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Green Classroom

Green Classroom Program

Sustainability is a broad term that relates to many different topics. Green Classroom aims to help educate the campus community about sustainability issues and how they relate to UC San Diego specifically. UC San Diego educators can implement sustainable practices through the Green Classroom Certification program to operate more efficiently, save resources, help reduce UC San Diego’s environmental impact and provide a positive example to students in the classroom.


The Green Classroom Certification (GCC) program helps campus educators, including university professors, childcare center teachers and Preuss School teachers, to promote resource conservation and receive recognition for their leadership in sustainability. The program team works with educators and their department to identify opportunities to implement or improve existing sustainable practices and earn points toward certification.

Program Goals

The Green Classroom Certification program strives to:

  • Help UC San Diego meet its Climate Action Plan goals related to energy efficiency, waste diversion and alternative transportation
  • Address opportunities for resource consumption savings in campus classrooms by providing a simple and efficient green certification process
  • Assist educators in reducing their resource use and in becoming a model for their students to notice and emulate
  • Increase sustainability education and awareness and promote conservation throughout the campus community
  • Create opportunities for students to gain experience and knowledge through their involvement with sustainability projects
  • Ensure that UC San Diego remains a world leader in sustainability through certifying, recognizing and awarding green practices and efforts within the campus community


Any UC San Diego educator who teaches in a university classroom, including at Early Care & Education centers and The Preuss School, can be certified.

Certification Benefits

  • The certification process is free!
  • Certified educators and their departments receive recognition for their sustainable efforts, accomplishments and innovations.
  • Departments with certified educators can display their commitment to modeling sustainability for their students.
  • Certified educators and departments help UC San Diego reach its Climate Action Plan goals, remain a leader in sustainable practices, reduce natural resource consumption and decrease our environmental impact.

Certification Process

The Green Classroom Certification process involves these steps.

  1. An educator expresses interest in certification by completing the information card.
  2. The certification team reviews the application and sends the educator the Green Classroom Survey to complete. The team reviews the completed survey and sends the Purchasing Survey to the individual that the educator indicated is responsible for making purchases on their behalf.
  3. The certification team presents to the educator to provide:
    • A preliminary certification level by entering survey data into the GCC calculator
    • Gather feedback and make recommendations for adopting new sustainable practices that the educator can implement to increase their certification level.
  4. The certification team awards the educator a recognition certificate. The team will add the individual to the list of certified educators below.
  5. Certification lasts for two years. After the certification expires, an educator can apply for recertification.

Assessment Categories

  • Waste (recycling and waste reduction)
  • Energy (conservation and efficiency)
  • Paper and Printing (responsible printing and paper use)
  • Transportation (use of alternative transportation)
  • Participation (percentage of office staff involved)
  • Innovation (developing new sustainable practices)

Certification Levels

Certification Level Points Earned
Platinum 90+
Gold 80–89
Silver 70–79
Bronze 60–69
Green 50–59

Certified Educators

Sustainability Learning Modules

Green Classroom offers Sustainability Learning Modules to educate campus community members about a variety of sustainability issues. These modules establish the broader context of topics, such as recycling, energy and water, and then narrow the focus to the UC San Diego campus.


Welcome to the wonderful and confusing world of recycling! Recycling is defined as the action or process of converting waste into reusable material. While recycling can be an important tool in reducing waste, greenhouse gas emissions and resource consumption, it is not the silver bullet solution as often presented. When considering the “three R’s,” Reduce and Reuse precede Recycle because they are much more reliable and efficient than simply recycling. With that in mind, we hope you will use this recycling module to help you better understand the broad context of recycling and the specifics relevant to our global region.

When did recycling begin?

Recycling is a problematic solution to waste and the plastic industries have known this from the beginning. However, in order to sell more plastics, they worked to assure the public that recycling was the easy and obvious solution most people think it is today. In this podcast episode of NPR’s Planet Money, they explain that “there was a lot of discussion about how difficult it was to recycle. They knew that the infrastructure wasn’t there to really have recycling amount to a whole lot” and yet, recycling plastic became the new normal.

Listen: Why Have We All Been Recycling Plastic For 30 Years? - Planet Money

Why is recycling so difficult?

In 2018, the nature of recycling changed worldwide due to the Chinese government’s Operation National Sword. Until then, China was buying most of the world’s recycling materials to turn them into new products, but not anymore. This 99% Invisible podcast (episode 341) explains, “in the wake of National Sword, it’s been up to each individual recycling program to find new buyers wherever they can,” and the recycling industry is now facing numerous challenges. This podcast episode does a great job of contextualizing the systematic flaws concerning waste production and diversion in our country, which only became more apparent with National Sword. Note: Stick around for the second half (26:45) to hear about an example of systematic change in recycling collection in Taiwan.

Listen: Episode 341 - National Sword (0:00 - 23:20)

What do recycling plants do?

U.S. recycling plants, called Material Recycling Facilities (MRFs), clean and sort recyclable materials for processing. This YouTube video from SciShow gives us a better scientific understanding of how these facilities work and the differences between recyclable materials. The video also notes that “depending on the MRF's capabilities, plus other factors like market demands, some of these plastics are recycled, while others are thrown away.” Since each recycling program makes its own cost-benefit analysis, we often see some materials accepted in one area but not in another.

Watch: How Recycling Works

How do we fix recycling?

After reviewing the problems with recycling in the U.S. as a result of Operation National Sword and general contamination and disorganization, this article from the State of the Planet from Columbia University illustrates the state of recycling in our country today as well as what can be done to fix it. The article breaks down several angles of response, which we will need, including legislation and innovation, and concludes that “the key to fixing recycling in the U.S. is developing the domestic market. This means improving the technology for sorting and recovering materials, incorporating more recycled material into products, getting these products into the marketplace and creating demand for them.” Our country and the world will require a holistic and multi-faceted response to recycling, but promising signs indicate that we are beginning to get on the right track.

Read: Recycling in the US Is Broken. How Do We Fix It?  

