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We started a podcast! This is a part of a 4-part special that helps you understand the systematic impacts of waste, and what you can do about it. This episode, we are talking about the impact of COVID-19 on the zero waste Movement and we have an interview with students who have been organizing the Student Mutual Aid Network. 




[Whispering by Paul Whiteman and His Orchestra (1923) plays]

0:09 Hi and welcome to the Beyond Waste Podcast, a podcast designed to help you understand the systematic impacts of waste and what you can do about it. My name is Chelsea and I will be your host. This week we have PLAN staff members Young, Ramiro, and Faye who discuss zero waste in the time of COVID. If you have any questions about the topics discussed today, please reach out to us. Our email is


Ramiro: So I’m Ramiro, I use He/Him pronouns. 

Young: I’m Young, I use They/Them pronouns. 

Faye: Um, and I’m Faye, I use They and She pronouns


Young: And welcome to the first ever, um, Beyond Waste Podcast. 


[Whispering by Paul Whiteman and His Orchestra (1923) plays]


Young: Two weekends ago, before everything got kind of crazy, Hannah and I were like, “What if we went to Dunkin’ for breakfast?” So we did, on a Sunday it was wonder-


Faye: (interrupting) Oh did you get like the Beyond Meat breakfast..

Young: Yes! 

Faye: …sandwich? That is so good! 

Ramiro: That is so good!

Young: It’s delicious, that is why I wanted to go there.


Young: I was craving that, and Hannah loves donuts so we went there. The first one we went to was under construction, which was bullshit, and the second one we went to, um I had brought our mugs, because like, that’s what we do, um, and I ordered and handed it to her and she was like “Oh no we don’t take those”. And for a second I like, didn’t realize what she was referring to, I was like “ What?! Yes you do!” Um, but then she had gloves on, so I was like “Okay, this is because of the thing.” Um, But I still got a great breakfast. 


Faye: It’s really, like it’s a shame, on the one hand, because a lot of folks have put a lot of effort into, uh, making it possible to bring reusables. So that is really a shame, and kind of like Young’s story, I had a similar experience: It’s just like, for someone who is so used to bringing a reusable you get shaken out of your routine, when they don’t take.. And you’re like “But you always take it” and then you’re like “Do I not get a coffee?” and obviously that is out of the question. And it’s a little bit of a weird experience, but at the end of the day, it’s not the end of the world. 


Ramiro: I mean, I think it is really tough, cuz, especially thinking about defining what zero waste is. Oftentimes in the public view, zero waste is the like, personal zero waste, like zero waste at home, like the zero waste products and right now, it is fair for people to be weary of those things. 


Faye: Hopefully, It can be channeled into something that like, makes it possible to have actual systems of reuse that are more sanitary and have more centralized distribution.  


Young: Yeah, I never was aware of the conversation that like, BYO (bring your own) is not the ideal. Which is fun, cuz it’s like a fun realization I got to have. Um, that folks don’t want this to be the future, you don’t bring your own everything, they already have all that stuff, it just gets reused in the system. 


Ramiro: This entire story, cuz this was like huge, it was all over the news everywhere– “Starbucks and Dunkin’ aren’t using reusable cups anymore” and it really reminded me of when Starbucks went like “We aren’t going to be using straws anymore” And everyone was like “Oh that is the solution!”. No, this is not the solution, and this isn’t necessarily the problem either, the problem is a lot bigger than Starbucks not accepting reusable cups. 


Faye:  There’s this like…. There’s this idea that “if they are not taking reusable cups anymore, then the zero waste movement is over.” Um, that’s not the whole movement. It’s like, uh the media headline…


Ramiro: (interrupting) It’s sensationalism! They are like “this is the end”. It’s over!

Faye: Yeah! Yeah, it’s over but it also, but I think the connection to the straws, Ramiro, is a really good point, but it is still not actually looking at the problem. The actual problem is that we live in a consumerist society that is so incredibly reliant on service workers that like, those folks are continuously having to put themselves in danger because of Capitalism. And like, bringing a reusable mug is not changing Capitalism. It is changing your impact, which is important, but bringing a reusable mug is not affecting the fact that our society is so rooted in consumptive capitalism that we exploit people at this incredible level.  


Faye: Um, I’m hoping that the breakdown that we are having as a society right now, both reusables, and healthcare, and schools and food access, like all of that is in the same space of “shit’s not working”, and it’s been not working for a long time. So kind of like Naomi Klein says in Shock Doctrine, these times of societal shock can be times where we either be where we regress, or where we make progress as a society in incredible leaps and bounds. 


