The very first morning after returning to Drexel University as a sophomore, I got up and went for a run. As I rounded the corner on 33rd Street to head down Chestnut Street toward the Schuylkill River Trail, I nearly ran into a group of freshmen standing in the middle of the sidewalk – as the story goes – and as I passed this group I noticed two of them holding reusable takeout containers. I thought to myself, “It happened. It really happened. They implemented one of my programs.”
In April of my freshman year, I walked into the president of Drexel’s office for the very first time with nothing more than two of the exact same sheets of paper. These papers, designed as a template for our meeting, as it turned out, would help transform the way Drexel thought about sustainability. Through the course of my meeting with President Fry, I highlighted several possible programs the university could easily implement to decrease any combination of food waste and single use plastic consumption and increase various components of recycling. In this meeting, I was able to show President Fry how Drexel could implement reusable to-go containers and water bottles and reduce plastic straw and utensil consumption. I also explained to him how removing trays would impact food and water waste, how to better disperse waste and recycling bins, and the energy and space saving benefits of using a commercial disposal in dining halls. While nothing immediately changed that day, the conversation sparked interest with many members of the administration.
Following this meeting, I was paired with Hugh Johnson, a senior associate at the A.J. Drexel Institute for Energy and the Environment. With Hugh’s knowledge, he was able to mentor me on how to best propose my ideas in a presentation President Fry suggested I give to various members of Drexel’s faculty the following month. As I continued working with Hugh, we stumbled upon two other freshmen, Ryan Light and Ryan Howell, interested in similar work. While they wanted to implement an office of sustainability and I only had ideas for specific sustainability-minded programs, there was no doubt that presenting these two ideas together would show a much greater desire by the student population – a desire previously unrecognized by the university.
On May 29, 2018, after a few weeks of continually editing our presentation, the Ryans and I prepared to give our biggest presentation of the spring. The director of facilities, the director of operations, and several other department heads who we needed to win over were present; however, there were only two groups that we needed full support from: the representatives from Aramark, Drexel’s food provider, and the members of the vice president’s cabinet. With support from both of these groups, we would be able to move forward with our initiatives.
Within a day of the presentation, we received an email from Aramark asking to meet to further discuss some of our programs. Going in, we had the expectation that Aramark would potentially entertain the idea of implementing one of my programs, but right out of the gate they wanted to implement trayless dining, a reusable bag incentive program, and a reusable to-go container program. For the remainder of spring term, we worked closely together to figure out all the specific details that needed to go into these programs: When is the best time to roll out these programs? What potential pushback might we receive from them? How can we make the containers as user-friendly as possible? Through Aramark’s willingness to work alongside myself and my team, we were able to roll out all three new initiatives at the beginning of the fall 2018 term.
On October 25, I walked into the office of Subir Sahu, the vice president and dean of student life, and the first thing he said to me, before I even began my presentation on the proposal for an office of sustainability, was, “I feel like I am meeting a celebrity with how highly President Fry and other administrators talk of you.” If you know me, I accept compliments like a vending machine trying to accept a wrinkly dollar bill, but thankfully this was not the tone for the remainder of the meeting. As we moved throughout the presentation and began discussing further details, it became apparent that Drexel wanted to move forward with the creation of a dedicated position in the administration solely for sustainability with the goal of building up to a full office of sustainability. Drexel is finalizing the logistics for this position, and hopes to begin interviewing candidates late winter of 2019.
Through this work at Drexel, I have created a wide breath of connections at neighboring universities and in the local government. In doing so, Ben May, a sophomore at the University of Pennsylvania, and I realized a gap in communications between the universities’ offices of sustainability (OS) with each other and the OS of the city of Philadelphia. As we explored several possible avenues to bridge this gap, we discovered that the most feasible way is to create a committee through the city’s OS comprised of student and faculty representatives from each school. While we are still working on the logistics for this committee, we have received tremendous support from the city in this initiative with the hopes of moving forward with this committee in January 2019.
There is still a lot to be done at Drexel, and in the surrounding Philadelphia community, to limit our impact on the global environment. However, with each step we take – whether it be as small as deciding to not to use a straw on an individual basis, or as large as removing all single use plastics on campus (as Drexel hopes to do by the beginning of the next academic year) – we take one step further away from our destructive past, and closer to our green future.
With this, I leave you with five steps to help increase sustainability across Sewickley Academy’s campus:
- Increase the number of available recycling bins. Often times there is an abundance of garbage cans and only a handful of recycling bins. By coupling recycling bins and trash cans together, you give students equal opportunity to recycle and throw away. Alternatively, by having an overabundance of recycling bins and a limited number of trash bins, you force students to consciously think about what can be placed where.
- Provide clear and concise directions on what can and cannot be recycled. At each trash/recycling bin station a poster can be hung that includes pictures of items that can and cannot be put in the recycling bin. In a single stream system, things like magazines, office paper, junk mail, newspaper, plastic bottles, glass bottles and jars, steel cans, and aluminum cans, foil, and pie tins can all be put in the recycling bin; however, things like plastic grocery bags, plastic tubs, and food wastes should not be put in the recycling bin. It should also be noted that any containers that held food should be thoroughly rinsed before being placed into the recycling bin, and plastic films should be removed and placed into the trash.
- Encourage students to use reusable water bottles. The average person used 167 disposable water bottles last year and only recycled 38 of them, which is less than a 23% recycling rate. By providing students with designated reusable bottles to use in the cafeteria (instead of plastic or paper cups) and at water bottle refilling stations, statistically, well over 80,000 plastic bottles and cups can be displaced per year at schools similar to the size of Sewickley Academy.
- Eliminate trays in the cafeteria. While trays provide an easy way to transport food around, they also provide a platform for increased food waste. When trays are available, people tend to pile on everything that looks like they might eat it. To contrast this, in the absence of trays people are more cognizant about how much they can carry and tend to only take what they will eat.
- Limit accessibility to “luxury plastics.” Luxury plastics include things like straws and plastic utensils. Plastics such as these are on the list of most common plastic pollutants. While straws are necessary for some people due to health-related needs, most people use them out of ease of accessibility. Many places will only hand out straws upon consumer request to help decrease the number of straws being used. Many school cafeterias provide both reusable and plastic utensils; however, only one of the two options – reusable utensils – is necessary.
Learn more about Sewickley Academy’s environmental initiatives at www.sewickley.org/greencampus.