested in the numbers calculated at the end of the year, and may apply it to further research.

Bird also keeps track of his amount of flushes – nine in the first week – and the time he spends in the shower in a large black journal. He writes down all of his expenses, which has served a similar function as saving all his trash. He found that he actually saves money simply because he can see where he is wasting money in his records.

Bird even attempted to record the amount of energy he produced in a year, but that only lasted a day.

“It was driving me up the walls,” he said. “When I walked into a room, I had to scope out all the lights and other appliances to calculate how much energy those were. I didn’t want it to completely take over my life. I wanted to live like a normal person.”

Collecting trash, on the other hand, hasn’t dramatically altered his life. He learned to plan ahead when ordering food, for example, by bringing Tupperware with him so that he won’t have to use a Styrofoam to-go container. Buying his food in bulk from stores such as the Davis Food Co-op or Nugget cuts down on packaging material – take that one step further, Bird says, and bring your own jar to hold bulk food.

In looking at his trash pile for the past week, he also learned the negative effects of partying – about half the pile consisted of remnants from his New Year’s Eve celebration. Future partying arrangements will probably involve a keg to minimize packaging, he said.

“Simple things like that are just so easy and can end up making an impact,” he said. “It’s just about taking responsibility for the things you use.

Bird’s teacher for an energy and development “D-Lab” class, Kurt Kornbluth, agreed that most people don’t consider the trash they produce a responsibility.

“Most people think they produce a lower-than-average amount of waste, when this is really the opposite,” said Kornbluth, also the director of the program for international energy technologies on campus.

Kornbluth’s students participate in an experiment similar to Bird’s project, but only for a week. He requires students to literally carry the waste with them for that week, and at the end of the week, students calculate the energy required for producing and recycling that waste. He said that many students are surprised to learn that that energy used to process what they throw away is actually more than some people use to light their homes.

Bird was among those students amazed to find out that his waste-energy could light four small houses in Zambia, for instance.

“Saving my trash is really symbolic of a much larger energy chain that I can’t even begin to understand,” Bird said. “When I’m living in my trash, I’m learning something that can really make an impact.”

LAUREN STEUSSY can be reached at campus@theaggie.org. XXX

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