Faye: So, when thinking about the question “Will the zero waste movement survive the Coronavirus?”, the thing that really gets me is defining the zero waste movement. (laughing) Which probably is an unfair place to start, but I’m too deep in that hole to climb out of it right away. But when we think about how we want to define the zero waste movement, it’s so complex. And it incorporates pipeline resistance, and creative product redevelopment, creative business structure, and like anticapitalist organising and recovery, and dumpster diving and student organizing and all of this through the Point of Intervention Theory of Change at PLAN. All of this is the zero waste movement. So if we are saying “Can the zero waste movement survive the Coronavirus?”, there is way more work for us to do. 


Ramiro: Like it is, there are a lot of unknowns that come with this virus, but zero waste as a whole, at least as we view it, it’s much broader, like what you said Faye, reusable products, it is not just reusable products, it is the system as a whole. 


Faye: Like, yeah there are areas of our movement that are going to take a hit, and are already taking a hit, like reusables and the entire reusable infrastructure. But at the same time, I think that there are opportunities for the zero waste movement to make strides and places that the zero waste movement has already made strides, like you see the student organizing that has happened around responding to campuses unethical treatment of students as they have kicked them off of campus. I can see this as a place where we can grow, even if we shed some pieces of where we were before– we might have to.


Young: I saw a tweet that was like “For folks that are getting upset about the people that are buying like, 20 cases of toilet paper, like I have some bad news for you.” and it was about like, people may be hoarding toilet paper, but like, people hoard money.

Faye: Yeah! I know that tweet and it described it, like for those of you who get annoyed about people hoarding toilet paper, wait ‘til you hear that 1% of the population has hoarded the majority of the wealth.


Faye: Um, and I think that kind of inequality and exploitation is very much the root of the waste problem. 

Ramiro: I think it is really interesting how this has led to, like the response to this whole thing, has kind of been like, people are getting laid off and the inequity is being highlighted right now in a way it hasn’t in my lifetime at least. Where it’s like, the people that are most greatly affected by everything getting shut down are the working class individual living paycheck to paycheck. Government response to that now, is like “Let’s stop shut offs, let’s stop utility shut offs, let’s stop foreclosing on people, let’s stop on rent.”, and the response on this is highlighting a lot of the inequity in the system. 


Young: I think it’s somewhat ironic, like all these people are getting laid off, and everyone’s like “it’s not their fault” But at any other point, it was never their fault when they got laid off. All of a sudden everyone cares about this, even though in the past they were saying “these people are lazy or not good at their job”, but no, people get laid off for very random reasons, because an emergency could happen in their life just like COVID is happening right now in all of our lives. I want people to take the same compassion that they have right now for workers and always apply that. It is never someone’s fault for getting fired or not having a job. 


Faye: A huge necessity moving forward is being aware of each other and the needs of our community and the ways in which the structure of inequity are being enacted at this moment. 

There has been such an incredible outpouring of response and connection of students responding to the impact that their campuses are having. For folks that don’t know, most campuses in the county are shut down, have moved to digital classes, had students move off campus. Many campuses took very very little accountability for what they were asking of students. And hundreds of students have come out and created a mutual aid network. And we are going to have an interview with a couple of the students that are doing that organizing, to talk about their experience, their motivation, and some things they are learning. 

[Whispering by Paul Whiteman and His Orchestra (1923) plays]


Neerja: My name is Neerja, I use She/Her and They/Them Pronouns. I am a Junior at the University of Pittsburgh, studying Molecular Biology with a concentration in Biochemistry. 

Albert: My name is Albert, I’m a Senior at the University of Pittsburgh, I use He/Him pronouns and I am studying Computer Science.


Faye: I’m thinking it would be really helpful grounding if you could all just share a timeline. What’s been going on?

Neerja: Initially, I believe on the 11th, it was just a request for students on campus to return home and students who were not able to leave campus could submit a sanction or request and it would be evaluated and they would be allowed to stay. And then I think it escalated from there, where they started shutting down other on-campus facilities. And then eventually, I think late last week, on Thursday or Friday, they restricted research personnel to only essential personnel, so people who were doing research could be beneficial to fighting the pandemic. 


Albert: And they are also relocating students that are living on campus to dorms that have private bathrooms so you wouldn’t be able to share bathrooms in the event of someone else getting infected. Etc.

Neerja: Either yesterday or today, they started housing medical professionals who are working at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center in dorms so they don’t have to return home

Faye: Wow. So would you all say this is an unprecedented crisis?

Neerja: Absolutely.