What is the federal government doing about recycling?

This article by Waste Dive details the recent and upcoming federal legislation concerning recycling. It updates every few months to track the timeline and details of each bill or law. The laws vary in their progression through Congress and cover a range of issues, including innovation, infrastructure, education, procurement and reduction of plastic waste. The article points out that “depending on how this unfolds, dramatic shifts could be coming for federal recycling policy in the years ahead.” Read this article to learn about current recycling legislation on the federal level.

Read: Waste Dive

What is the California government doing about recycling?

This article by Californians Against Waste details the recent and upcoming state legislation concerning recycling and other waste reduction efforts. Much like the federal laws, they are each progressing through the state legislature at different rates and the content of the legislation varies from market development to accessibility. The article emphasizes that “Waste reduction and recycling policy in California is at a crossroad, with serious challenges to the economic underpinnings of some programs, and a loss of public faith in its efficacy.” Read this article to learn about current recycling legislation on the state level.

Read: Californians Against Waste

How does recycling work in San Diego?

The City of San Diego’s Recycling Program is a division of the Environmental Services Department. The city website contains helpful links and videos that explain what is recyclable, how recycling works and what commitments the city has made in terms of zero waste and mandatory recycling. Browse this webpage to learn more about the current recycling programs as well as the 2012 Recycling Ordinance, which requires recycling at almost all places of residence and business.

What is recyclable on the UC San Diego main campus?

UC San Diego contracts with EDCO to collect and process our campus recyclables. Recycling on campus is single-stream, which means all recyclables can go in the same blue bin and do not have to be sorted ahead of time. Visit the EDCO Recycling Guide to learn what is recyclable on campus and the condition of items when they are placed in a blue recycling bin. You can also watch EDCO’s videos about their recycling facility, plans for future projects and waste reduction goals.

What does this mean for individuals on campus or in San Diego?

Our own students from the Inter-Sustainability Council (ISC) host a podcast called Think Green. Their Recycling episode provides helpful information and tips for what individuals can do to recycle more efficiently, how recycling works on the UC San Diego campus and why reducing and reusing should be prioritized over recycling. They also touch on the topic of specialty recycling. Listen to the episode to learn what you need to know as an individual on campus regarding recycling.

Listen: Think Green


In the world of food waste diversion, people tend to think of composting first. The term composting literally refers to decomposing organic materials into a nutrient-rich product, but it has become the general term for collecting and processing food waste. Technically, diverting food waste and plant matter from the landfill to turn into something else is referred to as organics recycling, which can include actual composting as well as anaerobic digestion and other methods. Whether it refers to an open-air pile in a backyard or an industrial facility recycling a city’s organics, composting provides a crucial strategy for addressing climate change.

What is compost?

Compost is created by combining organic waste, such as food scraps, yard trimmings, and manure, adding bulking agents, such as wood chips as necessary to accelerate decomposition, and allowing the resulting organic material to break down. There are a variety of different ways to compost. This article from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency touches on the main factors that must be “controlled” during composting and outlines the pros and cons of different types of composting, from residential to commercial. If you’d like to learn more about the process behind each type, this YouTube video by Garden Tips includes a brief overview of anaerobic, aerobic and vermicomposting.

Why are landfills an ineffective way to dispose of food waste?

While food and yard waste does eventually decompose in a landfill, the way it decomposes produces much more greenhouse gas than it would in a compost pile. This short interview from explains the science of landfill decomposition vs. composting and discusses why we should be addressing how landfills manage their food waste while switching to composting systems whenever possible. This short video further explains the downsides of landfills and the  crucial need to divert food and yard waste.

What is anaerobic digestion?

Anaerobic digestion uses bacteria to break down organic matter, but unlike normal composting, it requires the absence of oxygen. Many large-scale organics recycling facilities utilize anaerobic digestion since they are able to take in multiple materials at once through co-digestion. This can include materials that cannot be broken down usually in aerobic composting, such as oils and grease, which means much more post-consumer food waste can be recycled. The digestion process produces biogas, which can be used for things like generating electricity or making vehicle fuel, and digestate which can be a valuable fertilizer or made into bio-based products. This article written by the EPA provides more information on how anaerobic digestion works and why it is useful.

Read: How Does Anaerobic Digestion Work? | AgSTAR: Biogas Recovery in the Agriculture Sector 

What are the benefits of compost?

Compost is used to improve soil quality and help plants grow! Compost improves moisture retention and soil structure, while adding nutrients to the soil. Read the article below to learn more about the benefits of using compost in your gardens and its superiority to alternative options, like commercial fertilizer. On a greater scale, composting transforms the environmental and economic atmosphere of municipal areas. The United States is the largest producer of food waste in the world, disposing of 30-40% of the country’s food supply. This article by Grow Ensemble, an agency working to make sustainability the norm, highlights the many ways that composting benefits the environment and the economy. It outlines the processes through which composting lowers greenhouse emissions, regenerates the soil, revitalizes water sources, fosters food security into the future, and more.


Are compostable and biodegradable products a good alternative to single-use plastic?

No! Unfortunately, the increasingly common single-use compostable/biodegradable cups, to-go containers and utensils are not necessarily better for the environment than the single-use plastic versions when looking at life cycle assessments. Read this article from to learn why “an increase in compostables in the waste stream could, in fact, bungle up the composting process, create more trash and continue consumers’ addiction to single-use items, detracting from the most environmentally beneficial practices: reducing and reusing.” In addition, although every compostable item is biodegradable, not every biodegradable product is compostable. Read this article from The Good Trade to learn about the difference.


What is the composting infrastructure in the US?

While organics recycling is not nearly as common as plastics recycling, more composting facilities are starting to appear throughout the country. In a 2019 study, BioCycle identified a total of 185 full-scale food waste composting facilities in the United States. Take a look at this article from BioCycle to get a sense of the types of composting facilities throughout the United States, materials that are accepted by the facilities, and the difficulty in measuring the total food waste composted in the country. If you want to learn more details about the study, you can read the full report as well. To locate a composting facility near you, use the online Find a Composter portal, which is a free directory of composting facilities throughout North America. 

