Sustainability Seven: Female Student Sustainability Leaders

The University of Maryland hosts a variety of environmental groups on campus that make an impact on campus culture in subtle yet influential ways. For Women’s History Month, the Office of Sustainability is highlighting three environmental female activist students on campus. The first is Amelia Avis, SGA Student Sustainability director. She works on several environmental issues on and off campus and serves as a link to organizations on campus through the Sustainability Co-operative (SCOOP) and the University Sustainability Council. Joy Arellano is co-coordinator for MaryPIRG’s Save the Bay campaign and a Green Terp Ambassador for the Office of Sustainability. Arellano organizes events to get students involved in environmentally conscious culture on and off campus. Sonja Neve is also co-coordinator of the MaryPIRG Save the Bay campaign and is on the executive board of the Sustainable Ocean Alliance (SOA). Neve works with multiple organizations to decrease plastic use, increase student involvement and awareness in sustainability efforts. These fearless Terps were asked a series of seven questions and they spoke about their environmental work, making a difference, and the future of sustainability.  

1) What is the most exciting part about being involved with sustainability efforts on campus? What is the biggest challenge?

Amelia

The most exciting part is to see how interdisciplinary and universal sustainability ideals are amongst students. Especially through SCOOP. I’ve met so many different students from majors and colleges across the university that are passionate about advancing sustainability in their issue area. Like business students and agriculture students. Part of how I’ve been trying to make progress is to bring it back to the forefront of an activist movement. And for the students that can be kind of frustrating because we understand that sustainability is an ongoing process and you have to sustain growth and progress in order to make the world a better place.

Joy

I feel the most exciting part is taking the step that most people are afraid of taking. A lot of people are concerned about sustainability issues but won’t be vocal about it, they stay in the closet. I was one of them last semester. It's exciting to start change on campus then to see it move up to the government level, which is happening right now with the styrofoam bill. The con is people not taking sustainable actions seriously. It is not a main or immediate issue for a lot of people. It is acknowledged but their responses show they do not see it as critical. I feel it is this way all across the country.

Sonja

I think the most exciting thing about being part of a sustainable movement on campus is that we are taking direct action. Since we are thinking global but acting local, we are seeing our changes happen every single day. With SOA, we tried to ban single-use plastic straws on campus and were able to do that within a couple of semesters. Most of the libraries have switched over to paper alternatives. I can really give shout outs to the Co-op for switching over immediately after we asked them to. They even had a ceremony calling it the “last straw.” Now they only have paper and the same goes for Maryland Dairy, which is super awesome. There is major funding bill from Dining Services to make the switch in every UMD owned cafe and store. It's also been rewarding because I met a lot of people from different backgrounds that care about these issues. The most upsetting part is the environmental issues are so politicized and so many people think they can’t be a part of an environmental movement because they aren’t voting that way or the politicians talking are too radical for them. Because they feel like you have to be on one side or the other to care about environmental issues when a lot of times environmental issues are just public health issues. They're just issues keeping communities and people safer. You don’t have to be a tree hugger to care about that.

 

2) What got you interested in getting involved with sustainability and environmentalism?
 

Amelia

I worked with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation when growing up so I’ve always been interested in environmentalism. But what really started me on the track was joining the Student Sustainability Committee (SSC) as a freshman. I was inspired by the older people who were really doing great work. And they were really good friends with each other. Honestly all 4 years here I’ve been trying to emulate the feeling that I felt there freshman year. I’d say I gained more from my friends that were older and that had done more than me and had told me how to go through school than I have from any professor or any class. That's really how I benefited and got involved. And because it is such a far reaching committee we deal with so many different issues from waste to energy to campus clean ups. I’ve met so many people through that and it made total sense to me and became my drive.

Joy

I think what got me interested was seeing the effects of people being negligent toward the environment. I remember going to the Chesapeake Bay as a kid and the water wasn’t brown. Going now is kind of sad. I don’t want to go near it, it just doesn’t look healthy. And also being a public health science major has taught me to look at it in a holistic perspective because medical issues aren’t just caused by the body but also environmental factors. There are a lot of things that can be prevented by taking care of the environment. For example, people who live by chemical plants are surrounded by high levels of radiation. Those communities are not really able to get away from the problem because they are low income communities. Some people don’t have a choice and they have to live with the effects of people being negligent. It’s just really sad that things we can prevent are happening to people.

Sonja

I’ve always kind of known. I think that the issue for our generation is climate change. I figured out I was interested in climate justice and the environmental movement when I was in high school because I was apart of an environmental club that me and my friends started. At that time I thought I would be a biology major but really didn’t know. Then we went on this climate march that was this group marching across the entire United States that started in California so they were marching for months and they had finally reached D.C. So we marched with them the day after Halloween. We were marching and their message was so powerful and I was meeting people that cared so much about this issue and I ended up writing a lot of my college essays about it because I just found something that was really important to me. I knew this was something I can work on with passion rather than just work on for work.

 

3) What projects are you currently working on?
 