Faye: It is a wild space that we are functioning. Would you all say that the response that Pitt gave to their students has been ethical? And have you pressed Pitt, the administration to change their response?


Albert: So compared to other universities, Pitt was one of the few that allowed students, that gave students a window of opportunity. From the 12th to the 20th you’ve this time if you want to come back and get your stuff and we will refund you 36% of your housing, uh your housing and dining. And that was definitely a better response than Harvard and Syracuse.

Neerja: Yeah, Harvard was like 5 days to move all your stuff out.

Albert: Yeah, and they also had the option for the students to request to stay. And according to my friends who are RAs that are still here. No one that has requested to stay has been denied yet. 

Neerja: Oh, that’s wonderful. 

Albert: And also there has been a small movement to try to get classes to have the option to be pass or fail this semester.

Neerja: That was successful!

Albert: Yeah, it did pass. 


Faye: Yeah, so I’m curious academic-wise, what does your weekly schedule look like? Like, are you going to Zoom lectures?

Neerja: I don’t have any lab classes this semester, which is good. Because I have some friends who are TAs for labs, and it’s a mess, apparently. So I have another class where the lectures are taught over Zoom and then assessments, I know I have a quiz tomorrow, and he is sending an email and you have to type in the answers and send it back to him.

Albert: Um for me, 2 of my classes are on Zoom. Then one of my professors, before the university moved offline, or I guess online, he was already monitoring the situation. So he recorded all of his lectures and posted them to Youtube. So he will be sending us the Youtube link for his stuff. He basically said to watch the lecture videos, he’ll send quizzes, and to reply the best that you can. My other professor hasn’t said anything since her last email so… (laughter).


Faye: That’s wild. Do you feel like you are learning? Do you feel like you are getting something out of your classes right now? 

Albert: No. I am not yet at the mental capacity to like “oh I’m doing school work.”

Neerja: For me, like the tonal shift and the environment shift, because I’m back at home in Michigan and it’s weird like going to college during the day and then like eating dinner with your family. 

Faye: Yeah I can imagine that is very strange. Are you still in touch with some of your organizing networks from Pitt? 

Neerja: I’ve been doing like group study sessions over Zoom or Facetime with friends… or like Animal Crossing just came out (laughter) so I’ll like hop on Animal Crossing and we can see each others’ islands. 


Faye: Can you actually describe what the Student Mutual Aid Network for folks that don’t know? 

Albert: There is a huge resource list, we look at everyone’s resources. Each school’s own resource guide is put in there. There might be something we are lacking or we don’t know of, so we can go to other schools and see what resources they put up and what different forms of aid they are giving out. Like, I am also trying to start, and hoping to release a grocery and supplies delivery thing. But I didn’t start it til Neerja directed me to a community in Massachusetts that already had some sort of set up, and they shared all their materials in the Drive publicly, so I am going to adopt from that and try to make it a little bit different for the Pitt Community. 

Faye: Mhmm, so you are learning from tools that other campuses are creating in their response?

Neerja: Yeah, there is a pretty open exchange of information and tools. 


Faye: So how do you see this network being beneficial moving forward?

Albert: We talked about that briefly in our last meeting. We were talking about the long term-goals of something like this. And whether or not this organization we build, or this team we build. Would it be something that students at universities establish as a student org? Or is it a branch of a universites crisis center? And then somehow we can connect universities through that to help each other out. I don’t think come up with a verdict. 

Neerja: I do hope that once this is said and done, once we can resume normal life these mutual aid groups stick around whether they be actual student orgs or grassroots coalitions. There are always people that need help and always people willing to give help. 

Faye: Um, yeah thank you all so much I really appreciate you taking the time to chat with me. Anything else y’all wanna add?
Neerja: The big thing I want to reiterate is there is no faculty oversight or administrative oversight. I think not just with us, but I think from what I know it is completely student-run. And I think it is really notable that everything that we are seeing in terms of mutual aid has been 100% or mostly student-driven.

[Whispering by Paul Whiteman and His Orchestra (1923) plays]

Ramiro: So if anyone is having a hard time right now, free free reach out to PLAN, we are always here to help. And if you are interested in donating to the Student Mutual Aid [Network] fund, we are going to leave a link for that below.

[Whispering by Paul Whiteman and His Orchestra (1923) plays]

Chelsea: You’ve reached the end of the first episode of the Beyond Waste Podcast, a four-week special full of PLAN’s thoughts, ideas, and philosophy hashes. If you like what you heard, we’d love for you to subscribe, rate, review, and send this to all of your friends. Thanks for listening and remember to wash your hands.