I created a class to teach zero waste. It turned into so much more

(Credit: Unsplash)

This article is brought to you thanks to the collaboration of The European Sting with the World Economic Forum.

Author: Sage Lenier, Student, UC Berkeley


  • This activist created and teaches a course at UC Berkeley about how to achieve zero waste.
  • In an interview with the Forum, she discusses the course and its aims – and her hopes and ambitions for the future.

Sage Lenier, an environmental activist and graduate from UC Berkeley, created a wildly popular course at her university dedicated to sustainable solutions and circular systems thinking against the broader backdrop of environmental justice. In Spring 2020, the course enrolled more than 300 students eager to learn how they can drive the shift towards a more ethical and sustainable society. The World Economic Forum sat down with Sage for a quick Q&A.

What drove you to start teaching zero waste?

When I started at UC Berkeley, I was excited to be going to a school that had – I’m told – one of the best environmental curriculums in the nation. But I quickly realized that much of the education I was receiving had little real-life application; the material lacked the call-to-action that is really necessary for addressing the ecological crisis.

That’s why I decided to create a course that was solutions-focused and action-based. I started out with the concept of zero waste, but I scaled it up from individual-level action to build a vision for an economy, design system and culture that operate on the premise that natural resources are valuable and limited. I also cover modern food systems, climate change and decarbonization, and green cities, always looking at a global picture of access, equity, and cultural and ecological diversity.

The approach I take helps students learn how all of these things come together for a vision of a sustainable future. I want them to be excited about the year 2100, rather than terrified.

What are the biggest misconceptions about your course?

Sometimes my course gets misconstrued as a place where I teach students about what they can do to lessen their individual environmental impact. It’s not really that at all. I do try to walk my students through the changes that they can make in their own lives, but the course is really about a societal revolution. It’s focused on structural change, political advocacy, and community power.

Two-thirds of my students are not environmental majors, and I try to give everyone something that they can do with their lives and their careers. A business major, after taking the class, might tell me: “I want to spend my career in businesses that fit with the circular economy.” Or a biochemistry major might say: “I could operate a green lab.” I’m focused on big-picture solutions, all of us coming together to accomplish something through so many different avenues with our different skill sets, as well as how we can make our community a little bit better.

When we talk about climate change, sustainability and equity, are we really talking about the same thing?

Absolutely, and I think most people are shocked when they start taking my course to learn that I’m not really here to advocate on behalf of trees. Climate change is a social justice issue; it is already exacerbating existing inequalities and will continue to do so.

I’m first and foremost a human rights activist. I’ve been passionate about feminism and racial justice from a very young age and have always done my best to educate and engage those around me. I came to environmentalism a few years ago with the realization that there are no human rights on a dead planet – this one movement really has the potential to encapsulate every social issue we have.

What do you think needs to happen to enable us to move to a circular economy more quickly?

If we really want to move towards a circular economy, we have to do a lot of direct targeting of the big corporations who already have the infrastructure, financial power and influence in our society. In our activism work, we need to be demanding that these massive companies that actually run our society and have control over our economy and government are accountable to the people.

Image: Irene Yi

College students were heavily impacted by COVID-19 this year. What was that experience like for you, as a student, instructor and activist?

I’ll be honest, I lost a lot this year. I had to give up my dreams of expanding this course to other schools and communities for now, and all of my activism campaigns completely dissolved. After I graduated, I slept on the couch at my grandmother’s house for two months. I was very lucky to receive a job offer in July for an environmental nonprofit and be financially stable for the second half of this year, but I’ve had to fight very hard to get my mental and physical health back from where they went when I thought I was losing everything I’d ever worked for. This year has been transformative in some good ways too, though; I needed to take a step back before I burned out, and I deactivated my social media for six months after a few super viral posts because I wanted to ask myself why I feel qualified to educate people and check my intentions. I’m young, and it’s easy to develop an ego and forget what you’re really working towards when you start getting media attention.

What’s next for you?

Right now I’m just feeling very grateful to be employed and still doing important work. Zero Waste USA recently reached out to me about sponsoring my course on their online platform, so I’m very excited to be back to teaching in the new year, and the class is going to be open to everyone! I want to keep going with this curriculum and eventually turn it into a book because I think what I’ve created is really unique, and it’s a lot of the information that the average person really needs. For now, I’m getting back into the swing of things with teaching online and making educational content for Instagram. My teaching assistants, Annie Mitchell and Victoria Bartoszewicz, are still teaching it at Berkeley and after the pandemic I still do want to take it to other colleges, high schools, communities – anywhere that wants it.