Do other countries compost?

Yes. In fact, many countries around the world have embraced composting as a solution to food waste with more success than the United States. The European Composting Network is a membership organization with 66 members from 27 European countries. Explore their website that outline their mission to ensure that they protect soils for future generations and highlight their composting successes in Europe.

In South Korea, the 13,000 tons of food waste produced daily become one of three things: 30% compost, 60% animal feed and 10% biofuel. After making it illegal to send food waste to landfills in 2006, the country estimates that the economic benefit of this policy is billions of dollars. This article from the New Yorker examines South Korea’s success, highlighting the financial incentivization, education and use of intermediary groups between people and the government that resulted in community engagement and long-term success.

What are the obstacles facing composting infrastructure?

Composting is one of the cheapest, easiest and least disruptive ways for individuals to reduce carbon emissions and plastic pollution, yet it is surprisingly uncommon in the United States, with only 5-10% of the nation’s food waste being composted. Why isn’t composting more common, especially considering increasing public concern about climate change? This article by discusses the barriers to country-wide composting programs, from lack of access and public apathy to waste management companies that lobby against composting initiatives.

Read: Why Aren’t We Composting All of Our Food Waste?

What is California doing to compost?

In California, organic waste accounts for two thirds of the state’s material in the waste stream. The California Department of Resources Recycling and Recovery (CalRecycle) brings together the state’s recycling and waste management programs. An important part of its mission is to increase the diversion of organic materials away from landfills and towards the production of value-added products, such as compost. As part of the strategy to reach the state’s recycling goal by 2025, local governments will be required to provide organics recycling services to residents and businesses. This goal aims to reduce the amount of organic material sent to landfills by 75% and recover 20% of edible food that is thrown away. This article from Waste360 describes some of the regulations to reduce organic waste going to landfills, one of the largest sources of methane pollution in California.

Read: California: First State to Mandate Universal Composting

How do state laws impact the city of San Diego?

San Diego has been working towards organics recycling for some time, but the city recently picked up the pace in response to state laws. For nearly 30 years, Miramar Greenery has been accepting select organic waste materials from large organizations throughout the city. Read this article by CalRecycle from 2019 to learn about the Miramar Greenery and the history of composting in the City of San Diego. Now that things are speeding up, most, if not all, city residents should have access to composting along with their trash and recycling by the beginning of 2022. This Union Tribune article explains the changes that the city is working on to meet the new composting requirements and significantly decrease our city’s food waste production.


What are my composting options on the UC San Diego campus?

As of spring 2021, the easiest place to compost food scraps and paper products on campus is our wonderful student-run gardens. Currently, four of the gardens are actively accepting organics from anyone willing to drop them off. Since they utilize open-air, or aerobic, composting, they cannot accept meat, dairy or oil products. Make sure to check their signs for details on what they accept, or check for garden locations and items they collect. You can find contact information for each garden if you would like to get involved! You can also find compost collection locations and instructions on the UC San Diego map by navigating to “Sustainability” and then “Compost Locations.” Happy Composting!

Does UC San Diego compost campuswide?

UC San Diego sends all pre-consumer food waste, the food scraps discarded by foodservice staff in kitchens, and green waste to be composted at the city’s Miramar Greenery. Beginning in fall 2021, EDCO will begin accepting organics from the campus including post-consumer food waste and paper products (such as paper towels and napkins) using their new anaerobic digester in Escondido. We are excited for organics recycling to become part of the institutional norm, but it will take all of us working together to make it a success! Stay tuned for more information later this summer and in the meantime, take a look at this information on Miramar Greenery and EDCO’s new facility.

Can I compost at home?

Home composting is much easier than you think. Watch this video by Epic Gardening to learn about six different ways to compost no matter where you live. Additionally, in this podcast episode of Life Kit by NPR, Leonard Diggs, the director of operations of the Pie Ranch Farm in Northern California, talks about the different options for composting at home. Leonard started composting in the ‘70s and believes that the need to compost is more urgent than ever. Listen to the full podcast to learn more about the benefits of composting and the first steps towards composting on your own.

Water Conservation

While water covers more than 90% of our planet, only about 1% is liquid freshwater. Therefore, as population and demand for clean drinking water increases, we all must reexamine the ways we take water use for granted. A single solution will never solve the nuanced water conservation problem. Many facets of society must work together to restructure how we use this valuable resource.

This module:

  • Explains the context of the global water crisis and the consequences of how we currently use water
  • Provides examples of water conservation strategies and descriptions of the current state of international and local water use

What is the water crisis?

Although we often take clean water for granted, it is not as abundant as it seems. The world is facing a global water crisis such that, “by 2040, most of the world won’t have enough water to meet demand year-round.” While the planet will always possess the same amount of water, only 1% of Earth’s water is liquid freshwater available for humans to use. With population growth and adverse effects of climate change, that water supply is becoming more limited. This Netflix documentary episode explains the factors restricting access to clean water and the need to strategize changing our water use to prepare for future decades. Watch the full episode to learn more about where we get our water, how we use it and how we should value it. Then, read this PEW article to learn more about how different cities, countries and institutions around the world have begun to address the water crisis by revitalizing the water cycle.

What can we do to reduce water waste?

Since we all share Earth’s water, each of us must take responsibility for the water we use. Your everyday choices can significantly reduce your water footprint, including the food you eat, the products you consume and the direct water you use. You can also support activities that can help others make water use more sustainable. Read this Green Action Center article and visit their website to learn more about what you can do to conserve water. We should also work to prevent water contamination, since pollution is one of the major contributing factors to non-usable water. Watch this greentreks video to learn more about how to prevent water pollution, including good management practices of farms and industrial sites and controlling runoffs from roofs and driveways. Conserving and protecting water is as much a personal endeavor as it is an institutional one, which means we can all do our part to address the water crisis.

Does water conservation matter even in water rich areas?

