The first environmental conference I ever attended was the inaugural Post Landfill Action Network (PLAN) Students for Zero Waste conference in October of 2014. I was a student in college, took the train from school to Durham, New Hampshire, and was able to identify other conference attendees by their overnight packs and sleeping bags; part of the budget-friendly nature of the conference included a sleepover at a local church.
I learned a lot, met hundreds of amazing people, practiced networking with industry professionals, and experienced that positive and energizing feeling of wanting to change the world while leaping over tall buildings. The organizers—college students themselves—did an outstanding job of balancing many different types of speakers, including scientists, activists, corporations, non-profit organizations, authors, student groups, and thought leaders.
This October, I again attended the PLAN Students for Zero Waste Conference—this time at University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, PA. This time, I attended not as a student (even though I am currently in graduate school), but as an industry professional with four years of work experience in the environmental field. Perhaps I had changed, perhaps PLAN had changed (probably both), but somehow I did not leave this conference with the same energized aura that I associate with environmental conferences. Instead, I took away an updated understanding of the Zero Waste movement, especially among the youth and student sector.
The balance of speakers at this conference swayed much more towards the community activists and eco-justice thought leaders. I attended a talk entitled “Zero Waste and Capitalism” under the misunderstanding that the panelists would discuss how capitalist systems can adapt to include Zero Waste. I was able to find more perspectives at an afternoon session, “Closed Loop Systems”, where I had the incredible opportunity to discuss corporate social responsibility, triple bottom line, and emerging technologies.
While I enjoy and learn a lot from eco-justice and activism, I practically gain the most from solutions-oriented presentations, discussions, and panels. Now that I’ve been out in the government and business space, I see how Zero Waste can be put into practice, where some of the common roadblocks are, and which methods are tried and true. Learning new methods for implementing zero waste allows me to bring those new methods to my workspaces.
From a mental health perspective, I’m also trying to avoid some of the doom and gloom that comes from the environmental movement. We all know how much work needs to be done in such a short amount of time to avoid the very worst outcomes of climate change. There’s even a term for it—“eco-anxiety”—as well as support groups and online tips for how to manage it. I think about my environmental footprint and read the newspaper every day, and the nonstop barrage of bad news regarding oil spills, air quality regulation rollbacks, and shrinking habitats is enough to sometimes drag me down into inaction.
This is why I seek out solutions and action-oriented talks, and this is why I felt drained rather than energized after PLAN SZW 2019. The amazing speakers had so much well-researched information and experience to share with us, but the fire hose of content nearly swept me away.
Speaking to one of the PLAN organizers at the end of the day, I asked, “Am I doing the right thing with my academic and career choices to pursue an MBA? Is supporting corporate missions to reduce their environmental impact as aligned with zero waste as I thought it was?” They glanced around and replied, “Don’t tell anybody, but I’m not an anti-capitalist. I think some of us need to work from within the systems while they exist in order to implement change.”
And I started to feel the energized glow again. Maybe I’m now the wrong audience for this conference, but even still I’m glad that I attended PLAN SZW 2019. This incredible organization reaches hundreds if not thousands of students and young professionals, promotes environmental action and youth organization, and puts on consistently great events. The entire planning staff should be congratulated on their outstanding multi-day event, breadth of speakers, and inclusive practices.
When it comes to planning for the future of Zero Waste, I’m excited that PLAN is a part of the conversation.