When that eventually comes around, I’ll be applying for grants and trying to get the book published. The idea of trying to get funding and hoping I get it and hoping it keeps coming is really scary, but I’m also excited because this is the most important thing that I can do – to continue to educate people and create a better equipped and larger environmental movement. It’s a huge risk, but this is all I’ve ever wanted.

the sting Milestones

Featured Stings

Can we feed everyone without unleashing disaster? Read on

These campaigners want to give a quarter of the UK back to nature

How to build a more resilient and inclusive global system

Stopping antimicrobial resistance would cost just USD 2 per person a year

Cash for babies: How Europe is tackling its falling birthrate

The Indian miracle state pointing the way to global sustainability

The Franco-German axis considers that all EU needs now is more armaments

Parliament adopts InvestEU programme for strategic and innovative investments

Terrorist content online should be removed within one hour, says EP

West Africa ‘shaken by unprecedented violence’, UN envoy tells Security Council

Hungary: people born in the 2020s won’t have legal rights any more to buy tobacco

Why securing the Internet of Things is crucial to the Fourth Industrial Revolution

Is Eurozone preparing to abandon austerity and stagnation?

Khashoggi case highlights ‘very worrying practice’ of overseas abductions, says UN expert

CLIMATE CHANGE FOCUS: Cows, coffee and sustainable farming

Road safety: Data show improvements in 2018 but further concrete and swift actions are needed

‘Undersea gardeners’ are restoring Jamaica’s lost coral reefs

This is why Dutch teenagers are among the happiest in the world

Somalia: UN congratulates Puntland region’s newly-elected President

Marked improvement in Europe’s air quality over past decade, fewer deaths linked to pollution

End Syria fighting to avoid ‘even greater humanitarian catastrophe’

Celebrating the Customs Union: the world’s largest trading bloc turns 50

Shaping the future of democracy in Armenia

‘The green economy is the future,’ UN chief says in Beijing, urging climate solutions that strengthen economies, protect the environment

Commission reports on the risks of investor citizenship and residence schemes in the EU and outlines steps to address them

Corporate investors hold the key to fostering inclusive entrepreneurship

Berlin repels proposal for cheaper euro

Final turnout data for 2019 European elections announced

EU-China Leaders’ Meeting: Upholding EU values and interests at the highest level

Bankers don’t go to jail because they are more equal than us all

Heard about deepfakes? Don’t panic. Prepare

Amazon sinks while our breath sinks

Why David Cameron’s large victory in UK elections will not pursue a ‘Brexit’

No patents on naturally obtained plants and seeds

Progress on gender equality is too slow, says OECD on International Women’s Day

Catalonia’s vote for independence and the power of symbols

The Chinese retail revolution is heading west

How voice technology will change your life

East Africa locusts threaten food insecurity across subregion, alerts UN agriculture agency

EU-Singapore free trade deal gets green light in Trade Committee

Sahel States need international support ‘now more than ever’– UN peacekeeping chief

The Fourth Industrial Revolution is driving Globalization 4.0

Burundi election countdown amid ‘deteriorating’ human rights situation

UN space-based tool opens new horizons to track land-use on Earth’s surface

Milk, fruits and vegetables distributed to schoolchildren thanks to EU programme

A jingoistic Spanish ‘war’ from the past

Resettlement: EU Member States’ pledges exceed 30,000 places for 2020

More than 100,000 people have recovered from COVID-19

How AI can accelerate the search for treatments for emerging and intractable diseases

Rebuilding after COVID-19 shouldn’t mean going back to how things were

COVID-19 vaccines: MEPs call for more clarity and transparency

More than one million sexually transmitted infections occur every day: WHO

Mental health in times of a pandemic: what can each individual do to lessen the burden?

Feeding families remains complex task in war-torn Syria – UN relief agency

European Parliament and Eurovision sign partnership for European Elections

5 ways cities can use emerging technologies to fight climate change

The world needs a grand coalition to tackle climate change

CHINA UNLIMITED. PEOPLE UNLIMITED. RESTRICTIONS LIMITED

Wolfgang Schäuble: “Without European unification, there would be no German unity”

A day in the life of a refugee: why should we care?

80 adolescents a day will still die of AIDS by 2030, despite slowdown in epidemic

Aviation Strategy for Europe: Commission signs landmark aviation agreements with China

5 Black heroes of the environmental movement

Building climate resilience and peace, go hand in hand for Africa’s Sahel – UN forum

More Stings?

Advertising

Speak your Mind Here

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s