Stopping deforestation, one pair of chopsticks at a time

HCN student essay contest winner.

 

In today’s world, it’s easier than ever to care about the environment. All you have to do is click the “like button” on a friend’s environmental Facebook status, and voilà…you’re an environmentalist!

Until this past year, I would have described myself as a “concerned citizen” trying as hard as I could to live sustainably. This meant carrying around a reusable water bottle, recycling old school papers, and encouraging my parents and friends to take shorter showers or use cloth grocery bags. I was proud of my eco-consciousness, but also slightly haughty. My attitude was “I’m better than those status-liking phonies — I actually do something to help the environment. I make sacrifices.”

But my rosy vision of environmentalism got a reality check. While checking out at the supermarket, a customer in the next aisle asked for double bags, which caught my attention. I asked her politely to consider using just one and explained to her why this was important, assuming that a friendly reminder would be appreciated. Instead, she insisted that she needed two bags. Then it hit me — all my well-intentioned efforts to go green by carrying reusable grocery bags were in vain. I realized that regardless of whatever ecological good deed I did, someone else seemed to commit two ecological sins. As I learned more, I discovered that this trend is even true on a global scale; the growth in China’s greenhouse emissions in one week is greater than the entire annual emissions savings accumulated by California, the state with the most aggressive carbon mitigation policy.

Simply liking Facebook statuses and riding bikes wasn’t going to cut it, but I didn’t know what I could do. As I read more about the magnitude of problems like climate change, species extinction and soil erosion I became pessimistic and even fell into mild depression. I felt empty and useless, just like the cloth bag I erroneously thought would save the planet.

It was at my lowest point that I attended a lecture given by Tom Szaky, the founder of an environmental startup called TerraCycle — and gained a new perspective on how to change the world.  He too started out as a Princeton student interested in helping the environment. Tom dropped out of school to found his own company in 2001, with the vision that he could one day “eliminate the idea of waste.” Within a few years, his passion and drive transformed his dream into substantial action. Today, TerraCycle diverts billions of pieces of garbage from landfills and incinerators, mitigating enormous quantities of greenhouse gases. Items that are difficult to recycle — drink pouches, chip bags, energy bar wrappers — are collected and repurposed into products like backpacks, picture frames and coasters. The company also recycles waste into plastic pellets and sells them as raw material. It’s secured sponsored waste partnerships with many of America’s biggest brands, ranging from Capri Sun to Clif Bar to Frito Lay.I saw in Tom a role model who was making a dent in the world’s environmental problems, and overcame my fatalism. Inspired to action, I took a year off from school to intern at TerraCycle.

When I joined the research and development team, I found an incredible environment for creativity and innovation. During my first week, my supervisor encouraged me to offer any ideas I had for projects as they came up. I thought back to my Facebook-environmentalism days and recalled the eco-awareness campaigns surrounding disposable chopsticks and deforestation.

Each year across the globe, 80 billion pairs of chopsticks are used once and discarded; an estimated 20 million mature trees are felled to make them. Environmental groups in Asia have advocated two main solutions to this nightmare: encouraging everyone to carry a personal pair of chopsticks and convincing restaurants to provide reusable chopsticks. These solutions put the responsibility on the individual, which in practice doesn’t always achieve the desired results.
I figured I could apply the TerraCycle model to the chopstick problem, because the reality is that billions are already being thrown away, and we should focus on solving that problem first. After doing significant market research and pitching the idea to my superiors, I got the green light to seek out strategic partnerships for the program. I am hopeful that once my idea becomes a reality, the virgin wood now ground up to make paper or particle board can be replaced with post-consumer chopsticks. This will save countless trees from being cut down, and reduce the waste sent to incinerators around the world.

Although 20 million trees is a small fraction of the total that humans cut down annually, I hold to the old adage “slow and steady wins the race.” For now, I will work on manageable goals to tackle this enormous problem. Hopefully together, we can stop deforestation, one pair of chopsticks at a time. 

Jacob Scheer, a New Jersey native, is a junior at Princeton University, studying mechanical engineering and sustainable energy.