All posts by Jessica Sponholtz

Recapping Black History Month along with Our environmental Racism and Social Justice Campaign

By Jessica Sponholtz, Digital Marketing Intern

I’ll be the first to say that the year of 2020 was eye-opening for me in terms of the racial injustices faced by people of color, especially Black Americans. I’ve always been relatively informed of recent hate crimes and major events involving racism, such as the murders of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown. However, after the world shut down some of our usual distractions and George Floyd was brutally murdered by a police officer in Minneapolis just a couple months later, the whole world, including myself, was forced to finally pay attention. Protests erupted all over the world in defense of Black lives and the movement became shockingly polarizing as the phrase “Black Lives Matter” became more politically charged than ever before. We learned about the stories of Breonna Taylor, Philando Castille, Eric Garner, Ahmaud Arbery, Tamir Rice and so many more individuals who mercilessly lost their lives at the hands of injustice, seemingly for the “crime of being Black.”

Millions of Americans also started asking, “How can we help?” We took to the streets in the form of protesting, signing petitions, sending donations, and educating our fellow citizens regarding the history of racism within our nation. As the momentum died down and other worldly news took over our screens, it became apparent that many instances of activism were simply performative. The challenge we all face is to stay engaged in the work of “antiracism,” as Dr. Ibram X. Kendi identifies it, as simply being “not racist” is passive and we need active antiracism to fight for social justice.

“How to be an Antiracist” by Dr. Ibram X. Kendi. You can also watch many of his lectures and keynote addresses online, which are very engaging and thought-provoking.

The UW-Whitewater Sustainability Office set an intention to educate allies through a marketing campaign targeting environmental racism and social justice initiatives throughout Black History Month. As we reach the end of Black History Month 2021, we want to reflect on the information we’ve learned and the feelings we’ve experienced. Here are just a few examples of systemic racism faced by Black Americans:

  • Lower employment-population ratio
  • Higher unemployment rate (especially during COVID-19)
  • Under-representation in high-paying jobs, corporate hierarchy, government, etc
  • Wage and income disparities
  • More likely to get denied for loans
  • Low home ownership rate
  • Disparity in healthcare and education
  • Higher imprisonment and incarceration rates.

In addition to some of these familiar measures, environmental racism is one of the many ways systemic racism is practiced in our society. According to the NAACP,  “race is the number one indicator for the placement of toxic facilities in this country.” Environmental racism is just as prominent as other forms of discrimination, and can be found in the forms of:

  • Higher exposure rates to air pollution
  • Lead poisoning (ex: Flint, Michigan)
  • More likely to experience the effects of climate change such as extreme weather and natural disasters
  • Higher rates of water contamination
  • Neighborhoods more often located in and/or near landfills, hazardous waste sites, and industrial facilities
  • Food deserts

When we think of real-life examples of environmental injustices and racism, certain communities such as Flint, Michigan, Warren County, North Carolina, and Cancer Alley, Louisiana come to mind. However, from oil refineries and air pollution to neglected water systems, public health around the country is jeopardized by negligence and discrimniation in the form of environmental hazards in many communities, disproportionately affecting communities of color.  

Environmental justice is the solution to environmental racism. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) defines environmental justice as “the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income, with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies.” Policies that promote environmental justice will help us address the impacts of environmental racism and there are several organizations working toward these goals. For example, Green Action is an organization dedicated to health and environmental justice through cleaning up contaminated sites, protecting sacred land, and securing clean air and water for all. They define environmental racism as “the institutional rules, regulations, policies or government and/or corporate decisions that deliberately target certain communities for locally undesirable land uses and lax enforcement of zoning and environmental laws, resulting in communities being disproportionately exposed to toxic and hazardous waste based upon race.”

As part of our environmental and social justice campaign during Black History Month, our podcast hosts, Ashley Roscoe and Gabby Pogantsch, interviewed a couple of people who play a big role in equality and diversity on campus. Episode 2 features an interview with Dr. Kenny Yarbrough, UW-Whitewater’s Chief Equity, Diversity, Inclusion Officer. Dr. KEY encourages members of campus to take accountability to the next level and call out injustice when we see it. He shares his thoughts on intersectionality, defined as multiple social identities residing in one person.