Water conservation is imperative even in places with high rainfall and ample surface water because the demand for fresh drinking water increases with population growth. Though water is recycled naturally, different stages of the water cycle can take a long time to complete. For example, it can take thousands of years to refill a completely drained underground aquifer, even in areas with high rainfall. In areas with little precipitation and those that use water faster than it can be replenished naturally, water becomes nonrenewable at a local level. Thus, as this Sustainable Living article discusses, even if you live in an area with a lot of water, conserving it is important for human consumption, industry, wildlife and the environment. Waste and overuse will deplete the supply of any common resource.

READ: Why Conserve Water if it’s Renewable?

What is groundwater and how do we conserve it?

Groundwater fills aquifers, the spaces between and within rocks below the water table. The water table level varies from location to location, which means groundwater accessibility also varies. This National Geographic explanation of the water table provides information on the science behind groundwater and the factors that affect it. While groundwater is a valuable resource, we don’t often consider it that way. Today, many factors threaten groundwater supplies, from overuse and depletion to contamination and poor infrastructure. The Groundwater Foundation’s website describes groundwater and the threats it faces.

Why doesn’t stormwater replenish our water supplies?

Ideally, precipitation from storms soaking the ground would replenish aquifers, lakes and rivers; however, our populated areas now contain too many “impervious surfaces,” such as pavement and roofs. This prevents rain from soaking in below the water table and instead, collects pollutants that runoff into the rivers and oceans. To mitigate runoff effects, many areas are employing new strategies to capture rainwater before pollutants contaminate it. Read this American Rivers article to learn more about the problems stormwater poses for our freshwater supplies. Then, visit the EPA website, which provides a series of articles through their Soak Up the Rain campaign to explain why stormwater is so important and what we can do to recharge our water supplies instead of polluting them.

Why is water privatization an ineffective solution to the water crisis?

As global population increases, the demand for clean drinking water follows. Water has become an increasingly valuable and scarce resource, but the economic market doesn’t reflect its value. Water rights can be purchased for far less than they are actually worth to local populations and companies can then bottle and sell the water for a profit elsewhere. Research has proven that privatization overstresses local water tables and leads to a loss of equality in utilities access. Nestle is infamous for using false promises of jobs to entice towns to sell their water and then selling it back to them at a profit. The Guardian article below discusses the Six Nations of the Grand River indigenous reserve in Ontario, Canada, where the majority of residents have no access to clean drinking water, while Nestle extracts millions of litres of water from their land. The video linked below features a town in Michigan where Nestle pays next to nothing for the water it pumps, while the residents protest increasingly evident signs of environmental degradation.

What is wastewater treatment and reclamation?

When water goes down the drains in U.S. buildings and residences, it travels to a wastewater treatment plant to be treated and disinfected before often being released back into the environment. This U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) webpage gives a quick definition of wastewater and its treatment. While we hope that wastewater treatment prevents pollutants from affecting the environment, we can go a step further by reclaiming the water for reuse in irrigation, utilities and drinking water. Recycling this water can be a valuable tool in water conservation and reducing our dependence on local water sources. This Marketwired article provides ten reasons why wastewater recycling is beneficial to our environment and economy. Reclaimed wastewater facilities are more common in states like California than others; this Federal Energy Management Program map shows the location of all U.S. reclamation facilities.

What is desalination?

Desalination is the process of removing salt from seawater and turning it into fresh water for consumption. The number of desalination plants is slowly increasing around the world and they have proven to be a useful tool in supplementing water sources and preventing shortages. However, water desalination is not perfect and its drawbacks mean it cannot be the sole solution in addressing the water crisis. Desalination consumes a lot of energy and we are working to make the process more sustainable by applying renewable energy and repurposing the briny byproduct instead of discharging it into the ocean. This New York Times article explains how desalination works and what obstacles it still poses to countries. Here in San Diego County, the Carlsbad Desalination Plant opened in 2015, which is the largest desalination plant in North America. Visit the San Diego County Water Authority website to learn more about local desalination and watch this Scishow video to learn more about the science behind desalination and how it California uses it.

How do we use water?

Most of the U.S. has access to safe, treated water by turning on the tap. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the average U.S. household uses more than 300 gallons of water per day. Visit the EPA webpage on water use to learn more about how Americans use water. There are two types of water use: direct and virtual. The consumer can see direct water use, such as watering a lawn or washing dishes. Virtual water use is less obvious, because it occurs in each step of the production process of the goods that you buy. It accounts for surface water, ground water, rainwater and water used to make wastewater generated in manufacturing safe for reuse. The term “water footprint” represents the amount of water used to produce each of the goods and services that we use. The Water Footprint Calculator webpage publishes articles about the water that goes into consumer goods and daily actions, as well as providing a tool for measuring your personal water use.

Which countries use the most water?

The United States is not the only country contributing to the water crisis with wasteful practices and ineffective infrastructure. In fact, Canada wastes the most water per capita when combining domestic water use with industrial and agricultural consumption, with the average Canadian using the equivalent of 200 bathtubs full of water annually. has identified the seven countries with the highest domestic water consumption per capita. Read the article below for a brief overview of the industries and infrastructure that contribute to each country's wasteful relationship with water. 

READ: 7 Countries That Waste the Most Water

Where does your tap and bottled drinking water come from?

In the U.S., 64% of public water systems rely on surface water, such as rivers and lakes. The remaining 36% comes from groundwater stored in aquifers. Despite the misconception that bottled water is safer than tap water, U.S. tap water is perfectly safe with very few exceptions. Interesting Engineering’s video details the extensive filtering, cleaning and testing process water undergoes before it flows from your tap. In fact, according to The Pelican Water blog, nearly 50% of bottled water is “purified water,” or filtered or treated municipal tap water. The remaining 50% of bottled water is derived from “spring water,” which is defined by the EPA as water collected “where water flows naturally to the earth’s surface or from a borehole that taps into the underground source.” Read the full blog post below to learn more about the misleading marketing of bottled water companies.

