Students encourage zero-waste lifestyle through app

LSA senior Samuel McMullen and Ross senior Debbie Cheng share their reasons for becoming more environmentally friendly in Ross Tuesday.

LSA senior Samuel McMullen and Ross senior Debbie Cheng share their reasons for becoming more environmentally friendly in Ross Tuesday. Buy this photo
Alec Cohen/Daily

 

Tuesday, November 28, 2017 - 4:49pm

Live Zero Waste is an online platform that provides resources and tools for those interested in living a waste-free lifestyle, started by LSA senior Samuel McMullen and his older sister, University of Michigan alum Lydia McMullen, in 2016. The Live Zero Waste team has recently grown and is now composed of six students who are working to increase the initiative's presence online, on campus and in the greater Ann Arbor community.

Samuel first pledged to live “zero waste”, a lifestyle that entails generating no disposable waste and reusing resources, during the summer of 2015. His sister was writing a paper on renewable energy policy in Beijing as a side project for the Natural Resources Defense Council, and she brought him along as a research assistant. Together, they gave a presentation on how living zero waste benefits the environment.

In researching for the presentation, Samuel started to learn how the vast majority of waste is caused by the production chain that yields a purchased good.

“We started looking at the numbers and how much trash you can save not downstream but upstream of where you are,” he said. “By not buying this thing you prevented all the trash that went into making it.”

As part of the presentation, both Lydia and Sam pledged to live zero waste for a year.

“Part of her presentation training was to make a promise and a request,” Samuel said. “We decided our promise would be that we would do zero waste for a year, and our request was that other people join for like some amount of time if they wanted to. At the NRDC we got our first round of pledges.”

After pledging to live zero waste themselves and learning more about the lifestyle, the McMullen siblings became invested in educating other people and enabling them to lead more sustainable lives.

“After we did that presentation we thought, ‘This is a pretty good idea, let’s work with it and make it a process where people can pledge and we’ll help them out,’” he said. “A lot of the struggle with zero waste is finding other resources and figuring out what it actually means.”

Throughout the following year, the two worked on developing the Live Zero Waste platform, which aimed to provide resources and information for other people to join the zero waste movement. In the spring of 2016, Samuel was chosen to give a TED Talk at the TEDxUofM event about his journey and living zero waste. The talk helped to publicize Live Zero Waste on campus and catalyze the development of the website.

The McMullen siblings continued to run and grow the platform by themselves until fall 2017, when Samuel enrolled in an entrepreneurship course in which students form groups and create something based on an idea. It was here that McMullen met Business senior Debbie Cheng, along with four other students, to help cultivate Live Zero Waste.

“I looked on his website, I saw the TED Talk, and I was really amazed by it,” Cheng said. “I wanted to be part of it because (Sam) was super proactive and passionate about it and I really saw that we could really make something big on campus and around the globe.”

Cheng works on the business development side of Live Zero Waste, reaching out to local businesses such as Lucky’s Market and Roo’s Roast to advertise the brand. Two other students work on developing the website and a mobile application, while another student, who is from France, brings an international perspective, as European culture and institutions are more zero-waste friendly.

Engineering junior Brett Swiecicki is one of the members working to create a mobile application which will allow people to share their experience going waste-free and access helpful resources. by allowing users to post to the app when they make a change.  The application would help involve millennials in the movement, Live Zero Waste’s target audience.

“The main motive to develop the app was so that it would be easier for users to maintain track of their progress and have easier access to educational content on a variety of different platforms,” Swiecicki said.

The application would ideally involve a social media aspect in which people could post when they’ve made progress toward living waste-free for their friends to see.

“It really relies on having a network effect to be successful,” Cheng said. “Once you have your friends doing it makes it a lot easier to try it.”

The McMullens and Cheng hope Live Zero Waste can help increase awareness and action among students and community members who may already be environmentally conscious, but don’t know how to change their lifestyles to reflect their beliefs.

“Mostly it’s getting the awareness that your purchasing decision causes a huge network effect that most people don’t think about,” Samuel said. “I didn’t think about it.”

Going forward, the team hopes to use the University community as a launch pad for Live Zero Waste.

“The local community here is our first step,” Cheng said. “Once we’ve got the website and the mobile application off the ground, which we’ve made a lot of good strides, but we want to improve it more, we can reach a bigger area.”

Even if only for a short period of time, Live Zero Waste hopes to encourage people to try out a waste-free lifestyle so they have heightened awareness of consumption habits and make more sustainable choices in the future.

“It’s really just about getting over the hump rather than trying to just focus on a few people doing it for like years and years and years,” Cheng said. “It’s let’s try to get them to do it for a day, then a week, a month, a year.”