Living Lab Series: Integrating Passion and Practicality

For the first post in our Living Lab Series, editor Liberty Lawson sits down with law student and president of the Waste Fighters Society, Liv Arkell, who shares her perspective on campus sustainability and why creativity can be the key to fighting consumerism.

Image via Shutterstock, ID: 1428816011

Liberty Lawson: As a student, what do you see as the main issues and priorities on campus, in terms of sustainability?

Liv Arkell: I think the priorities for campus right now are educating and shifting mentality to one which is consciously sustainable. Campus has an amazing resource at its hands; thousands of students who are there to learn. Every student could be being taught what they can be doing within their chosen field to create a more sustainable world. But currently, because of both cultural and logistical barriers, many students aren’t even carrying out basic sustainability practices. Lots of students are aware of the need for more sustainable practices and the global impacts being felt from a lack thereof. But people struggle with the practicalities of sustainable action (using separate bins, only buying coffee when they remember their reusable cup, not taking a plastic bag).

The campus could have a huge impact on behaviours if it took a more proactive approach to sustainability. It can be the bridge between the large scale impacts of sustainability issues and the practical solutions. It can educate people on how to better recycle their waste through clear signage, monitor the co-mingling of waste more stringently, reduce the prevalence of single use plastics, consider sustainability in building planning.

Things like the sustainability working group the university is supporting and the USU’s current approach to packaging and food waste make me really excited that a mentality shift is underway, and I think a big priority is keeping this momentum going.

Do you think that addressing these issues comes down to changing people’s perceptions through education, or are we getting to a point where more institutional, systemic and infrastructural changes are needed?

I think successful sustainability is about the integration of passion and practicality; mobilising people by making them care and then putting in place systems that keep the initial energy going. I think that requires a combination of education and systemic change. When people understand issues they are far better at taking action even where it is inconvenient, and I think education has started to build a strong drive for change.

But institutional change can achieve large scale things educating alone isn’t capable of and is key to making a perception shift stick.  It is often more convenient to do the thing which is less sustainable, but systemic change forces people to adjust their behaviours and removes the option of excuse. There are also people sustainability is never going to be front of mind for, which is an issue institutional change is better at tackling.

Even over the past year or two there have been some huge upheavals in public awareness of these issues – what are some of the movements here in Sydney and beyond that you have been most excited about?

It’s been great to see people prioritising sustainability in a whole new way. I’m particularly excited by the shift in consumer and investor mentalities because I think it means a whole range of new people are thinking twice about the impact of their actions. Seeing the number of people who’ve turned out to rally’s and how companies with big influence are refusing to support environmentally destructive projects is really cool. It was also great to finally have a Sustainability Week at the university this year. We’ve been pushing for one for a while and it’s great interest has finally come to a point where a week was viable.

It’s also awesome how inventive the sustainability space is right now! A really creative movement is emerging from the growing interest in sustainable consumerism. So much seems possible when you see what’s out there now; edible plates, coffee cup recycling schemes, really inventive repurposing.

Are there any international leaders in this space that inspire you? How are they paving the way, and what can we learn from their successes?

Looking at these issues internationally always reminds me of how much can be done and of the impact of ambitious planning. I think the EU is taking a proactive approach to sustainability issues, both in encouraging the use of renewable energy and of more waste conscious consumerism. So much can happen when things are built into legislation; banning and incentivising can be so powerful. I feel like Australian laws could be much bolder, particularly when you look at the laws in countries like New Zealand and Ecuador that enshrine nature’s right to be protected.

But whenever I see something which is successful overseas I’m also reminded of how important it is for people with power to be engaged in sustainability issues, and not just at a government level but in every social structure. Every little action counts and when you look at the amazing clean ups happening all over the world you can so clearly see how important every individual is.

I think the real lesson to learn is not to settle with things as they are and complain about what they’re not, but to always ask within my context and resources what can I do to really help change things?

What are the top three things you do in your own daily life to make a difference? How do they translate to the long-term goals of the Waste Fighters Society and beyond?

I’m always asking myself how can I be making a more positive impact in the world? And there’s so much more I could be doing. But in terms of sustainability I’m trying my best to make sustainability a more accessible issue. The top three things I do are:

1. Always ask what more can I be doing to be sustainable, even where it is inconvenient?
2. Try and educate others about what they can do in a consciously positive and non-judgemental way.
3. Keep up the habits I’ve already made. Bring my reusable cup, compost, reuse all single plastics as bin bags/ dog bags, look for sustainable brands.

The long term goals of the Waste Fighters are about raising awareness, taking tangible steps to reduce waste and emphasising diversity and inclusivity in all we do. We engage with other sustainably minded groups, help out at community events and hold our own events for students that make sustainability a positive and approachable issue.

I think sustainable action comes from wanting things to change and using that passion to get things done. But I think it’s also important not to get disheartened when things aren’t happening as quickly as we’d like, but to use that frustration as fire and momentum.

Liv Arkell is a fourth Year Arts/Law student with a strong passion for the environment. Liv aims to use her degree to become an environmental lawyer, and hopes to reduce environmental damage by making solutions to it approachable and fun.

The Waste Fighters Society is free for undergraduates to join. Their mission is to make waste reduction, both on and off campus, achievable and fun by sharing ideas at informative and social events throughout the year.

The Living Lab Series aims to highlight sustainability here at the University of Sydney. From native gardens and recycled asphalt to the new Sustainability Strategy and beyond, this series aims to highlight the range of projects championing sustainability on campus, and to celebrate everyone that has been working behind-the-scenes in this space for years. Each month we will sit down with researchers, teachers, students and campus staff to celebrate these incredible achievements and learn how we can continue to do more.