Which industries consume the most water?

All industries have a certain water footprint, but some require a higher amount of freshwater than others. Worldwide industry water use represents a significant portion of total water use. The most water consuming sectors of the economy are agriculture, fashion, energy, meat, beverages, construction, mining and car industries. Agriculture uses 70% of the world’s freshwater and is a major source of water pollution as a result fertilizer and insecticide use. Read the 2030 builders article about industries that consume the most water in the world and the World Bank article to learn more specifically about water use in agriculture. Visit the EPA website to learn more about water use at industrial facilities.

What is the current state of the United States water infrastructure?

Our country’s water infrastructure is crucial to meeting our current and future water needs and it desperately needs improvement. The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) released its 2021 report card on America’s infrastructure and it gave the nation a C- and D+ for drinking water and wastewater infrastructure, respectively. The report found our system is aging and underfunded and we lose about six billion gallons of treated water each day to pipe breaks and leaks. The reports analyze different aspects of American water infrastructure and provide recommendations for how to improve the grades in the future. The ASCE also provides report cards for each state that go into detail on a local scale. Our water infrastructure requires more attention and investment if it is to continue managing our complicated use and disposal of water nationwide.

Where does California get its water?

Each area in California has different water needs due to the variation of climate and geology throughout the state. As a result, Californians get their water from several sources, from mountain snow to reservoirs and out of state sources like the Colorado River. This diversity in the state becomes a problem when some areas are far less resilient to drought than others. In California, “we have a patchwork in part because (water) is managed locally,” and small regions often have to fend for themselves instead of the state acting as a cohesive unit. This CalMatters article explains where the discrepancies in California water shortages fall and how the state’s patchwork infrastructure affects the state so often in drought.

READ: California water shortages: Why some places are running out

How does San Diego manage water use?

The City of San Diego focuses on water conservation year-round and provides information and opportunities to residents and businesses that discourage water waste. In San Diego, “permanent water use restrictions remain in effect regardless of the drought status,” and the city offers several rebates to make water saving options more affordable. The city website provides information on current water use restrictions, tips on how to save water, and tools on how to report water waste to make infrastructure repairs more efficient. Visit their water conservation webpage to learn more about San Diegans’ personal responsibility when it comes to water and how the city works to enforce it.

BROWSE: Water Conservation | Public Utilities

What does UC San Diego do to conserve water?

UC San Diego is committed to reducing water consumption by 36% by 2025, when compared to a three-year average baseline of FY 2005-06, FY 2006-07 and FY 2007-08. Additionally, the campus is required to meet the standards and restrictions established by California and the City of San Diego. The campus uses several strategies for eliminating water waste and decreasing water consumption in all areas. These strategies include the use of Automatic Meter Readings to identify leaks or irregular patterns and respond quickly, expansion of recycled water irrigation and converting turf areas to no-water-use landscape with drought-tolerant plants. Visit the UC San Diego water conservation page to read more about the campus’s efforts to conserve water and our recent progress.

READ: Campus Water Conservation Efforts


Modern western society is built upon the doctrines of materialism and consumerism. As defined by Merriam Webster, consumerism is “the theory that an increasing consumption of goods is economically desirable and a preoccupation with and an inclination toward the buying of consumer goods,” and materialism is “an idea that the only or the highest values or objectives lie in material well-being and in the furtherance of material progress.” Historically, humanity’s inclination towards consumerism and materialism was much less dramatic. In the past century however, a steep rise in the production and consumption of products has had varied and broad-reaching negative impacts on the environment. The human desire for stuff is the underlying premise throughout all our conversations about waste, greenhouse gas emissions and conservation. Learning more about the rise of consumer culture can help us understand its roots and negative implications and possibly allow us to break free to pursue a more environmentally conscious way of life.

What impacts of consumer culture do we see today and what can we expect in the future if we continue at the current rate?

A recent study found that, for the first time in human history, human-made mass has surpassed all living mass on the globe. As globalization accelerates, Americans are increasingly relying on natural resources and ecosystem services around the world to support their consumption patterns. According to The World Counts, scientists project that if consumption continues at the current rate, coupled with a steadily growing number of consumers, the Earth’s support systems may collapse in just 30 years, signaling the end of the world, as we know it. The World Counts provides sobering numerical realities of the downstream financial and environmental impact of our reliance on disposables and thirst for new things. Ecosystems and finances aren’t the only casualties, as the American Psychological Association article outlines the parallels between the rise of materialism and a decrease in overall contentment, indicating that our consumptive habits negatively affect our mental health as well.

Peruse this BBC article for speculation into the origins of humans' obsession with accumulating more stuff and a stark examination of the consequences. The article concludes with the staggering assertion that unless humans reduce consumption, drastically changing the way we live our lives, our own materialism might consume both our species and the planet sooner than we think.


How did modern consumerism develop in the United States?

A century ago, the idea of using an item once and then discarding it would have seemed ridiculous and wasteful. Today, we live in a society where everything is disposable and few products marketed to consumers are necessities made to last. Many people don't realize that this excessive, throwaway world was made largely by design. At the turn of the century, the transition from small retail shops to corporate giants created immense productive powers, which could finally meet the basic needs of the entire population. According to Kerryn Higgs, faced with a permanent state of overproduction and a loss of continued growth, “the traditional objective of making products for their self-evident usefulness was displaced by the goal of profit and the need for a machinery of enticement.” In short, companies saw consumerism as a business model, which relied on people continuing to buy new items.

Read Kerryn’s article for a deep dive into the intentional cultivation of unending consumer desire in order to support perpetual economic growth within the capitalist model. Then, the article by Tabitha Whiting zooms in further, highlighting the oil industry’s vital role in the rise of our “throwaway” society. The American Psychological Society article discusses the advertising tactics and cultural shifts that have driven Americans to become the greatest consumers in the world.


What is the difference between planned and perceived obsolescence and how do companies use these strategies to their advantage?

