UCSF Sustainability Stories

Sophia Labeko, January 2022

Q&A: The Truth About Leading a Sustainable Life

At UCSF Office of Sustainability, we believe that everyone wants to be greener because it is the right thing to do. However, the starting point can be intimidating and confusing. Where does one begin? What’s the right first step? What if I fail? “There’s no one answer to these questions. There’s also no right answer. People must assess and start where they are. If it’s time for a new car, buy an electric one. Start composting instead of mixing compostable waste with landfill waste. If you fail, try a different approach. The important thing is to never give up trying. It all helps,” encourages Gail Lee.

To help us illustrate the green living journey, we asked Naomi Hoffer, program manager, Department of Neurological Surgery, to share her experience. In addition to dedication, flexibility, and self-kindness, sometimes this endeavor requires a harmless sleight of hand.

What motivated you to make so many changes towards sustainability at once?
Being in the health promotion field, I have found so many wellness metaphors drawn from nature. If the Earth is suffering, we are too. Our health and well-being are dependent upon that of our planet. When we see species being wiped out because their habitat is destroyed by pollution or development, that is a sign that we are not living in balance with our planet. 

For most of my adulthood, I have thought of myself as a responsible consumer. I brought my own shopping bags to stores, put recycling into the correct bins, and disposed of hazardous waste responsibly. But in 2018 I learned three bits of information that suddenly made me realize I needed to seriously double down on my efforts:

  1. most of our recyclable waste was actually getting shipped to China;
  2. China was no longer accepting our plastic waste; and
  3. much of what we thought was getting recycled was actually going into landfills. What???!

It is easy to fall into despair on the state of the planet and humanity, but it is important to remember that hope is born out of participating in hopeful solutions. I am only one person but I can educate myself to make changes where I can. It is not the easiest path, by any means. I have needed to prioritize planetary health and sustainability often over cost and definitely over convenience. But, what I have come to realize is that living more in accordance with my values is life-affirming.

What were some challenging changes? Were there any easy ones?
My first and perhaps easiest change to make was to start shopping for clothes and household items in second-hand stores. By buying second-hand items we help keep them out of landfills and decrease the need for more products (and, later, garbage) to be put into circulation. It also saves a lot of money!

Becoming plant-based was definitely one of the most difficult changes I have made, but also one that I am the most proud of. Being an animal lover, this change was not only for the benefit of the planet, animal products have a heavy carbon footprint, but also for my love and regard for all animals. It took a few months of living mostly on peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, but I eventually found some easy and delicious plant-based recipes and started developing a taste for new foods.

One thing that continues to be a challenge for me is finding certain food products in plastic-free containers. During the pandemic plastic packaging around products seemed to increase dramatically and most bulk bin shopping was put on hold. However, I discovered Zerogrocery, which delivers plastic-free groceries and household items. But I have also decided that it is ok to give myself a break once in a while for the sake of convenience and sometimes I simply head to the grocery store and buy whatever product I need, plastic-wrapped or not.

Is there anything else on your list of reducing waste and lowering your carbon footprint?
I still have a long way to go to become zero waste, but I know it is a process, not necessarily a destination. I have other goals of conserving water by utilizing the shower or sink water for the garden, and of replacing our second car with an electric vehicle when we can afford it. I hope to someday grow more of my own food, but because of the time and effort needed to do this, it most likely will have to wait until after I retire.

How has your family adapted to these changes?
My family has mostly been very supportive of my efforts to live a more zero-waste lifestyle. My husband does most of the grocery shopping; he brings shopping bags, containers for bulk bins, and chooses products in glass or paper packaging over plastic whenever possible. However, sometimes I feel like it would be easier if I lived on my own and could be in charge of all our household purchases. It used to drive me crazy to see a plastic Starbucks cup lid in the house, or a used saran wrap in the garbage, but change takes time, and I can only control myself.

My teenagers respect my values but have other priorities, such as wanting to be ‘normal’. Unfortunately, ‘normal’ is not what will help us when we want to make significant changes for the benefit of the planet and I sometimes go to great lengths to try to uphold both values by sneaking homemade products into commercial packaging. For example, I make my own mouthwash to put in the “Listerine” container; I take the “Dove” shampoo bottle to a store where I can refill it with another shampoo, etc.

Why is sustainability important to you?
I believe that the way we treat our Earth is intricately tied to the value we put on all life, including our own. Working in the field of cancer for 20 years now, I can’t help but see the parallel between the energy of unfettered capitalism – producing more and more and more as cheaply and quickly as possible with little regard for its effect on the planet – with the energy of cancer – dividing and growing again and again and again with little regard for the effect on the body. 

What we do matters. All of it. Each of us has the power of choice in every moment, even if that choice is to voice our desire for better choices. If the pandemic has taught us anything it is that we can adapt as a society once we decide something is a priority.