Let’s Talk Trash
January 6, 2021

In 2014, I walked through the University of Illinois campus for the first time. While here, my 14-year-old self took a silly photo next to a pile of trash (pictured above). Little did I know this would foreshadow what was in store for me just a few years down the road. In sharing my “trash” journey, I hope to provide a few words of wisdom and inspire my fellow students to take action on campus.

Tip #1: Get involved on campus!

For many students, adjusting to college is not easy. In truth, for the first year of college, I focused too much on classes and almost forgot to make friends! Luckily, I joined the Sustainability Living Learning Community (SLLC). Not only did this community help me make friends, but it was also where my trash journey truly began - three years after I took the photo with some trash. With a desire to reduce waste, I started Zero Waste: LAR, an initiative to reduce waste at Lincoln Avenue Residence Hall. I provided dryer balls and a rotating composter to community members. Although small, it felt good to get involved on campus and reduce waste in any way that I could.

After Zero Waste: LAR, I knew I wanted to expand my efforts on campus. In 2018, I joined the Zero Waste Sustainability Working Advisory Team (SWAT). These SWATeams work to increase campus sustainability by creating goals and objectives for the Illinois Climate Action Plan (iCAP). Had I not gotten involved with the SWATeam, I doubt that any of the following experiences would have happened. Whether you’re new to the university or in your final year, find an organization and get involved!

#2: Apply for it!

On the Zero Waste team, I was inspired to explore waste reduction opportunities across campus in any way I could. The Post Landfill Action Network (PLAN) is an organization that provides universities with resources to reduce waste. Members on the SWATeam, like Meredith Moore, the Sustainability Programs Coordinator, guided me in submitting a grant to the Student Sustainability Committee (SSC) to fund the university’s membership to PLAN. As of this August, people across campus have access to the PLAN’s resources!*

At a big university like UIUC, imposter syndrome can sneak up on you. It’s easy to feel like you’re not qualified when you’re at a college full of intelligent, amazing people. The truth is, you are one of those intelligent, amazing people! Don’t discredit yourself, and don’t sell yourself short. I’ve missed out on opportunities before because I assumed I would never be chosen. Apply for those scholarships, grants, jobs, and whatever else. You are qualified, capable, and deserving.

#3: Believe in your ideas.

The Zero Waste team was integral in turning my ideas into reality. Recommendations are each SWATeam’s way of suggesting actions the university should take to meet iCAP goals. In my time on the team, I envisioned a program where students get hands-on opportunities to identify and develop sustainable initiatives to meet iCAP goals in buildings across campus. Working with fellow team members like professor Robert McKim, I created a recommendation for the university to offer the Sustainability iCAP Ambassadors program. Over a year in the making, the course was approved in October and will be offered next spring in the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Sciences.** I’m glad I continued to pursue this idea, and I am even more thankful for the support of those on the Zero Waste team. Surround yourself with people who believe in you and your ideas, and no matter how long it takes, don’t give up!

#4: Build your network.

The connections I made from the Zero Waste SWATeam opened doors and enabled me to accomplish my goals. One of the doors that opened was the opportunity to serve as the campus Facilities & Services waste reduction intern. This position increased my ability to reduce campus waste. Working with Shantanu Pai, my amazing supervisor and UIUC Zero Waste Coordinator, we brought disposable mask recycling to the university.*** Make connections and build your network while in college. Not only will you gain more opportunities, but you will get to meet amazing people.

I am beyond thankful for the opportunities and experiences I have had while attending the University of Illinois. Four years ago, I entered this university with a dream to leave it more sustainable than I found it, and I did just that. I hope my advice can help you achieve whatever you want while here at UIUC. Find your passion and steadfastly pursue it - I promise it won’t be a waste. 

*To learn more about the PLAN membership and gain access to resources, visit the PLAN tab.

**If interested in taking the course, please reach out to Eric Green or Meredith Moore.

***View mask recycling locations.

Maddy Liberman is a senior in the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Sciences in ACES.

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