“Sustainability is living in harmony with your environment in a way that doesn’t jeopardize the ability for people in the future to live harmoniously with their environment.” -Sujata Gautam
‘Ray of sunshine’ is just one way to describe Sujata Gautam. As soon as she walks into a room, an air of positivity immediately fills it. An optimistic outlook is vital in Sujata’s passion: waste diversion.
A civil engineering junior, Sujata has turned her passion to repurpose things into a life goal. When asked when her interest in sustainability arose, Sujata could only express that it was something she had always felt in her heart.
“It’s just innate,” she said. “As a child, I remember digging through our trash can and finding old cereal boxes to make dollhouses or using old plastic containers to make spas for my dolls. I love finding junk and seeing all the possible creative things you can do with it.
“I loved seeing the potential for things that people no longer wanted or discarded with disdain.”
Sujata’s interest in waste reduction has gone beyond doll accessories. Last August, Sujata made a decision to go completely waste-free. So far, she has only produced two recurrent disposable pieces of trash: cereal lining and dental floss. Everything else has been composted, recycled or reused.
“It’s been a fun challenge,” said Sujata. “You have to think of creative ways to get around certain things. Everywhere I go I have reusable utensils; I buy things in bulk now rather than in packages.”
Sujata’s motivations behind going waste-free are two-fold. In addition to reducing her own waste, Sujata hopes to inspire others to also develop a more sustainable lifestyle.
“When I go to the C-Store, I ask to put my purchases in a tupperware container instead of a plastic bag and they (the employees) ask me why,” said Sujata. “There was one lady who said ‘wow, I’m going to try that. I’ll see if I can recycle more.’
“It’s leading by example; live your life how you think is best and most sustainable. You might inspire or encourage others with your success.”
Aside from leading a sustainable personal lifestyle, Sujata is an advocate of implementing more sustainable practices on campus. Sujata is a resident assistant for dorms at UH and has used her position to encourage change in residence halls across campus. Sujata hopes to see residence halls offer more opportunities for residents to live a sustainable lifestyle. Her efforts have made a difference in many aspects. Janitorial staff are now more accountable for ensuring adequate retrieval of recyclable waste. However, resistance is an obstacle as she drives sustainable progress on campus.
“At first, when I started all of this, I was hoping to see immediate changes,” said Sujata.
“I had to realize that sustainability itself is more of a movement. You’ll get there eventually.
“Realizing that was really important for me. You shouldn’t be discouraged if things don’t happen right away.”
Sujata’s commitment to her goals is evident. She’s received several scholarships and has even been recognized as a Doris Duke Conservation Scholar. When asked what her hobbies are, Sujata named off a myriad of activities, barely stopping for a breath. “Living life, can that be my hobby?” she said with unbridled laughter. Aside from flying kites, biking and being outdoors, helping others is a huge hobby of hers.
“I love volunteering with the Metropolitan Volunteer Program,” said Sujata. “I do such neat things with them, and it’s a great way to meet the people of Houston.”
In 2014 and 2015, Sujata even received an Outstanding Volunteer Service Award from MVP.
Yet Sujata’s philanthropic nature goes beyond local volunteer efforts. She was recently selected to be a Critical Language Scholarship recipient, an award that will allow her to spend the summer in India to learn Hindi as a part of a cultural immersion program. Sujata hopes to use this experience to help her achieve one of her life’s goals: improving the living conditions of rag-pickers in India.
Rag-pickers scavenge garbage to find materials such as glass, metal and plastics that can be sold to scrap dealers. Most rag-pickers start from ages 4 or 5, and 40 percent of dumpsite waste-pickers are children.
“In five years, I want to be able to say that I worked with rag-pickers and at least improved the lives of some of the people who I worked with,” Sujata said. “I’m passionate about both humanitarian and environmental issues. I wanted to be an environmental engineer because I wanted to help both people and the environment.”
Do you know someone who has gone above and beyond to make sustainable improvements in your community? Nominate them to be featured in the Sustainable Coog Series! For more information, visit our website at uh.edu/sustainability.