Trash culture

UC Davis ‘Greenest Student’ graduates—but not without one last eco-conscious, zero-waste lesson

UC Davis grad and reigning “Greenest Student” chills with his trash.

UC Davis grad and reigning “Greenest Student” chills with his trash.

Photo By Byron Hoy

“You can tell a lot about a person by going through their trash.”

The trash of reigning “Greenest Student” and recent UC Davis graduate Brennan Bird, however, is different than that of most Americans—and ends up in a different place, too. Inspired by a chance encounter with a nonprofit and driven by curiosity, Bird decided to collect and store all of his personal garbage last year, which earned him the title of Greenest Student of 2010 by website Think Green Live Clean.

“[The project] gave me hope we could turn our trash into something useful,” Bird explained, “and not just throw it into landfills.” He refers to his challenge as Operation Zero Waste 2010. “Right away, I started to think about what I was buying and how that was a big reflection of my lifestyle. It was pretty obvious I was a college student; 50 to 70 percent of it was glass bottles.”

As part of his garbage-collecting process, Bird decided to wash, dry and store all of his trash. For instance, he hand-washed plastic bags and hung them on clotheslines to dry. Any organic matter was composted and, he adds, any unsanitary personal items disposed of.

All of this also required a bit of a learning curve for both Bird and his friends. Roommates, for instance, had to adjust to coming home and finding the kitchen covered in drying garbage.

For Bird, too, he had to relearn some of his routines. “I learned a little bit of preparation goes a long way,” he said, “like bringing the right bags and jars to go shopping.

“And I now don’t leave my house without my reusable cup; otherwise I would be inundated in cups.”

He also gained insights about the cultural side of trash, and how difficult it was to avoid certain things, such as products wrapped in layers of packaging.

“For people who didn’t understand [the project], they had an automatic reaction of shock and disgust [that] I would choose to live in my own filth,” Bird explained. “Trash has such a [strong] association in society, particularly because it is associated with smell.”

On campus, word spread, and Bird became known even to strangers as the garbage guy—which also served as a good icebreaker.

Despite some initial misgivings, most people were excited and supportive, he added, though there were some hurdles.

“Sometimes my roommate and I would share a candy bar, and he would cut the wrapper in half so I could keep my part,” Bird said.

That wrapper, and the bottles and other garbage collected in 2010, now sits in the back of Bird’s Toyota truck. He estimates his 2010 trash weighs roughly 220 pounds, or 40 more than his body weight. (By way of comparison, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says the average person generates about 1,400 pounds of garbage a year.) Bird is still deciding the best way to repurpose his, and continues to add newly collected items (his mother and sisters have also started to collect some of their garbage, too).

In the meantime, he has returned to his Bay Area hometown, Los Altos Hills, and just taken a job as an environmental educator with AmeriCorps. The job at a community garden in East Palo Alto allows him to continue his interest in environmental education.

He also continues to visit Davis to finish a project he started with his friends: building a bench out plastic bottle “bricks”—filled with used baggies and trash—and they need about 200 to 300 more before an end-of-April deadline for an undergraduate conference.

The bench, the AmeriCorps job and the collected personal trash are all part of a larger goal for Bird, though.

“My hope is people will see [one of those things], get excited about it and go and do [something similar] somewhere else,” he said.