Katherine is an Engineering Technician at a landfill in LA County. She is beginning grad school this coming fall to further her education in Atmospheric Science. Katherine’s dream is to work in public service to help improve our air quality while protecting our public & environmental health. When she’s not working, she enjoys visiting national parks, seeing waterfalls, traveling, running, and mountain biking. Fun Fact: Katherine and her coworkers would mountain bike during their lunch break.
What does sustainability mean to you?
For me, sustainability means to do more than “maintaining what we have” –– that’s not enough. Sustainability is about protecting and preserving the environment now and for the future. To be sustainable is to do what we can to ensure that all living things can survive and flourish. We must give back to an environment that has already given us so much.
How did you become interested in the environment?
During my third year of college, I participated in a 10-day cultural immersion and sustainability trip in Costa Rica with the UCI Costa Rica Program. My group and I stayed on a sustainable farm and got to see how everything on the local farms functioned cohesively. We witnessed how aware farmers were of their impact on Earth and how they tried to find ways to minimize their ecological footprint. Farmers would turn their waste into compost or use it for biodigestion (a biological process that occurs when organic matter is decomposed by bacteria due to the absence of oxygen, creating biogas). Compared to the United States, the rural farmers in Costa Rica seemed to have limited technology, yet, they were able to think of innovative ways to be sustainable. It made me feel as though I can also make an impact even though I too, have a limited amount of resources.
Why is the cause important to you?
My trip to Costa Rica truly inspired and reinforced my passion for the environment. Being there was amazing – seeing the rich biodiversity, the resourceful methods of constructing green spaces, witnessing the entire process of “farm to fork”, embracing the natural space, and so much more. It made me aware of all the things that I wish to protect, but it also made me realize that we aren’t doing nearly enough at home. The environment is the basis of everything; without land, air, or water, we can’t survive. I want to dedicate my career to the environment because without it, no living thing can survive.
“The environment is the basis of everything; without land, air or water, we can’t survive.”
You’re currently an Engineering Technician at a landfill. Can you tell us more about that?
I like to say that I am protecting public and environmental health [haha]. My job is to ensure that we are in compliance with air quality standards enforced by the South Coast Air Quality Management District (SCAQMD) and California Air Resources Board (CARB). We engage in storm water sampling, landfill gas monitoring, surface gas monitoring, ambient air monitoring, etc. to make sure no gas migrates outside of the site. A cool thing about the landfill gas is that our site is under a gas collection system. Because methane is the most prominent gas in the decomposition process, we send it to a power plant to generate electricity out of it. The experience I’ve gained with this job has made me think, “How are air pollutants being distributed within our atmosphere and how does it affect us as well as our environment?”
How has your job impacted your mindset on our waste?
I think about trash more often now. In the past when I threw my trash away, I never thought about it again. I didn’t even know what a landfill looked like! Now I think, “Where is my trash going? What type of trash am I throwing away?” Landfills aren’t dumps where trash magically disappears. There are rules and regulations that we must comply with and quality standards that we must meet. All this information can be exhausting, but it has made me more conscious of what I buy –– the packaging and the materials that goes into the product. I’ve started to feel guilty when I use single-use items, so I’ll try and buy items that can be reused.
You’re not alone; we definitely understand how that feels. Have you made any switches to use more sustainable products?
I recently bought wool dryer balls to replace dryer sheets. Wool dryer balls have the same functions as regular dryer sheets, only, they’re an eco-friendly alternative. Before our water heater was fixed at home, I used to collect water from the faucet in the bathtub (as the water was heating up) to water plants outside. I’ll also collect the water used for washing fruits and vegetables to water the plants. At restaurants, I’ll refuse straws and make sure to have a reusable water bottle with me at all times. I’ll try to repurpose my things too; if I do have a plastic bag I will try to reuse it as many times as I can before it’s no longer usable. When I shop, I’ll think to myself, “Is this something I need? How much packaging went into this product?”.
What’s the most surprising thing you’ve seen in the landfills?
There are a few things that surprised me since working at a landfill. Like I mentioned earlier, I had never seen a landfill before working here and I lacked knowledge on how they were constructed and regulated. I expected it to just be a dumping ground for waste, but it’s more than that. To my surprise, in the areas where no more trash is being added, there is an abundance of wildlife such as deer, coyotes, rabbits, snakes, red-tail hawks, and more. There are also areas that provide a habitat to native plants and flowers such as the California poppy, California sagebrush, and the California bush sunflower. Aside from the fauna and flora that exist at the landfill, it’s unfortunate to see how much waste we produce as a society, along with the items people throw away. There is so much plastic –– and some items thrown in the landfill are either still usable or brand new. I’ve been working here for over three years now and the landfill continues to grow. People who live near the landfill don’t want it to be in their neighborhood, yet, they are still producing the same amount of trash –– they’re not doing anything to help the situation. No one ever stops to think, “If we can’t throw our trash here, where will it go?” Eventually, all landfills have an end date and once it closes, cities will cover the land and put a playground or golf course over it. But that’s not always the best solution; the trash will eventually decompose and the ground will continue to settle for years to come. Instead, we should all be doing what we can to minimize our waste.
“Making a difference doesn’t have to be an in-your-face type of action, it can just be small changes in your lifestyle.”
You spend a lot of time in the outdoors. How has this affected your view on the environment?
Being out in nature has made me realize how beautiful the untouched, natural world can be. I always make sure to practice the “Leave No Trace” principles. I want to preserve our natural spaces and protect wildlife. We’ve destroyed so much of their habitats and have endangered many species –– we must do what we can for them to survive. Many people go to the outdoors to recharge and escape from the hustle & bustle of life. We need the outdoors. But water pollution, trash, and smog can take those wonderful experiences away.
What would you tell someone who doesn’t think they can make a difference?
It’s like what Tinycaravan always reminds me of, “Small changes make a difference.” I believe collective action is powerful. One person’s habits can make others think, “Maybe this is something I can do too.” One person’s lifestyle can change many others –– it’s a domino effect. After the Costa Rica trip, one of my friends said he wanted to pursue education in this field. My family now recycles at home and people have asked about our water bucket (which has allowed me to start a conversation about water conservation). Making a difference doesn’t have to be in-your-face, it can just be small changes in your lifestyle.
Any last words?
Every individual plays an important role in helping our environment and protecting it for our future.
Zero Hour Story and what’s it all about, here.
*This interview was modified for the purpose of the series.