Amelia

One of our members is being fantastic by spearheading her own recycling campaign for fraternities. Also, we are currently planning the Earth Day Festival and that is really big effort for us because we are trying to make this year be a bigger Earth Week. Using SCOOP and the other connections we’ve made with other student groups we’ll have a full week of programs with a different issue area focused on everyday. And for Earth Day in particular we are working on making it the biggest festival we’ve had in recent memory. As part of that effort we are working on environmental justice and climate justice. We want to raise a level of awareness within the sustainability community and outside of it of how environmental issues are important for underserved communities, and how mobilizing around environmental justice and climate issue together can be a really powerful tool to make a change.

Joy

For the second half of the semester, Save the Bay will focus on the Solo cup company, which mainly makes disposable containers: cups, plates, utensils. We’re  targeting them to pressure them to create a timeline to switch to biodegradable materials in their products. We’re using Plastic Free Tuesdays to spread awareness of the issue and increasing its popularity on campus. We also want to encourage people to be more aware of their plastic usage especially on Tuesdays.

Sonja

Currently, Save the Bay is working on a ban on expanded polystyrene statewide in Maryland. If we accomplish this Maryland will be the first state to ban styrofoam statewide. There are two counties in Maryland that have the ban and D.C. It is a difficult task for us but we are doing a good job. It has been preceded by a spring General Assembly that have not been successful but this one we may get it passed. Our work for that includes lobbying and urging students to reach out ot their state legislators and giving more information to students about the topic about how polystyrene adversely affects us. How much space it takes in landfills, how much ends up in bodies of sea life, waterways and oceans. Just so students can get an idea of how harmful polystyrene is to the environment and to public health. Our representatives can make a difference now by voting on these issues.

 
4) What advice do you have for others who want to live a more sustainable lifestyle?
 

Amelia

I consider sustainability to be more advocacy and help everyone to be aware of things. I think sustainability can come in many forms and part of what draws me to the concept is always thinking critically about what is going to sustain my community and what is going to sustain the planet. Even individual choices about your diet can make a difference, like I don’t eat red meat and I try to minimize my consumption of any meats and dairy. If you’re vegetarian 75 percent of the time but eat meat 25 percent of the time that's still a really good step, and you're making an impact or even cutting down your showers to two minutes. It's about being aware of your impact and making conscious decisions. Even seeking out the knowledge to be more sustainable is going to help. Go on a road trip instead of taking a plane. Anything that you can do helps. Whether you try to help other people realize the importance on issues. I think working within your community and making sure there is trust and knowledge about important issues is the best way to get everyone around you to a more sustainable plane.

Joy

There are a couple of simple tips you can do like using a reusable water bottle. We have water bottle filling stations all around campus so there is really no excuse to not have one here. I would say carry around reusable straws. Carry around your own set of cutlery because it's  really easy to fall into using single-use utensils. I definitely think that having your own reusable items will reduce your usage. Even if it's just one person it will make a difference because those items are used a lot. Also do your research on issues that are affecting your environment but also how to recycle because there is a lot of specific information you need to know. Like how some things that have a recycling sign cannot actually be recycled like styrofoam.

Sonja

To be more sustainable, my tips for students is to definitely foster a culture of sustainability. So when we’re talking about bringing your mug to a coffee shop instead of using a disposable cup, the purpose of that is to cut down on waste and to use less plastic and single-use items to fight the culture we have of waste and consumption. Just thinking about why we do the sustainable tasks that we do. Other things you can do is join clubs like MaryPIRG or SOA. Make sure you vote in your election for people who you think will represent your interests in sustainability. We urge everyone to call their representatives and show support for environmental bills. Also stay informed on those subjects, like how to cut down on your waste. The best advice I can give is to be proactive.

 
5) The topic of plastic pollution and preserving our oceans and waterways are currently a very important topic in the environmental world. Why is so important for people to understand and to take action?
 

Amelia

I actually care a lot about this topic because I am looking for a career in oceans and fishery management. I think that people don’t really realize the vast global scale at which plastics are polluting the oceans and what it's doing. Every piece of plastic that we use and doesn’t get recycled, which is most of them, is going to end up in our food through fish and through water. People hear the word microplastics and don’t really understand what that means. But imagine so much plastic that there's almost more plastic than grains of sand and that's getting into the fish. Its being consumed by all marine life. Its killing them and getting into our food systems. I think what people need to remember too is that so many countries around the world are not as fortunate as the U.S. Some other countries heavily rely on fish. Just like climate change the countries that are causing the most waste and pollution are not the ones suffering from it the most.

Joy

I feel it's important to understand the magnitude of the problem because it is a problem we cause and nothing's going to fix it other than us. We should be responsible for our plastic usage and make sure that is something we take care of in the near future. We want to have healthy oceans and to see fish, turtles and animals that have been apart of the Earth live in their natural environments. They are now suffering because of us. Also, plastic not only has an effect on our waterways and oceans but also on our soil. Chemicals from landfills can easily leach into the soil and be incorporated in the food we grow. If we don’t do anything about it, it will probably be in everything we eat without us knowing.