Planned and perceived obsolescence are strategies used to guarantee that consumers will replace products constantly, thus bolstering demand and ensuring continual profit for manufacturers. In the early 1900s, the leading manufacturers of the lightbulb colluded to shorten the lifespan of all lightbulbs from 2,500 hours to 1,000 hours and “planned obsolescence” was born. Since then, advertisers have begun to employ perceived obsolescence, convincing consumers that they need an updated product based on social status or style, even though their existing product is working well. Watch Our Changing Climate’s video for poignant examples of each strategy used today and an exploration of possible solutions.

WATCH: Planned Obsolescence Sucks. Here's Why It Still Exists.

How can companies change their business models to prevent the negative effects of consumerism?

Our current economic system incentivizes companies and consumers to follow a linear economic model, which involves making brand new products, which eventually become waste. However, some companies are attempting to integrate a circular approach to their business models. This Acciona video provides a simple explanation of why linear economics will not work to sustain our planet long term and the basics of why a circular approach is needed. Then, Patagonia describes its efforts to engage in a circular economic model and how its failures as well as successes help explain why circular models are so difficult but so important. Read the article to learn more about what this circularity in production might look like and where the obstacles lie.

What is Greenwashing?

With the rise of consumerism, individuals inevitably became concerned about the impact of their spending habits. In response to the environmentalism movement, businesses adapted their advertising strategies to ensure continued consumption. The term “greenwashing” was coined in the 1980s to describe the practice of making misleading sustainability claims to stimulate sales from concerned consumers and conceal a questionable environmental record. This article from The Guardian delves deeper into its origins. After reading the article, spend a few minutes watching this Bloomberg Quicktake video to learn about the increasingly sophisticated greenwashing strategies that companies employ today. Unfortunately, despite the growing public awareness of greenwashing tactics and its damaging consequences, governments have mostly failed to set universal environmental standards. In the case of existing mandates, lazy reporting standards weaken their efficacy. Review this Forbes’ article to learn about potential legislative solutions.

How does American consumption compare to other countries?

As a species, humanity continues to consume more of Earth’s resources than it can produce. In fact, according to the Hungry Planet, “it takes the planet 1.5 years to restore what humanity burns through in a year,” which means we are “outstripping the Earth’s resources by 50 percent—essentially using the resources of one and a half Earths every year.” In 2013, Hungry Planet developed an infographic and fact sheet to break down the resources humans use and compare countries in various categories including ecological demand, energy use, waste generated, and more. Take a look to gain a better understanding of how the way you lived almost ten years ago differed from others around the globe and imagine how much more we affect the Earth today. Americans consume far more products and resources than the average Earthling; studies estimate that it would take five Earths to support the global population if everyone consumed as much as the typical American. Read this factsheet from the University of Michigan to learn more about the U.S. Environmental Footprint.


Is better waste management the solution to human consumerism?

Around the world, communities are beginning to make the connection between traditional waste management systems, associated health problems and environmental degradation. A town in Japan produces almost no trash. This short Great Big Story video explores the process through which the citizens rebuilt their waste management system after decades of burning or dumping trash in nature. Watch the video to learn more about their implementation of a complex waste classification and disposal system. Though this is an excellent example of small-scale innovation and change, it required an overhaul of the town’s mindset and infrastructure, which would likely be impeded by expense, convenience and citizen support on a larger scale. Therefore, improving waste management alone will not be the remedy to our current consumption habits. Ultimately, a reduction in waste produced, through systemic change and societal restructuring, combined with improved waste management systems, is necessary to accomplish global change.

WATCH: Japan’s Town with No Waste

What are the regulations for single-use items in the US?

Single-use plastics are most commonly used for packaging and service ware, such as bottles, wrappers, straws and bags. Reducing plastic use is the most effective means of avoiding this waste. Eight states¾California, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Maine, New York, Oregon and Vermont¾have banned the use of plastic bags in grocery stores and other businesses. New Jersey will join the list soon as its legislature recently passed a ban. Some cities, such as Boston, Chicago and Seattle, have also enacted plastic bag bans. In addition to plastic bags, Vermont’s ban also placed restrictions on single-use straws and polystyrene containers. Malibu, Berkeley, Seattle and Miami Beach are among the U.S. cities to outlaw plastic straws. These bans prevent millions of tons of plastic from entering the waste stream each year and work to change the consumer behavior. Read this article from ABCNews to learn more about plastic bans and review this website for the Break Free from Plastic Pollution Act of 2021, sponsored by Sen. Jeff Merkley (OR) and Rep. Alan Lowenthal (CA).


What regulations does the state of California have in place for single-use items?

In August 2014, California became the first state to enact legislation imposing a statewide ban on single-use plastic bags at large retail stores. Instead, stores at certain locations may provide customers recycled paper bags, reusable plastic bags, or compostable bags, charging at least 10 cents per bag. This ban reduced plastic bag usage by 85% and has reduced coastal pollution. Review the National Conference of States Legislature website to learn more about plastic bag legislation in California (and in other states).

In 2018, California banned plastic drinking straws and in 2019, legislators passed a bill modeled on an ordinance adopted by Santa Cruz to outlaw plastic hotel toiletry bottles. Beyond these impacts, companies are forced to innovate, rethinking their designs and sourcing sustainable materials. 

BROWSE: Plastic Bag Legislation | NCLS

How is UC San Diego reducing waste and consumption?

At UC San Diego, many departments and entities work on different aspects of waste diversion and reduction. Explore this website to get an overview of the campus’s Zero Waste efforts. In addition, Procurement & Contracts works with campus-preferred vendors to identify green products, reduce packaging and provide options for consolidating orders while it manages and advises on product purchases for campus entities. Several services are available to the campus community to make waste reduction more routine. For example, Surplus Sales operates a warehouse outlet that sells reusable items. Visit their website to learn more about how they provide a space for repurposing items responsibly. Consumers can also choose to consolidate their orders when purchasing from Amazon or Oracle to minimize impacts from packaging and transportation. Finally, UC San Diego’s Core Bio and Chemistry & Biochemistry Stockroom offer a variety of laboratory and office products to campus researchers.


