Sustainability in the age of social distancing: WU’s Earth Day EcoChallenge

| Senior Editor

Although we may think of April as our first full month of social distancing, there’s something else—that’s much more exciting—happening this month: Earth Day. Today, Wednesday, April 22, is actually the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, and to celebrate, the Office of Sustainability has created a team for a virtual 30-day Earth Day EcoChallenge through which members of the Washington University community can commemorate Earth Day and practice sustainable habits from afar.

The EcoChallenge, an online alternative to the previously planned Wash. U. Earth Week, consists of numerous options for participants to decrease their carbon footprint at home. Tasks include cutting down on food waste, managing screen time and decreasing meat consumption. Wash. U.’s team has 86 members so far, and the team is currently ranked no. 12 out of 645 teams.

Clara Steyer, the Office of Sustainability’s Sustainability Coordinator, wrote in a statement to Student Life that the challenge is “a fun, easy, and social” way to stay engaged during Earth Month, and the actions included in it are “specially tailored to the new reality of confinement and social distancing.”

Kate Koenig, a Database Assistant at the Washington University Physician Network, decided to join the challenge to learn more information about climate change and to try small ways to reduce her family’s plastic usage. Koenig said she appreciates the “awareness and the information” she’s been able to gain from the EcoChallenge, and she’s even gotten her family involved in it.

“We’ve kind of turned it into a little bit of a family thing, and my daughter is super excited about Earth Day today. It’s been a nice distraction from everything else that’s been going on,” Koenig said.

Earth Day’s history is rooted in advocacy and activism, but it may feel hard to do those things during quarantine. However, Steyer made it clear that there are plenty of ways to organize from your own home.

“Signing petitions, emailing, writing or calling public officials or companies to advocate for planet-friendly and environmentally just policies are still things we can do from our homes. In addition, the Friday for Future climate strikes have shifted online, and the Sunrise School offers online trainings specifically on the topic of climate organizing during the pandemic,” Steyer wrote.

This is a very turbulent time, but doing our part for the environment can help us feel at least some sense of stability. The impacts of climate change have steadily been increasing, and whether or not you decide to do the EcoChallenge, it’s always good to be conscious of your carbon footprint.

It’s pretty easy to be eco-friendly at Wash. U. because sustainable options are so accessible; there is widespread access to recycling and compost bins, and both Bear’s Den and the Danforth University Center offer vegetarian and vegan options. Still, Steyer noted that many environmentally-friendly practices are also more feasible.

“The good news is a lot of the habits you can take to reduce your footprint are also beneficial for your wallet, and your health,” Steyer wrote. “…Swapping traditional light bulbs for LEDs will ultimately reduce your utility costs. Buying used instead of new is also both more affordable and sustainable. The examples are countless!”

The Earth Day EcoChallenge will be running until the end of the month, and every time you complete an action you’ll add more points to Wash. U.’s team total. And although the first of the month has passed already, you can still backlog actions from up to four days ago, and it’ll be a great way to jumpstart your eco-conscious quarantine.

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