Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald

Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald

Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald


Saving the environment, bit by bit

Bridget Holcomb keeps a whole pound of live worms under her sink. They’re not pets; the University of Wisconsin sophomore needs the wriggly invertebrates for her indoor compost.

Rather than chucking her food waste into the trash bin where it is destined to enlarge the Dane County landfill, Holcomb transforms her kitchen trash into dirt.

Using only a bucket, some torn-up cardboard, a little moisture and the pound of worms — which she had to obtain through the mail — Holcomb is making a personal effort for environmental sustainability.


Although the stereotypical notion of a compost is stinky, Holcomb said her bucket has an innocuous odor.

“It just smells like dirt,” she said. “It smells better than the rest of my apartment on some days.”

Still, the unusual practice has gotten some passionate reactions from Holcomb’s friends.

“One of my friends actually gagged and had to run across the room,” she said.

While some UW students choose indoor composting as a way to live more sustainably, not everyone wants to share an apartment with a bucket full of worms.

Fortunately, a thousand different ways exist to make environmentally friendly living decisions. But today’s society and the often stressful life of even the most environmentally conscious student can throw up barriers to these lifestyle choices.

“I hear students say, ‘I don’t have any time’ or ‘I’m so poor,'” UW associate environmental studies professor Jack Kloppenburg said. “But the same is true for everyone. It’s the same for the person working on an assembly line all day or a professor trying to teach classes and get a paper published.”

Those who want to overcome these barriers, environmental studies professor Harvey Jacobs said, should not have too much trouble.

“If you want to do it, don’t think it can’t be done,” he said.

UW sophomore Asuka Fukushima said she has found a simple way to reduce waste in her life.

“I live in the dorms, and when we have parties in the dorm they serve paper plates and paper cups, so I bring my own cup and plate,” she said. “But it’s only me.”

Her dormmates have been supportive of her endeavor, Fukushima said, but have failed to imitate her actions.

“They say, ‘Oh, it’s good for you to do it,'” she said. “They absolutely think it’s good, but it’s kind of bothersome, so they don’t.”

Besides laziness or inability to act, Jacobs said it may be hard for students new to living on their own to construct an environmentally conscious routine.

“It’s hard to say from day one that [you’re] going to do this in an environmentally sensitive way when you’re not even sure how to do things,” Jacobs said.

While students may be uncertain about some practical aspects of living on their own, they are not necessarily unsure about environmental issues. Kloppenburg said awareness is the key to compelling students to act.

“I try to break people open,” he said. “I try to get them to look around themselves and to see some things for the first time or maybe old things in a new way.”

Using knowledge

Although simple awareness may not be enough to spur behavioral changes, it is an indispensable ingredient, associate environmental studies professor Steven Ventura said.

“The implication is that being environmentally aware doesn’t necessarily translate into the correct choices, and there is some validity in that,” he said. “But without being environmentally aware, we wouldn’t even have the opportunity to make those choices. It’s a necessary first step.”

In his Environmental Studies 101 class, UW Gaylord Institute for Environmental Studies director Thomas Yuill said he has students take an online “ecological footprint” evaluation, which leads many to rethink their lifestyles.

“It tends to be a surprising experience for most of them,” he said. “Then they sometimes actually start doing little things to conserve more and consume less.”

Nevertheless, Jacobs said, students rarely tend to take awareness and turn it into action.

“Many students tend to translate that issue sensitivity into big environmental issues and not personal lifestyle issues,” he said. “Students are very environmentally conscious, but they don’t necessarily see the connection between individual decisions and their direct environmental impacts.”

This disconnect is not limited to students, associate environmental studies professor Kevin Wehr said.

“There is a lot of research on what the difference is between behavior and attitude,” he said. “If you ask on a survey, ‘Are you pro-environment, do you believe in recycling and believe in buying local organic food?’, most people say ‘Yes, of course I do.'”

However, the number of people whose attitudes translate into practical environmentally sensitive measures is small.

“There’s a large disconnect between those two numbers,” Wehr said. “You can believe in something all you want, but it doesn’t do much until you actually do something. If you don’t, you’re just another person with good intentions.”

Bucking the trend

Although the majority of the student and general population does not take environmental sensitivity very far, a small but steadfast community has committed itself to a strong practical environmental ethic.

The best proof of this statement is students themselves. In small ways, many students like Holcomb and Fukushima make daily decisions in an effort to “live lightly.”

Sophomore Alexandria Tannenbaum said she practices a vegan lifestyle.

“I check all labels to make sure I don’t consume any animal products, and I don’t buy anything that contains anything that has animals in it,” she said. “My family and friends respect my choice … and I’ve actually had guys that were interested in dating me because I am vegan.”