What choices can individuals make that have the most impact?

The average carbon footprint for a person in the United States is 16 tons, one of the highest rates in the world. Globally, the average is four times less, closer to four tons. To have a chance of avoiding a 2° C rise in global temperatures, the average global carbon footprint per year needs to drop under two tons by 2050. Consumers play a significant part in reducing emissions and slowing climate change by making environmentally friendly lifestyle choices. A poll by the World Economic Forum asked individuals from seven countries—United States, United Kingdom, China, Germany, Spain, Italy and France—which, if any, sustainability-related behaviors they expect to implement in 2021. One of the most popular responses was recycling or reusing products for another purpose. Consumers are also committed to driving less, but not necessarily taking more mass transit. Read this article from the World Economic Forum to learn more about the sustainable choices people around the world are already making.

As consumers, the first step towards a greener lifestyle is appreciating the link between our own behavior and its impact on the environment. Reducing your impact is not only about eliminating single-use items and disposing of your waste properly, but also about buying fewer items overall, reusing things that you already own and buying used when possible. The Beginners Guide to Zero Waste Living blog post breaks down the first ten steps to changing your mindset and habits to live a less wasteful or “zero waste” lifestyle. Another article from the World Economic Forum explains some ways to start to make a difference in your life, like understanding your own direct and indirect emissions. Using the Nature Conservancy calculator, you can find out your own carbon footprint and start making small changes to your daily life. Review these resources for some ideas on how to improve your consumer choices and help your family and friends to understand their impact as well.

Product Life Cycle

Most people make their purchase decisions based on price, brand, trendiness and personal preference. They should also consider the environmental consequences of the item they are buying, such as its production, use and disposal. Concern with a product’s ecological footprint, in all stages of its life, is known as life cycle thinking, which is an important perspective for the establishment of responsible and sustainable production and consumption patterns. If consumers demand sustainable products, from the raw material sourcing to end of life disposal or reuse options, manufacturers will be forced to adjust their supply chains accordingly. In this module, we will review each stage of the linear product life cycle and the tools used to assess a product’s overall environmental impact.

What is a Life Cycle Assessment?

When considering which items are more sustainable than others, we must look further than the waste they generate. Scientists can study the full environmental impact of a product through a Life Cycle Assessment (LCA), which examines all the factors involved in its production, use and disposal. When we consider an item’s life cycle like this, the total environmental impact can be greater than expected. Read this article to learn more about Life Cycle Thinking, where it came from and why it is useful. Then, watch this SciShow YouTube video that explains how LCAs work, using the comparative environmental impacts of grocery bag options as an example. These resources teach us about the types of considerations we must make when deciding which products are best for the environment.

How does a product's cradle-to-grave life cycle affect the environment?

The production of consumer goods affects our climate and environment in ways we often do not see. Manufacturing involves sourcing and consuming resources, emitting greenhouse gases and other air pollutants, water contamination and toxic waste disposal. The Life Cycle Assessment tool breaks these impacts into these five stages.

  1. Material Extraction and Processing: From the cotton in your T-shirt, to the sugar in your cookie, the items you use daily were made with materials that were extracted from the natural world. In some cases, the materials were extracted from existing products to be reused or recycled into new products. Regardless, huge amounts of material are often needed for a small product, like your iPhone. When considering a product’s environmental impact, you should first examine the process through which the raw materials used were sourced. According to the Guardian article below, extractive industries, like mining and farming, are responsible for more than half of the world’s carbon emissions and 85% of biodiversity loss. To learn about increasing extraction rates and the impact on the environment, read: Resource extraction responsible for half world’s carbon emissions
  2. Manufacturing: The environmental impact of the manufacturing process itself can be broken into two categories - inputs and outputs. Manufacturing inputs include all components that contribute to producing a product, like land, water and electricity. Outputs are typically waste materials, like greenhouse gases, contaminated water and chemical byproducts.
  3. Packaging and Transportation:
    1. The environmental impact of packaging materials, defined as materials used to wrap or protect goods, include both the effects of manufacturing the packaging and the impact of disposing it after use. In the manufacture and distribution process, they use natural resources, energy and water, which can result in the generation of byproducts, some of them toxic to the environment. Unfortunately, many packaging products are designed to be single use and most of them, like soft plastics, do not break down quickly, if at all, meaning that they will end up in a landfill for a long time.
    2. The transportation of raw materials, finished products and employees can result in air, noise and/or water pollution and disruption of wildlife habitats. Before nation-wide distribution, a single product can be transported by plane or marine vessel multiple times. Trucks, barges and rails used to transport products are powered by fossil fuels, which release large quantities of carbon dioxide into the air when burned. When you purchase goods produced in your local community, you help reduce the miles that they travel to get to you, fuel consumption and air pollution, reducing the environmental impact of the product you are buying. To learn about some advantages of buying locally, read this Green Business Bureau article: Buying Locally: Pros and Cons
  4. Use: During their use, products negatively affect the environment through their consumption of resources, like energy and water. They can also release air and/or water pollution, causing additional damage to ecosystems. For example, a washing machine uses water and energy every time it is run throughout the course of its useful life. It also releases synthetic chemicals used in conventional laundry detergents into the environment. These chemicals are harmful to people and wildlife. As consumers increasingly adopt life cycle thinking, sustainably minded manufacturers are developing products that have less impact on the planet during use. Washing machine manufacturers focus on efficiency, reducing the resources needed for each load of laundry. And, several non-toxic detergents on the market are less harmful when released into the water cycle.
  5. End of Life:
    1. Each manufactured product has a different lifespan, depending on the durability, relevance and intended use of the product. However, some companies use “planned obsolescence” to manipulate the consumer’s perception of a product’s functionality and durability to prompt them to dispose of an item prematurely. This strategy is particularly prominent in technology, where companies constantly release new versions and upgrades, while preventing consumers from maintaining their current products, to make them seem obsolete. Read this article to learn more about how manufacturers manipulate product end of life and how consumers are fighting for the “right to repair:” Our Right to Repair| by Leyla Acaroglu | Disruptive Design
    2. In a linear system, like the one we have now, a product ends its life with disposal, usually in a landfill. Sometimes, parts or all of a product can be recycled or reused for different purposes and they create a circular system by returning to the material extraction phase. While that happens with some items already, far too many products are thrown in a landfill, where they produce pollutants and greenhouse gases. Since our available resources are finite, our global economy will need to improve its ability to work within a circular life cycle system as opposed to a linear one. Circle Economy provides a Circular Product Design Framework to demonstrate how products can be designed to reenter the economy at end of life instead of being thrown away. READ: The Circular Product Design Framework - Insights

