Reducing Plastic Use

Reducing Plastic Use
Various pieces of plastic trash debris are strewn alongside seaweed and rocks on a beach.
Assorted plastic trash on the beach at Pelican Cove Park in Rancho Palos Verdes, CA, 2017.

In the spirit of this year’s Earth Day theme (‘End Plastic Pollution’), I researched the fate of plastic. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) prepared a report for 2014 municipal waste stream data for the United States. Plastic products were either recycled, burned for energy production, or sent to landfills. I used pandas to look at the data and Matplotlib to create a graph. I included percentages for each fate and compared the categories of total plastics, containers and packaging, durable goods, and nondurable goods.

A graph compares different types of plastic products and their fate in the municipal waste stream.
Percentages of total plastics and plastic types that get recycled, burned for energy, or sent to a landfill, according to the EPA.

The EPA data shows a majority of plastic products reported in the waste stream were sent to landfills. Obviously, not all plastic waste actually reaches a recycling facility or landfill. Roadsides, waterways, and beaches are all subject to plastic pollution. Decreasing personal use of plastic products can help reduce the overall production of waste.

Here are some ideas for cutting back on plastic use:

  • Bring reusable shopping bags to every store.
    • Utilize cloth bags for all purchases.
    • Opt for reusable produce bags for fresh fruit and vegetables instead of store-provided plastic ones.
  • Ditch party plasticware.
    • Buy an assortment of silverware from a thrift store for party use.
    • Snag a set of used glassware for drinks instead of buying single-use plastic cups.
  • Use Bee’s Wrap instead of plastic wrap.
    • Bee’s Wrap is beeswax covered cloth for food storage. It works exactly the same as plastic wrap, but it can be used over and over.
  • Choose glassware instead of plastic zip-locked bags for storing food.
    • Glass containers like Pyrex can be used in place of single-use plastic storage bags.
  • Say ‘no’ to plastic straws.
    • Get in the habit of refusing a straw at restaurants when you go out.
    • Bring a reusable straw made out of bamboo, stainless steel, or glass to your favorite drink spot.


To check out the code for the figure I created, here’s the repository for it.

5 Tips for Debugging Your Life

5 Tips for Debugging Your Life
A collection of beetles of various sizes, shapes, and colors sits in a glass container at a museum.
Beetle collection at Buffalo Museum of Science in Buffalo, New York, 2017

One of my first lessons as a new programmer was to learn how to debug code. Debugging means to review your code to find errors and correct them accordingly. Entire programs can be thrown off by one stray keystroke. This made me think about how minor, or major, habits and mindsets were holding me back from achieving my full potential. Here’s some advice for how I edited my personal life to learn code on my own terms.

1. Be patient with yourself and embrace failure.

Messing up code is inevitable, so don’t take it too personally when it happens. This took me a few weeks to learn because my entire life I’ve always thought failure was unacceptable. I recommend being overwhelmingly patient with yourself because every mistake presents an opportunity to learn a valuable lesson. When you get to the point where your code is clean and runs properly, the feeling of accomplishment will overshadow struggles along the way.

2. Learn to say ‘no’ more often to things that no longer serve you.

Get comfortable with saying ‘no’ because it can keep you from wasting time doing things you don’t wholeheartedly want to do. Take a moment to see exactly where your time is going if you’ve got too much on your plate and want more time to code. I started to learn how to code last year when I was unemployed and did not have a job lined up. I was dedicating at least 40 hours a week to learning, but some of my peers still saw this as a vacation. I began to say ‘no’ to certain activities in order to spend more time improving my programming skills and less time with people who made me feel awful. It may take some careful revision to eliminate excess drains of your time to create a more refined schedule that will ultimately benefit your mental state.

3. Don’t be afraid to ask for help online or attend local events.

Programming communities are abundant both online and in person, depending on your location. There are online resources like Stack Overflow for asking questions. I’ve also used the live chat assistance feature on Codecademy multiple times when I had a problems that forums could not answer. Don’t be afraid to turn to virtual support networks when you need help because someone will probably be able to help you.

