Nationally known environmentalist shares story

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Local environmental advocates this week met a man whose efforts to live sustainably and inspire others to do the same have gained national attention.

Students and community members filled a University of North Carolina Wilmington lecture room Monday night to hear a presentation by Rob Greenfield who, in his five years since graduating college, has bicycled across America twice — without spending money, producing trash or using electricity — and then settled down in a 50-square-foot house in San Diego.

Meeting Greenfield was particularly special for 2014 UNCW graduate Bonnie Mitchell, who followed Greenfield’s cross-country journeys on social media. Mitchell, in her role as part of environmental nonprofit Plastic Ocean Project, contacted Greenfield to see if he would come speak in Wilmington.

She thought it was a long shot, but said, “I figured it couldn’t hurt to try.”

But Greenfield, having auctioned off his 50-square-foot home in San Diego to raise money for homeless San Diegans, accepted Mitchell’s request.

Mitchell said she was intimidated to meet him at first, but she was instantly put at ease by his warm personality. And after spending a day cleaning nearly 100 pounds of trash off Wrightsville Beach and exchanging ideas about spreading their environmental message, she had nothing but admiration for him.

It was not just his personality, but also his story, that was relatable, she added. During his presentation, he shared with the students how his college years were marked by less-than-sustainable actions and ambitions. He partied and aspired mainly to make money and meet women, he admitted, prompting laughter from the audience.

But once he graduated, he became more aware of environmental issues and his contributions to them. He started making small changes like using reusable bags instead of single-use plastic bags at the grocery store. He said he hopes students in the audience hear that and realize they can make a difference without dramatically changing their lifestyle.

“People can get overwhelmed by the daunting environmental issues we are dealing with,” he said, “so empower yourself by making one little change tomorrow. … It all starts with one little change.”

But making extreme adjustments in his own life has helped call attention to his message of sustainability and humanitarianism. During his bike trips across America, he vowed that he would carry all his trash with him the entire journey. He drank water from leaky fire hydrants and gathered discarded food from dumpsters, he said, describing pulling a still-frozen carton of ice cream from a trashcan and using his sunglasses to scoop it into his mouth. In many dumpsters he found enough edible food to feed hundreds.

Media outlets took notice of his efforts and broadcast his message around the country. But while many people are now aware of his story, Greenfield still likes meeting people and hearing how they have been inspired to live more sustainable lives.

“That’s the reason I’m still at it,” he said. “I think millions of people have woken up to the huge environmental and social issues we’re dealing with … and now it seems like people are actually inspired to do something. … They walk out of the room and say, ‘I’m not going to just talk about it, but actually do it.’”

email emmy@luminanews.com

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