Now that you know each step of the life cycle process, explore these resources to get the complete picture. First, this webpage by the EU Science Hub breaks down the scale and types of environmental impacts each stage of the supply chain produces when considering the “cradle-to-grave” perspective for materials. The video by ClickView explains the factors to consider in the sourcing, manufacturing, and disposal of products, and provides an argument for manufacturing using recycled materials to divert waste and avoid using new resources. “The Story of Stuff” reveals the social and environmental inequalities implicit in our linear production system.

BROWSE: Raw Materials Information System


What can manufacturers do to reduce their environmental impact?

While there is plenty of room to grow, there are options available for companies who seek to mitigate the negative effects production and manufacturing have on the environment. This UN Climate Change News article explains their partnership with the Coalition on Materials Emissions Transparency (COMET) to create a framework companies can use to better understand their climate impact in order to reduce them. This podcast episode from SupplyChainBrain explores how consumers are pushing companies towards ethical and visible sourcing, using H&M Clothing Retail Company as an example for the possible strategies that could be applied. And, read this ZeroWaste article to learn more about how companies are able to divert their production and manufacturing waste from the landfill and which companies stand out as the leaders in zero waste.


LISTEN: SupplyChainBrain Podcast

How did COVID-19 affect global supply chains and their move towards sustainability?

The COVID-19 pandemic revealed glaring structural weakness in the global supply chain. When economies worldwide went into lockdown and demand for goods plummeted, companies responded by slowing supply. Soon afterward, thanks to fiscal stimulus and a downturn in COVID cases, consumer demand abruptly skyrocketed. As manufacturing restarted and international trade resumed, it became clear that the system had already deteriorated past the point of a speedy recovery. Read Forbes’ article about the challenges faced by each link in the supply chain and the downstream impacts of continued disruption. Harvard reveals the resulting downturn in global sentiment towards international trade in its article “Global Supply Chains in a Post-Pandemic World” and calls for the development of a more resilient system. For a more uplifting perspective, read the following MIT article to learn about the pressures driving the continued push for supply chain sustainability. According to a large-scale international survey of supply chain professionals, the pandemic had no impact or increased commitments to sustainability as a business imperative.


How does UC San Diego consider product life cycles when making procurement decisions?

As part of the Sustainable Practices Policy, the University of California follows a systemwide procurement strategy that focuses on the environmental impacts of purchasing decisions. According to university policy, sustainable procurement aims to reduce unnecessary purchasing first, then prioritizes the purchase of surplus or multiple-use products before purchasing recyclable or compostable products. When making these decisions, buyers look for products with green certifications that address one, multiple or all stages of the product life cycle. For example, the ENERGY STAR™ program identifies electronics and appliances, which consume less electricity than their counterparts. More broadly, the Green Seal certification encompasses the environmental impact of cleaning and building materials from raw materials extraction, manufacturing and use, to reuse or disposal. Review the University of California’s Sustainable Procurement Guidelines to learn about the other green certifications that university buyers consider when selecting everything from electronics to furniture to cleaning chemicals.

READ: UC Sustainable Procurement Guidelines

How can individual consumers evaluate a product’s life cycle when choosing the most sustainable option?

The most sustainable option when considering a purchase is to abstain or to purchase a secondhand item. Many different places offer high-quality used products, from traditional retail thrift stores to online marketplaces, like OfferUp and Craigslist, to online consignment websites, like ThredUp. When you absolutely need a new item, the greenest choice is a sustainably produced item that was made to last. There are many factors to consider when evaluating the eco-friendliness of a product. Luckily, tools, evaluation systems and green labels consider those factors for you.

According to “Are Green Labels Legitimate or Just Greenwashing?” by Scientific American, Americans’ confidence in green labels reached a low in 2011. To address this, the Federal Trade Commission created Green Guides. To learn about their efforts, browse the “Guides for the Use of Environmental Marketing Claims,” designed to encourage marketers to avoid making environmental claims that mislead consumers. While some green labels and certifications are unregulated or meaningless, you can trust many of them. The “Environmental Labels in North America: A Guide for Consumers” provides a comprehensive list of trustworthy green labels in North America. For example, the ACT label by MyGreenLab provides information that researchers can use to reduce the environmental impact of their lab purchases.

In addition to green labels, there are formal evaluation systems like Life Cycle Assessment (LCA). According to the European Trade commission, the LCA is currently the best framework for evaluating environmental impacts of products. As a consumer, the best way to access this framework is to find the Environmental Product Declaration (EPD), a document that provides the results of a product’s LCA. Watch The AudioPedia’s video on Environmental Product Declarations to learn more. ECONYL provides an excellent example of the factors evaluated in a LCA using their jeans as an example in the article below.

If you cannot find a LCA conducted by a company or a reputable green label, browse the company’s website and product description to determine its sourcing and manufacturing processes. Ask yourself, do they have an end-of-life recycling program or do they specifically call out the sustainable and unsustainable parts of their production process? Sustainably minded retailers often outline their product’s life cycle on their website in an effort towards transparency. Ultimately, the key to sustainable purchasing as an individual consumer is critical thinking and discernment. It is a willingness to spend time analyzing each step of the product's life cycle and potentially more money on a sustainably produced product that was made to last. And, always asking yourself if it is something that you cannot live without?




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