For in-person events, Meetup is an awesome way to find interesting talks and events for local developers. I was nervous before attending a coding meetup in my area for the first time. Ultimately, I was grateful I worked up the courage to attend because I got to meet some wonderful mentors. I also use Women Who Code to keep an eye out for chapter events and conferences in major cities. Depending on your specific interests, there are a number of organizations that can help and encourage you as a programmer.

4. Create a work environment that encourages productivity.

Your work space can easily influence your level of productivity. Recognize your habits and common sources of distraction, then tailor your work area to these considerations. For me, this means having a clutter-free work desk, a comfortable chair, and a room free of outside noises. I also get easily distracted by my phone, so I try to keep it on silent and out of reach. Additionally, I think it’s helpful to have some sort of physical notebook or online system for random notes and ideas you think about while programming. This can keep ideas organized but separate from specific class or project notes. I use Google Keep to jot down quick ideas, but there are other similar alternatives like Evernote.

5. Remember that there are many potential routes to reach the same destination.

There are multiple ways to program. People can write code differently and still yield the same end result. Similarly, there is not one singular route to success and personal fulfillment. Take pride in your ability to creatively problem solve and celebrate and respect diverse ideas when collaborating with others. There are many ways to learn and grow in programming but you ultimately get to decide what methods work best for you.

Highlights from Data Science Day 2018

Highlights from Data Science Day 2018

Columbia University hosted Data Science Day 2018 on March 28th at their campus in Manhattan. I traveled to New York to attend the event and learn more about how data science plays a role in health, climate, and finance research. A few of the presentations stood out, including the environmental talks and a keynote address from Diane Greene, the CEO of Google Cloud.

View of Grand Army Plaza
Grand Army Plaza in Manhattan, New York, 2013

I was extremely excited when I first saw the program for Data Science Day because I noticed a series of lightning talks on climate change. The session entitled ‘Climate + Finance: Use of Environmental Data to Measure and Anticipate Financial Risk’ brought together Columbia staff who specialize in economics, climate research, and environmental policy.

Geoffrey Heal gave a talk called ‘Rising Waters: The Economic Impact of Sea Level Rise’ that addressed financial models associated with sea level rise projections. Heal presented major cities and associated data for property values, historic flooding, and flood maps to illustrate the overall financial impact of sea level rise. This talk highlighted the importance of interdisciplinary data science work when addressing complex issues like climate change. Collaboration between academic researchers and national groups like NOAA and FEMA provides a platform for data science work that can inform professionals across career fields.

Lisa Goddard spoke about ‘Data & Finance in the Developing World’. The main topics of her talk were food security and drought impacts in developing countries. Goddard’s research included rain gauge measurements, satellite imagery, soil moisture levels, and crop yield records. She addressed the use of various climate data to advise appropriate resilience tactics, such as crop insurance for financial security. Overall, dealing with food security will be essential when handling the impacts of climate change on small scale farms across the world. Data science can help the agricultural sector by providing farmers with more information to consider when planning for effects of climate change.

Wolfram Schlenker gave a talk called ‘Agricultural Yields and Prices in a Warming World’. He addressed the impact of weather shocks to common crops, such as unanticipated exposure to hot temperatures. Corn, a tropical plant, can potentially see higher yields when there are sudden, extreme instances of warm weather. Schlenker presented a fresh perspective on how climate change can impact crop yields differently according to species. A combination of climate models, market conditions, and yield data can provide a foundation for better understanding climate change’s impacts on agricultural commodities on a case-by-case basis.

Diane Greene’s keynote session for Data Science Day 2018 provoked important considerations when navigating the world of data science. Greene mentioned Google Cloud’s main goal is to deliver intuitive technological capabilities. Google Cloud deals with a wide range of APIs that make the flow of information across the world easier. For example, Google Cloud’s Translation API makes it possible for online articles to be translated in different languages to increase readability. Diane Greene’s talk inspired me to be creative with innovation in data science and consider usability and collaboration on all fronts.

This event was a great opportunity to learn from leaders in the field of data science. Communication and collaboration were major themes of these talks and I left Data Science Day 2018 feeling empowered to address challenges like climate change.