Kenny Yarborough, the assistant vice chancellor of Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion, at the UW-Whitewater 2020 Unity Walk in September. (photo credit Craig Schreiner/UWW)

In episode 3, our hosts sat down with Jaida, an executive-board member for Black Student Union (BSU) on campus. Jaida goes into the history of BSU and how it inspires her to take on this leadership role through events such as the Unity Walk and her position on Whitewater Student Government. She talks about her role as an advocate for minority students and the importance of accountability in predominantly white institutions. Stay tuned for the “Say Their Name” exhibit featured in the Roberta’s Art Gallery during April.

Jaida Shellaugh-Russell, who organized the Unity Walk, is the director of public relations for BSU and the director of student affairs for Whitewater Student Government. (photo credit Craig Schreiner/UWW)

Education and activism play a huge role in dismantling systemic racism, but is often just the starting point for antiracist actions. For example, monetary donations benefit local organizations who help disadvantaged members of our communities. If you have the resources, please consider researching and supporting any of the following local organizations:

Most importantly, the work of an antiracist does not end on March 1 of every year. Black History Month is an important recognition of what African-Americans have faced through the legacy of slavery and unequal treatment throughout the course of our country’s history. Even now, we find this work must continue in earnest. We hope the content we shared in February is just a starting point for those that follow our digital platforms to find other ways to get involved in the fight for environmental justice. Commit your time, money, and voice to this cause by maintaining active involvement as an ally and advocate for social justice by connecting with the great organizations that focus on this work, but don’t just leave the work to them. We all need to fight for this change, for a more just and sustainable world.

The UW-Whitewater 2020 Unity Walk safely brought members of the community together for Black Lives Matter. (photo credit Craig Schreiner/UWW)

Waste and recycling at uw-whitewater

By Makenna Beland, Waste and Recycling Intern with contributions from Wes Enterline, Sustainability Director

The UW-Whitewater main campus has been working hard to reduce waste by creating a more consistent program in 2020. Recently, the Sustainability Office implemented the Waste Bin Reduction project, in which consistent common area waste bins were systematically labeled and placed on campus. This project allows students and faculty to easily identify which bins are sent to the landfill and which are recycled. These community waste bins also reduce the amount of smaller office and classroom waste bins that the custodial staff need to service and sort through to dispose of items correctly. The proper sorting of landfilled materials and recyclable materials will reduce the amount of contamination within UW-Whitewater’s recycling stream and reduce the amount of recyclable material incorrectly placed into the landfill bins on campus. 

New recycling labels from Recycle Across America
New trash labels from Recycle Across America

Often, there is a misconception that “waste all goes to the same place” because the dumpsters look similar and are serviced by similar trucks. However, our waste hauler has incentive to improve recycling because the stream generates revenue, while we are required to pay for disposal of items by paying a “tipping fee” for landfill space. We also often hear of complaints that the custodial staff “does not recycle” because it appears they put all of the bags into one receptacle when they remove them from the bins. This is simply a convenience for them to avoid bringing two cans on their routes so they can sort the items at the dumpster. If you are curious to see what our traditional recycling rates look like, please see our spreadsheet (slightly out of date with the transition to a new waste hauler in 2020).

On the other hand, many people have a strong habit to recycle and engage in something called “wishcycling.” This term means items are being put into the recycling stream when they should be directed to the landfill. The most common source of confusion here is related to plastic materials, as there are many different types (called polymers, denoted by the number with the chasing arrows on plastic items). The chasing arrows do NOT mean the item is always recyclable and polymer numbers matter.

For example, recyclers have traditionally taken #1 and #2 plastics which make up a variety of common household plastic bottles. #5 plastics are now more common in items like yogurt containers, although traditionally they’ve been used for more durable products. These bottles and containers with screw on, snap on, or peel off lids are also easier for the sorting machines to handle. On the other hand, it is rare for #3, #4, or #6 plastics to be used as containers. Often these are trays, films (like plastic bags), and other plastic packaging that is difficult to process into recycled plastic. Finally, #7 is a catch-all category where eco-friendly alternatives like plant-based plastics occur. Rarely are these materials recyclable because many are designed to break down more easily or apply to specialty plastics like nylon. Your best bet with plastics is to avoid them as much as possible, as even the more durable recyclable plastics have more limited use as recycled products.