Sonja

I read an article today on the mariana trench: in the deepest parts of the ocean and 75 percent of animals that live there have plastic in their stomachs. The fact that plastic has reached down there is so absurd. You throw away one spoon and you don’t think it's hurting anyone but all of the plastic that is used adds up. We use a straw for 15 minutes but it lasts on the planet for centuries; it's clearly not worth it. There is no excuse for that type of culture because there are always externalities: animals or public health that is being affected. We can talk about those huge problems affecting our ocean or how it directly affects right here at home Styrofoam piling up in landfills can leach toxic chemicals into waterways and pollute drinking water. Plastics like that can even end up on our dinner plates because local fish can have plastic waste in their stomachs. These problems have ripple effects. Every time we refuse that plastic we are making a vote at the business that we do not support it.

 
6) What is something that may not be in the works for our campus but you would still love to see happen in regards to sustainability?
 

Amelia

I would like us to make quicker and firmer progress on climate goals. We are currently trying to see if it's possible to move our carbon deadline from 2050 to 2025. There is a lot of momentum around climate activism now for good reason. Making our commitment to climate action stronger and clearer is one thing and another is moving to renewable energy. I’d also like to see College Park engage with Prince George’s County and the surrounding communities at a greater capacity surrounding environmental issues and pollution. Environmental justice and health disparities for communities of color in low income areas are a really big problem around this area and around Washington D.C. The university as a leader in research and technology development has a duty to payback the community that we have been living in. We need to use what we have to make sure peoples built environments are safe for them.

Joy

I often see lights on in buildings when I know they are closed. Using unnecessary energy needs to stop and I think we can all play in a part in making that happen. I also think making a series of gen-ed courses that can educate college students about sustainability would be a great addition to the school. These classes would essentially teach sustainability for a general education requirement. The classes could cover a wide variety of useful topics, such as how to grow a garden, without being restricted because of a major .

Sonja

This may be in the works at the SSC but the idea excites me. You know how there is an alcohol.edu when you are a freshman at UMD? This idea would involve a similar training that would teach students how to be more sustainable before they come to UMD. There would be a new generation of terps that were just a little greener than the ones before because a lot of the issues we talked about earlier was just lacking the information, knowledge and tools to be more sustainable even if you want to be. I think it's just really relevant for young students to learn it before they get into habits that might be less sustainable. Also I think it would be great for the university to provide students with a reusable water bottle rather than another t-shirt or lanyard. Then students will come to campus already equipped with that tool. It can also help with equity issues so this will provide the means for all students to access that.

 
7) Do you think the world is currently changing for better or worse when it comes to sustainability and environmental consciousness?
 

Amelia

I am solidly convinced that the world is changing for the better. The reason I say that is I’m so energized and lifted up by the amount of activism from youth that we’ve seen on climate and environmental issues. A group that has been not listened too and not respected is finally having a voice in the national and international processes. While they’re still being downtrodden upon and really visionary plans are being overlooked in the media I think the idea of asking for something big and big change when we’ve been on the wrong path for so long is a really important thing that we are seeing right now. Also I think that on the international stage it is sometimes hard to see the progress that is being made when we are so enveloped by U.S. policies that are not being proactive on environmental issues. The progress that has been done internationally on climate and plastics and all these issues coupled with a growing realization in the midwest and non coastal areas in the U.S. that clean energy and environmental issues are important for the community, makes me think there is a lot of hope.

Joy

At the moment, I feel like we are kind of going downhill. Even though all this evidence is surfacing people refuse to believe it. I don’t know why you would disregard science. I do think we do have the potential to change the course of it and make a better world for us and our children. I think there are a lot of renewable energy sources that aren’t being taken advantage of that need time and money. It's a turnoff for people because they don’t want to put efforts toward it. But when you look at the benefits they far outweigh the costs. Cost is temporary but the benefits are forever. People just need to educate themselves more. If you think about renewable energy now we’re burning fossil fuels and using chemical plants to create energy but if you got rid of these and used renewable sources we wouldn’t have populations who are at a disadvantage because they can’t leave their homes. There would be so many cases of cancer that wouldn’t exist because the toxic chemicals aren’t being released into the environment. People need to realize it's not just an environmental issue but a humanity issue.

Sonja

I think the world is slowly going to start getting more sustainable. I think we are at a tipping point where we’ve realized the havoc that we caused on our planet and how we are draining our resources. And a lot of them are resources we are never going to be able to get back. We are cutting down on biodiversity and there are a lot of species that are going extinct forever and we just have to say goodbye to them. That is something really hard to come to terms with that is opening a lot of peoples eyes and realize there are a lot of serious changes that need to be made. I surround myself with lots of people who care about sustainability on and off campus. Those people really give me hope that we can become much more sustainable as a society and we can throw away the culture we have been holding on to which is to just consume without thought to how much resource we actually have access to. The infinite growth  model doesn't work anymore and we’re realizing that we are at a leveling off point to quickly change the way we’re living. It's exciting too because it gives rise to innovative ideas, like renewable energy that is becoming more advanced, and the Green New Deal that would help the economy and put the U.S. on track to being greener.

By Rachel Fulla, Communications Intern, Office of Sustainability