My interest in sustainability grew gradually. Growing up, I traveled to some beautiful places throughout the world. With each awe-inspiring immersion in a new landscape, my desire to protect this world developed a bit more.
When I was in high school in Naples, Florida, I took a marine biology class in which my teacher gave us extra credit if we participated in a beach cleanup. I didn’t mind the extra point per trash bag, but I did mind the disgusting things I picked up, such as cigarette butts, bottlecaps, plastic bags, and food wrappers.
Pollution has a way of butting in and breaking the deep connection I feel with the natural world.
I might be kayaking in the backwaters of Naples, in a peaceful and meditative state—and then be pulled out of the moment after seeing trash floating on the water or tangled in a mangrove.
Or I might be watching a sunset on the beach, happily burying my feet in the sand—until my toes touch a plastic bag.
Now, as a business major at Georgia Tech, I’m preparing myself for a career in a tech company that has a focus on some sort of benefit for the community or environment.
Since I have a strong interest in environmental science and sustainability, I took EAS 1601: “Habitable Planet,” taught by Chris Reinhard in the College of Sciences, as my one required lab science course. In this Serve-Learn-Sustain class, we learned about other planets and why they don’t sustain life. We also came to appreciate what makes Earth so special.
Once those few required credits were completed, I was disappointed that this phase of learning was over.
Then, one day in my information technology class, a student named Casey Erb dropped in. He introduced himself as the first-place winner in the 2018 Carbon Reduction Challenge. I wondered, What’s that?
Casey was there to drum up interest for the Challenge—a program in which summer interns voluntarily take on a special sustainability project at their workplace (in addition to their regular duties).
After he gave a rundown of the program, I knew I needed to take on the Challenge. This would be my chance to incorporate some of my outside passions into a potentially highly beneficial project.
I’m interested in getting a job in a business that has some sort of sustainability angle, but I know it’s hard to make career moves in that area unless you have some background in it. I figured that the Challenge would be a great line on my resume even though it’s not related specifically to my major.
This past summer, my internship was with AT&T, and I was based in the Cricket Wireless Customer Support division. As soon as I signed up for the Challenge, I started brainstorming. I decided to target electronic waste, which I had learned about in a lecture in my IT class.
According to Atlanta e-waste recycling company, eWaste ePlanet, e-waste makes up only 2% of America’s total waste but accounts for 70% of our toxic waste. Innovation is surely important. However, as we continually come out with new devices and new technology, we need to be mindful of how our old devices impact our environment.
Through scouring our AT&T employee database, I was able to find a few employees across the country who work in corporate and social responsibility. I called a Dallas employee, who informed me that when the company collects old devices, the recycling process is done in a highly responsible manner. Technology that is collected by AT&T is recycled properly by a certified R2 recycler. (R2 stands for “Responsible Recycling,” and certification is provided to companies that dispose of e-waste sustainably.)
So, AT&T was already recycling e-waste responsibly. That was great news, but I had to pivot in my approach to the Challenge. I decided that instead of focusing on a product’s end-of-life, I would look at the product’s beginning. I thought that if AT&T could reduce the number of laptops used by company employees, we could save a lot of CO2. According to a report published by Apple, 364 pounds of CO2 are produced in the manufacturing and transportation of just one MacBook Air.
AT&T’s current policy is for employees to have their company-issued laptops replaced every two years. My proposal was to change to a three-year cycle on an opt-in basis. With a mere 5% adoption rate by employees, roughly 700,000 lbs. of CO2 and $1.7M could be saved every year.
AT&T is a massive company with over 260,000 employees. And massive companies can make significant impacts.
Almost 3% of all employees are already participating in an AT&T program in which they commit to a single action that will help the community or environment. So, if I could convince this sustainability-minded group to opt-in to the three-year cycle…and reach just 2% more of the employee base…we could reach the 5% opt-in goal.
With AT&T already being a sustainably minded corporation, I expected to have a pretty seamless journey taking my project from conception to implementation. However, my project ended up being a huge learning experience in many ways. I realized that within large companies, it’s not always so easy to push big projects through. If you want something to move quickly, you need to accelerate your part of the process at a very high speed to compensate for the delays that will happen along the way as you wait on others to provide information, feedback, or approvals.
Unfortunately, there wasn’t enough time in my internship to see my project through to implementation, but this experience was so incredibly valuable. Being able to work on a cross-disciplinary project has added so much to my time here at Georgia Tech.
I was able to get my feet wet in sustainable business. This has improved my confidence in moving in that direction in my career. I feel more empowered to take on projects like the one I started this summer.
The Challenge changed my thinking about the world. With a huge problem like climate change, it’s easy to fall into thinking: “I can’t make a difference.” But I’ve learned that making an impact is actually manageable and doable. You can’t just sit there and observe passively. You have to get up, make a plan, and take action.
Dayna Grigsby is a third-year undergraduate student at Georgia Tech. Her major is business administration.