UW senior Jenny Corroy tries to conserve energy in her house by using heat sparingly.

“I try to fight for having the heat turned down in my house as much as possible,” she said. “My roommates’ first reaction is to turn it up, but mine is to put on a sweater.”

UW senior Alicia Formato said her long-distance phone carrier, called Working Assets, helps her be environmentally friendly.

“It’s really cheap, and the bills all come on recycled paper, and they use soy-based ink,” she said. “Some people even act like recycling is a big pain, but if you can pay your phone bill and save the environment, you might as well.”

Obviously, these decision-makers are not limited to highly active WisPIRG or UW Greens members. They are the girl you accidentally bump into at the bar and the guy who sits next to you in lecture. Little choices like buying food at co-ops, turning off unnecessary lights, consistently recycling, and putting on a sweater instead of turning up the heat are not flashy habits.

“It’s not like you have to be a big hippie now because you’re shopping at a co-op,” Formato said. “It doesn’t have to be like that.”

Sometimes living in an unsupportive atmosphere can make students feel uncomfortable about being earth-friendly; they may be quasi-negatively labeled “tree-huggers.”

“In some situations the environment in which you are living may really look down on it as tacky or primitive,” environmental studies professor Cal DeWitt said. “But there are lots of spots on campus that are really sensitive to the place human beings have in the wider environment as consumers and producers of wastes.”

Mind matters

Besides practical difficulties like money and time, psychological factors can have a huge influence on a student’s attitude and behavior relating to the environment. The motivations that underlie the transition from attitude to behavior are complex. For many, family life laid the foundation for their current environmentally friendly lifestyles.

“My dad was an energy freak when I was a kid,” Corroy said. “I grew up trained not to be wasteful. When I feel really wasteful, I feel really bad, so that drives me to do things.”

As Corroy’s example indicates, it can be hard to talk about environmental consciousness without mentioning guilt.

“At a certain point you have to distance yourself from it,” Formato said. “If you dwell on it, you’d be a horribly depressed, angry person.”

However, DeWitt said, distance does not have to equal inaction.

“One thing that is important to realize is sometimes we are left without recourse but to violate some of our principles. But it shouldn’t make us feel guilty; rather, it should make us feel awkward enough to work in our community to change things,” he said. “You have to live within the situation you find yourself in and not be satisfied with it. “There’s never a situation when you’re really happy with every aspect of what’s going on. But we should not feel guilty about having these experiences with greater consumption or impacting the environment. But also, we shouldn’t leave it there. We should do something about it.”

Kloppenburg echoed DeWitt’s sentiments.

“It’s not to make you feel guilty, but to remind yourself about what is possible,” Kloppenburg said. “If you do small things, you may be ready to do something large like buying consistently at the Willy Street Co-op.”

Starting with food

In American society, it can be impossible to sacrifice possessions, like cars, or habits that make the largest negative environmental impact. But, Kloppenburg said, that makes small measures even more important.

“It’s hard to make large, lumpy decisions that require a lot from us,” he said. “Focus on little everyday things like what we put into our mouths each day. Food is a good way to make a beginning.”

Although students often think organic and local food is much pricier than generic grocery store fare, Willy Street Co-op member services manager Lynn Olson said that is not always the case.

“We’ve done some price comparisons, and it depends on what you are buying,” she said.

Olson said merchandise from upscale food stores such as Whole Foods tends to be 5 to 7 percent more expensive than food from more common grocery stores. However, she said, the quality of the produce should be taken into account.

“You have to look at the quality of the food you’re buying,” she said. “There’s lots of really obnoxious chemicals that go onto regular vegetables that are absolutely not used in organic produce.”

Besides buying organic, students interested in low-impact as well as low-price food options can buy in bulk to reduce packaging waste.

“I think buying organic is a very good idea, but you don’t necessarily have to do that,” DeWitt said. “Buying in bulk can be a good idea, and the savings can be immense.”

Local Asian food stores, as well as the Willy Street and Mifflin Street Co-ops, are useful outlets for bulk food.

The list of options for environmentally friendly eating and other decisions is close to infinite, and it does not have to mean extra effort or money.

“If you’re looking for reasons why you should not do something, you can find them,” DeWitt said. “But you don’t necessarily have to look or behave very differently at all. It’s not hard to live in an environmentally responsible way.”

Leave a Comment
Donate to The Badger Herald

Your donation will support the student journalists of University of Wisconsin-Madison. Your contribution will allow us to purchase equipment and cover our annual website hosting costs.

More to Discover
Donate to The Badger Herald

Comments (0)

All The Badger Herald Picks Reader Picks Sort: Newest

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *