Building a Sustainable World One Block at a Time

“I don’t want to survive. I want to live!” I found this quote from the movie Wall-E because this movie has been resonating in my mind this week during our visit to the recycling center. The entire visit, and also for the last few weeks of class, I cannot help but think of the mountains upon mountains of trash the movie shows on future planet Earth. The pollution becomes so bad that society has to build a robot (Wall-E) whose sole job is to gather trash, compact it into cubes, and stack them like city buildings. Thinking about this movie now, as an adult, and reflecting weekly in class on the future and presence of sustainability, I can’t help but feel a sense of paranoia about how far into the timeline of the movie we are to becoming like planet Earth in Wall-E. While this seems silly and it’s very unlikely that I will end up overweight riding in a chair on a spaceship when I’m older, it has instilled a sense of urgency in me to do my part to reverse this problem because I don’t want to survive on this planet in the future, I want to live on it.

My younger sister went on a mission trip to Haiti this past summer and talked nonstop about the different culture and lifestyle of the Haitian people when she returned. While she talked about bargaining in marketplaces, the sheer joy on the children’s faces when they were given shoes, and the loud, but exciting traditional singing, there was one experience she relayed to my family that I was specifically reminded of over and over again during the topic of recycling this past week. She said that wherever they drove, neighborhoods, marketplaces, and especially the beach, trash was heaped and littered EVERYWHERE. On the sidewalks, roads, sandy beach, forests. My younger sister said that the translators in Haiti explained that the cause of this was there was no trash system in place. This prompts me to think, Haiti is an underdeveloped, third-world country with trash covering their island, while we, America, have multiple systems and programs in place to deal with waste. My question is: if there are already systems implemented in our country, why hasn’t the amount of waste been dramatically decreased or even become nonexistent? My group in our Creative Problem Solving class actually discussed this with a sustainability project we’re working on there and a reasonable conclusion we came to was that people lack motivation. Maybe we all need to take a visit to Haiti and humble ourselves! The lady at the recycling center described several programs and apps that I was unaware of that elicit this motivation. Examples she gave were the carpooling app in Oklahoma where someone can hop on the app and find people that are commuting to the same area they are and carpool there to reduce the amount of fossil fuels emitted by cars. By carpooling, people are awarded points that eventually lead to rewards in different forms. LEED was another she discussed, Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, a point-based system that awards points to companies that meet sustainability certifications in their building design. Both of these programs give incentive to execute cost-saving, environmentally safe practices. So why are we still struggling to combat a future like Wall-E?

The trip to the recycling plant was very interesting to me because I got to see firsthand what happens to things I recycle on campus. I try to do my part where I can, recycling paper from old assignments and scraps, plastic bottles, and cardboard. Seeing the dense cubes of cardboard and recycled paper was like seeing the trash cubes in Wall-E in a positive reverse. It was reassuring to see towers of recyclable cubes rather than towers of waste cubes. After stewing on the paranoia fed by Wall-E, seeing the difference that the upholstery shop, recycling shop, and compost plant are making just here in little Stillwater, my mindset changed. They are making a huge difference through dedication and commitment in our community and campus that people don’t even realize. I didn’t realize these buildings even existed before I visited them and it was truly reassuring to witness sustainable practices on the very campus I frequent. The inside of the recycling center reminded me of a metal recycling center my dad and I went to over the summer. I live on a ranch and this summer my dad and I were working on cleaning up all the trash and unused metal around our barns and different areas on the ranch. We took about 4-5 trailer-loads full of scrap metal to a recycling center nearby. The inside of the metal recycling center was similar to the plastic, paper, and cardboard recycling center our class visited with very large piles of the recyclable materials almost reaching to the ceiling with huge machines working to compact and move all the waste. I remember feeling really proud this summer as my dad and I bet how high we could stack the trailer with recyclable metal knowing it was all going to be reused rather than wasted. That feeling has now been reflected at OSU as I strive to recycle any waste I can, now that I’ve seen firsthand what happens to it. The feeling of satisfaction by knowing that I am improving the environment has become a huge part of my sustainability journey. Another reason to explain why there are sustainability programs in place but yet seems that waste hasn’t been reduced is because there is not overall awareness in the world about how much waste people produce and the effects of that. When we did our carbon footprint a few weeks ago, I wasn’t even aware how big of a negative effect I was having on the earth. People need to first be exposed to how much they are wasting and putting in landfills and then be made aware of programs and systems like the facilities at OSU and provide them support, because without them, our world would be way worse than it is right now.

This week I began thinking about my younger sister returning from Haiti and my friend coming back from a mission trip in Brazil and how they both described the poor living conditions, waste, and unclean water, and have come to realize that lack of housing in third world countries is a wicked problem. Our tour guide at the recycling center emphasized that sustainability was not just about helping the environment, but helping people too. We’ve learned that wicked problems are urgent, seemingly irreversible, have variable solutions, and require unique thinking; all of which fit the problem of inadequate housing. Building sustainable homes in these third world countries would be beneficial because they can include the use of renewable resources for purifying water, electricity, and heating and air since these are nonexistent in these areas. My wicked problem is furniture waste and production and I explored some solutions for this such as using recycled wood and metal for furniture, re-upholstering old furniture (which was inspired from the OSU upholstery shop), and finding alternative sustainable resources for furniture production. Using sustainable furniture is another idea that can be implemented in the building of sustainable homes in third world countries. I researched several programs in place that build sustainable, clean, green homes abroad such as All Out Africa, Build Abroad, and Habitat for Humanity. With organizations such as these showing country’s residents how to live sustainably, they can create a massive change in their village and become a testimony for sustainable living. Hearing from my friends that have traveled to poorer countries and doing personal research on established efforts, I have been inspired to go on a mission trip abroad to aid and learn how to build sustainable homes. There are efforts, organizations, and programs in place to teach, motivate, promote, and practice sustainability. The real question we should ask ourselves is: why is society not listening to them?

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