Currently, UW-Whitewater is participating in a Trex recycling program to collect more than 500 pounds of plastic bags in a six-month span to receive a high-performance composite bench for the campus. There are collection bins located in Starin, Wells, Arey-Fricker, Hyland, and Upham Halls. Please bring your plastic wrap, film, bags, and others listed on their website to help us meet our goal! Please make sure the plastic is free of debris and residue.

The Whitewater campus also offers a variety of collections for universal waste, including rechargeable batteries, small electronic waste such as cell phones and wires or cables, CDs, DVDs, other physical media, and printer cartridges. There is a bin in the University Center near the Information Desk for the campus to use. Additionally, all batteries picked up by FP&M staff are properly recycled if sent back with surplus items from departments, and iCIT recycles all electronics if requested from the Help Desk. For large-sized or large quantities of printer cartridges that don’t fit into the UC collection bin, these items can also be brought directly to the iCIT Help Desk in Andersen Hall.

Battery recycling station at FP&M Stores Receiving Dock.

In order to promote proper recycling practices, UW-Whitewater is participating in the Campus Race to Zero Waste Competition between the months of February and March. The mission of this friendly competition is to provide tools and opportunities that inspire, empower, and mobilize colleges and universities to benchmark and improve efforts to reduce or eliminate waste. This year, one of the main focuses of the Campus Race to Zero Waste is the reduction of plastic use on campuses. Plastic waste can have a negative impact on wild and marine life, including in our own local lakes, rivers, streams and ponds. Microplastics are extremely small pieces of plastic debris in the environment that can find their way into drinking water and can be consumed by local wildlife. Want to know how you can help? Here are a few tips on how you can reduce your plastic waste on campus.

Campus Race to Zero Waste was formerly known as RecycleMania
  1. Carry your own reusable water bottle or drink container while on campus.
  2. Say no to the straw or bring your own reusable straw.
  3. When purchasing items on campus, place them in your backpack or bring a reusable bag with you.
  4. Recycle plastic items when possible, being mindful of the considerations listed above.
  5. Spread the word! Remind your friends, families and professors about how they can reduce their plastic waste.

Spring 2021: Sustainability campaigns & New platforms

As winter snowfalls surge and the pandemic drags on, boredom, anxiety and isolation continue to dictate many aspects of our lives. We’ve baked our banana bread and streamed endless TV shows all while navigating a strange election and instances of social injustice. 2020 was a year of coping and adaptation as many of us felt unsure, afraid, and even a little lost. Generally, the Sustainability Office serves as a tool to improve the education and awareness of environmental sustainability issues, but we’re taking that a step further this semester.

In honor of Black History Month, we have dedicated the month of February to a campaign surrounding environmental racism and social justice issues facing the Black community and other people of color. During March, we will conduct another campaign dedicated to women in sustainability to recognize the inspiring women who play a huge role in environmental advocacy. Finally, the month of April is designated to Earth Month! Last years’s Earth Day (the 50th anniversary) was overshadowed by other global trepidations, so this year’s April is dedicated to virtual resources and education surrounding the important day. Featuring various resources and perspectives, these campaigns aim to expand the conversation surrounding intersectional sustainability. Stayed tune to hear from our other interns as they offer their own perspectives through future individual blog posts.

Educational campaigns aren’t the only new development coming to the Sustainability Office this semester. Introducing…our new TikTok account and a Podcast! TikTok is a social media platform consisting of one-minute long videos. Find us on TikTok (@uwwsustainability) for sustainable living tips and office updates. If you listen to podcasts and you’re interested in all things sustainability…we’ve got the perfect one for you! “the consciously powerful” dives deep into environmental advocacy from lifestyle choices to intersectional feminism. It’s available on both Spotify and Anchor; stay tuned for episode drops on Fridays!