Magnetic name tags stuck to shirts where paper ones would have been. Metal utensils wrapped in cloth napkins — no plastic utensils. Questions taken via text message to a central number rather than written on dozens of index cards. Cardboard boxes for food waste rather than trash cans for all trash.

During a daylong event at Texas Woman’s University where students and faculty discussed the impact of plastic on the environment, five TWU students worked to see if they could keep the 2020 Sci-Southwest Regional Symposium a zero-waste event.

As the first event of the day, TWU’s Zero Impact Team told an audience of about 50 people the story of how they planned the event with a zero-waste mindset. They met with students and faculty from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in the fall to help them map out their journey.

Zero waste is a lifestyle with a goal of sending no trash to landfills, incinerators or oceans. It involves planning to use reusable materials, materials sourced from recycled or composted materials and leaving no waste — food or materials — at the end of the day.

This means keeping plastic out of the equation.

While some plastic like bottles can be recycled, only about one-third of recycled plastic is turned into new products. Nonrecyclable plastic, or plastic that shouldn’t into the recycling bin, can contaminate the batch it was thrown into.

Speaking about plastic, environmental studies professor Cathy Middlecamp from UW-Madison said recycling isn’t enough.

“It’s not just about recycling,” Middlecamp said. “In fact, it may never have been about recycling. It’s about cutting it off at the source before we ever need to recycle that.”

Middlecamp’s students, who helped the TWU students, said zero waste is a matter of controversy in the sustainability community since it doesn’t actually mean no waste. The idea of zero waste is meant to encourage people to decrease the waste they have, but it’s impossible to have no waste, Riley Collins said.

“The way we define it is zero waste means 90-plus percent of observable physical waste is diverted from the landfill,” Collins said. “So that’s quite a complicated definition of zero waste and unfortunately doesn’t mean always.”

By observable waste, Collins said they’re not including carbon emissions in their waste.

The TWU team said their initial intent was zero impact, which goes further than zero waste.

Zero impact tracks the environmental impact from our daily lives to calculate the carbon impact in hopes of making changes to reduce that impact. The students said it’s nearly impossible to do zero impact.

To try to keep the event zero-waste, the Zero Impact Team provided reusable glassware — which they said would also be readily available to other TWU departments and organizations for future events. They also provided magnetic name tags that can be returned to reuse for future events, offered cloth napkins and asked guests to bring their own water bottles.

With food, the team also wanted to find an eco-friendly restaurant that also sources ingredients locally. They found that in Mellow Mushroom, a chain pizzeria with a location near downtown. The team said the restaurant’s boxes, napkins and cups are made from 100% recycled materials, and they print with environmentally friendly soy ink.

Liliana Driver, a member of the Zero Impact Team, explained that Mellow Mushroom locally sources its recyclable material from Pratt Industries, the city’s recycling partner.

“What they do is take our recycled cardboard, send it to Shreveport, Louisiana, to process the material, they send it back to Fort Worth to Pratt Fort Worth boxing plant and from there, that’s the material we get, which leaves a low impact on our environment,” Driver said.

In place of trash bins collecting food waste, the team provided compost bins, which they would then take to their faculty adviser’s personal compost bin.

Instead of offering everyone their own copy of the schedule and abstracts for each presentation, attendees were encouraged to either take pictures or provide their email addresses to be sent information. At the registration desk, there was only one copy of a few different informative sheets.

Besides bringing their own beverage containers, attendees were asked to further help reduce their carbon emissions by carpooling, and finding hotels for people flying in for the event that also offer shuttle services — although they acknowledged there wasn’t too much they could do about carbon emissions for people taking flights to Texas for the event.

It would still take a lot of action from many people, and large-scale changes, to reduce our carbon footprint. Team member Raven Gallenstein said one of the best ways to make these changes is to make recycling and zero-waste practices a habit, starting at a young age.

“People will do habits because it’s easy, convenient. ... Unless it’s something we can do without thinking, we probably won’t [do it],” Gallenstein said.

ZAIRA PEREZ can be reached via Twitter at @zairalperez.

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