DeCal class: a guide to zero waste, building a sustainable future

Sage Lenier, a fourth-year in conservation and resource studies, created the DeCal course, Zero Waste and Solutions for a Sustainable Future. (UC Berkeley photo by Irene Yi)

It was sitting in AP environmental science as a senior in high school that Sage Lenier, a fourth-year in conservation and resource studies, realized that it was her - and our - responsibility to find solutions to the planet’s environmental destruction.

"We were learning about food systems collapsing and water poisoning and all of these horrible things that were happening, and I was like, ‘Wait, what do we do about this’’ So, that’s kind of how the momentum started."

When Lenier first offered her course two years ago, there were 25 students enrolled. Now, there are more than 160 students in the class and another 45 on the waiting list. (UC Berkeley photo by Irene Yi) 

When Lenier got to UC Berkeley, she knew she wanted to teach a student-led DeCal course. It was a big reason she chose Berkeley. At first, she thought she’d teach about how to live a zero waste lifestyle, but soon, her curriculum expanded to become what it is today: Zero Waste and Solutions for a Sustainable Future. 

The course begins with learning about the science of modern waste streams and the history of "trash," then dives into the circular economy, cradle-to-cradle design, the industrialization of modern food, sustainable cities and architecture, climate change and politics and decarbonization. 

Basically, it’s a crash course in all the things we can do to save the planet. And Lenier says it’s not as hard as it might seem, if we all pitch in.

"The economic and social systems we currently have in place are set up in such a way that nearly everything we do is damaging the natural systems that keep us alive," she tells a packed lecture hall on Monday, the first day of class. "But are humans truly ’bad’ for the planet? No. It’s entirely possible to live happily, healthily and equitably within our ecological boundaries.

Annie Mitchell (right), a second-year society and environment major, took Lenier’s course last spring and is a TA this semester, along with Kira Rodriguez (left). "It just opened my eyes,” says Mitchell. (UC Berkeley photo by Irene Yi)

"Modern environmental discourse has, for the most part, focused on building awareness of environmental problems," she continues. "But this course is entirely about environmental solutions - solutions that are scalable, actionable and hopeful. There is so much power in numbers. We have the power to make not only personal, but infrastructural change."

When she first offered the course two years ago, there were 25 students enrolled. Now, four semesters later, there are more than 160 students in the class and another 45 on the waiting list.

Annie Mitchell, a second-year society and environment major, took the class last spring, and is a teaching assistant this semester. She says the course changed her life in ways she never expected.

"I came to Berkeley as a political science major, and I was pretty dead set on that," says Mitchell. "Then last semester, when I took this course, I completely changed my passions and my academic focus. It just opened my eyes. Environmental sustainability and eco-friendliness should never be a luxury. That includes the education about it. I believe that this class is breaking down those barriers and making this knowledge accessible to everyone." 

Lenier (third from right) was among the campus community members who won a best practice award last summer at the annual California Higher Education Sustainability.

The curriculum, for which Lenier won a best practice award last summer at the annual California Higher Education Sustainability Conference, has a strong history component, covering how we got to where we are: surrounded by mountains of toxic trash, dependent on industrialized farming, using inefficient transportation systems - with climate change looming over every moment of every day. 

But then, she always offers an alternative - one that each of us can participate in, or opt out of, starting now. And with each of us making a change, she says, it’ll pressure powerful industries to meet the demand. 

"I learned a simple concept that stuck with me," says Mitchell. "Sage talks about it a lot: Vote with your wallet. Although I can’t change the government or a corporation as an individual, I can make a change by saying ’no’ to eating meat - not paying for meat anymore, and not supporting those practices. The same goes for single-use plastics.

"I think the biggest thing for me was just learning about my personal impact. How I, as an individual, can make changes and how I can influence others to do the same thing."

Although Lenier will be graduating this spring, she’s not showing any signs of slowing down. She’s planning on turning the curriculum into a book this year, and hopes to publish it the summer after she graduates.

Lenier plans to turn her curriculum into a book, and hopes to publish it after she graduates this spring. (UC Berkeley photo by Irene Yi)

"I’m turning this course into my career," says Lenier. "If it weren’t for Berkeley, I never would be the person I am today."

And her class will continue. If all goes according to plan, one of this semester’s TAs will teach the course next year.

To read about the solutions that Lenier talks about in her course, visit the Zero Waste DeCal website , which includes notes on every lecture and a list of resources on everything from where to buy sustainable clothing to how to take free classes on urban cycling.

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