Higher education's role in addressing major global challenges
Asian Innovation, Waste Reduction, Sustainable Practices
The White Coffin Student Enviromental Activism
University Sains Malaysia (USM)
Asia and The Pacific
Lee Lik Meng Coordinator, Healthy Campus
*GUNI Institutional Member
Affluence and changes in socio-cultural practices and norms has created a 'throw-away' society where convenience has become a way of life. In this increasingly accelerated economy and society, people have no time to cook and will either eat out or order take-away, both of which generate huge amounts of waste in the form of disposable containers. The university, as a centre of human activity, was no exception to this elevated production of toxic trash. The University Sains Malaysia (USM) has been on the forefront of student-driven and university administration-supported ways to reduce the ecological footprint left by Higher Education Institution (HEIs). The 'White Coffin' student environmental activism is a representation of how student activism can force HEIs campus management into a more sustainable operational template.
Affluence and changes in socio-cultural practices and norms has created a “throw-away” society where convenience has become a way of life. People have no time to cook at home and will either eat out or order to take-away both of which generate huge amounts of waste in the form of disposable containers whether it is from the hawkers of fast food outlets and even more stately restaurants. To these consumers, there is apparently no cost in this habit. But the cost to the community and the earth is immense in the form of wasted resources and environmental degradation from open dumps and incinerators. Whether it is polystyrene foam or paper boxes, plastic boxes, plastic sheets or the brown paper commonly used for packaging in Malaysia, they all carry risks in the form of known and unknown chemicals used during production. These chemicals have potential health risks from the moment they are extracted, used in manufacturing, during consumption of the food, and after they have been disposed, often ending up in the waters or open dumps.
A student activist came up with the novel idea of referring to the polystyrene food container as a 'white coffin', alluding to how the common overuse of these foam containers in modern society is leading to the 'death' of the planet as we know it.
Before the White Coffin campaign was undertaken, efforts had been made to rid the campus of polystyrene foam containers by way of directives given to canteen operators to stop their use in our canteens. Similar instructions were given for the University Convocation Expo in 2007. The recent 2-day cultural festival Thaipusam in Malaysia generated 2 million discarded polystyrene containers. On the USM campuses it is estimated that 1.5 million pieces of trash are generated from all types of disposable food packaging during the academic year. In line with sustainability principles, the aim is to achieve zero waste and in the case of the canteens, to encourage students to bring their own reusable containers. As a short-term alternative, the university introduced a biodegradable container made from oil-palm waste manufactured in Malaysia. But these efforts failed to achieve the desired outcomes.
Since university directives and recommendations failed to have the desired outcomes, learning was gained from prior experiences, and the University then used a different strategy combining dialogues, campaigns and the introduction of more eco-friendly containers. Students campaigned by setting up booths at the lecture hall complex to get students to sign a 'green pledge'. Dialogues were held with the canteen operators to understand their concerns, to brief them on the issues related to polystyrene containers, to offer the eco-friendly alternative, and to get their support for the effort.
The White Coffin campaign began on 18 December 2007 and lasted until 4 January 2008 with the target of zero polystyrene at campus canteens by 1 January 2008 (as agreed upon with the canteen operators). On 7 January 2008, the Vice-Chancellor called for a Press Conference to announce the success of the campaign. Since then, there has been sustained interest in the mass media to publish and maintain public interest on the issue. Numerous student groups have been inspired to emulate the White Coffin ideals in their activities; either to create greater awareness for the need to be green or to adopt green practices when they organise events.
The idea was originally proposed by a small group of University Sains Malaysia (USM) students in the middle 2007 to get rid of polystyrene foam containers on the USM campuses. The success of this effort has spread to at least three universities with several other universities (including private universities) initiating similar programmes to rid their campuses of the foam containers. Students have also propagated the idea to universities in Hong Kong and Japan, as well as primary and secondary schools. Private companies such as Dell and Motorola have also shown interest in adopting the campaign for their staff and families. The White Coffin has therefore become a flagship for student environmental activism on the USM campuses. It is expected to evolve as USM pursues the sustainable campus agenda to reduce waste and consumption.
Main objectives are:
The people-centred approach must be adopted for successful implementation of programmes to achieve sustainable development. Unilateral actions from the top-down have been shown to be less effective. Sustainability principles and values must be imbued into every person and this can only be achieved if we provide each person with the skill sets to live sustainably.
StudentEnvtActivism-Drf-2-ia.pdf — PDF document, 797Kb