Alum eats out of dumpsters, stops showering, wears trash to draw attention to environmental issues
When Rob Greenfield looks at a river or a tree, he’s grateful for a degree in biology.
It’s given him an appreciation of how the Earth works — like how those leaves soak up sun and deliver oxygen. Or, how currents move just beneath the waves.
Greenfield credits his former UWL biology professor, Roger Haro, now interim associate dean for the College of Science and Health, for getting him interested in science. Awareness of the Earth and everything living on it is an important first step to living an environmentally conscious life, he says.
Today Greenfield, ’09, is earning a reputation worldwide for his fierce challenges surrounding environmentally conscious living. He is the author of “Dude Making a Difference” and the host of “Free Ride” on the Discovery Channel in the United Kingdom and other countries. Some of his most daring sustainable feats have been documented by news media across the country.
Greenfield lived off the grid in a 50-square-foot tiny home in San Diego and then auctioned it off to build 10 tiny homes for homeless people. He has bicycled across the U.S. twice on a bamboo bike — one time documenting America’s food waste problem by getting 70 percent of his food from dumpsters during a 104-day span. He went an entire year without showering — washing himself only using natural water sources. He walked around New York City wearing every piece of trash he created for 30 days.
Why so extreme? Greenfield says that’s the best way to get attention, and then get people thinking. But Greenfield’s solutions to the environmental problems are not so extreme. He urges people to do simple things, like use less water, generate less waste and throw out less food. The average American uses 80-100 gallons of water a day and creates 4.5 pounds of trash. Americans waste $165 billion in food each year, notes Greenfield.
“I do extreme things to counter how extreme our society is in hopes of bringing people more to the middle,” he says.
Becoming environmentally aware
Greenfield admits he was also pretty extreme as a UWL student, but not in relation to the environment. Instead, he was living it up in an extreme way during many late nights on Third Street. He focused on having fun and didn’t pay much attention to the environment or social issues.
Then, his senior year, things began to turn when he took a cooking class at the People’s Food Co-op in La Crosse. “It was eye opening to cook with real ingredients instead of macaroni and hot dogs,” he says.
Greenfield started watching documentaries about where his food was coming from like “Food, Inc.,” “Earthlings” and “Food Matters.”
“I realized all is not well in the world,” he recalls.
He decided to start paying more attention to things that mattered instead of living the more frivolous party lifestyle he was focused on before.
“I realized I was more part of the problem than the solution,” he explains. “I needed to start making changes in life.”
Losing the car
Greenfield started with small changes. He started shopping at local businesses instead of big box stores. He biked more and drove less.
Then he took an even bigger step by ditching his car in 2012. Greenfield had saved up to buy a $21,000 new car his junior year at UWL. He had spent countless hours washing and sitting in during rush-hour traffic. Living in San Diego, he feared no car would mean losing his freedom to get around, and losing out on relationships and opportunities.
But getting rid of the car was, instead, a “big release” — and a big increase in his time and financial freedom.
“Every time I cut back and lost something — like my car — I’d feel myself and realize I’m still here. I still exist … my friends are still my friends. I’m not losing anything,” he says.
In fact, Greenfield says the changes have made his life better.
“It’s the realization that life still goes on,” he says. “Not just that, but it’s continuously gotten better with those changes.”
Greenfield talks trash
Watch Greenfield’s TEDx Teen presentation, “How to End the Food Waste Fiasco.”
Rob Greenfield, ’09, is the host of “Free Ride” on Discovery Channel and the author of “Dude Making a Difference.” He donates 100 percent of his media income to grassroots nonprofits.