Sustainability and Zero Waste: Swarthmore at a Glance

On Friday, Oct. 21,  the Zero Waste Working Group held their annual Waste Characterization Study, where bins of gray, green, and blue surrounded a tent with a table on Parrish Beach. Volunteers sorted Swarthmore’s trash, recycling, and compost into their respective categories from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Volunteers, Green Advisors, and staff sorted the waste further into their subcategories while listening to music. They also weighed each of the categories to find out the percentage of waste that could be diverted from the trash. A 2017 study found that only 15 percent needed to go to the incinerator. 53 percent could have been composted if sorted correctly, while 32 percent could have been recycled.

This event is a part of a greater movement at Swarthmore to become a more sustainable campus. Swarthmore Zero Waste, a sustainability-driven student group, aims to integrate sustainability further into the Swarthmore culture. Green Advisors and other students who are involved in small sustainability initiatives are united under SZW to divert waste from going to the incinerator.

Through different projects around and off campus, SZW aims to make the campus and the greater Swarthmore and Chester communities greener. One such project includes working with the college’s event and party planners to steer their meetings toward making zero waste. They also are planning trips to the Chester incinerator to expose students to the reality of what happens to Swarthmore’s waste.

“We here at Swarthmore can produce all the waste we want. It gets sent over to this incinerator in this low-income community with other waste areas as well,” Tiffany Wang ’21, a Green Advisor and SZW member, said. “That affects the air quality of the community. The Green Advisors went to visit the incinerator during our training and it smells bad. I would not want to go home and have a bad smell wafting over to my home at all.”

Swarthmore College as a community intersects with the wellbeing of another community. The focus of Swarthmore Zero Waste is to shift the culture of the campus towards actions that reflect thoughtfulness about the greater Chester community and earth that is affected by Swarthmore’s waste. Residents of Chester, a predominantly black community, inhale damaging and cancerous waste daily from the incinerator.

During the first-year orientation for the class of 2022, the Zero Waste Sustainability Kick-off set the tone for incoming students about Swarthmore’s initiatives for sustainability and their goal of achieving zero waste. Swarthmore distributed reusable plates and cups and SZW distributed bamboo reusable utensils to facilitate the transition.  Also with the inclusion of the waste stations around campus, the three bins for trash, recycling and compost, and signs that help people sort, people are able to divert waste from going to the incinerator easier.

“It has definitely improved since the implementation of those tripartite bins with the blue bin, the green bin and the black bin, especially with the one in the Science Center, with the frowny face and the big stop sign on the trash,” Nicholas Anderson ’20 said. “I see people cleaning out their Sci containers to recycle. So I think that’s pretty good. But I also know that a lot of people would just throw it away. It can be a hassle to have to clean them out before you recycle.”  

The waste station expansion over the summer break 2018 has effectively made it more convenient to sort your waste. In 2016, the first Waste Characterization Study surveyed the waste channels (trash, recycling, and compost) and found that 68 percent of the survey waste was directed toward the incinerator, 11 percent to compost and 21 percent to recycling. In 2017, 59 percent of the survey waste went to the incinerator, 22 percent went to compost, and 19 percent went to recycling. However, of the waste in 2016, only 19 percent needed to go to the incinerator. 47 percent could have been composted if sorted correctly, while 34 percent could have been recycled.

Students can do more to be mindful of the waste they produce and where it goes. Some general tips how to be more mindful is to focus on developing small habits like turning off a light when you leave a room, turning off the water when you’re done brushing, or asking your residential Green Advisor which things are compostable or recyclable.

“Zero Waste … is not just a physical goal, and this is my personal belief,” Vanessa Meng ’19, SZW founder and Green Advisor, said “For me, it is not about getting to absolute zero in terms of what we use because that is impossible, but rather reshaping and rethinking our value system and how we actually connect with our material goods around us.”

The Zero Waste Effort on campus includes Swarthmore Zero Waste as well as Environmental Services, the Office of Sustainability, the Zero Waste committee, the Sustainability Advocates, and the Green Advisor and President’s Sustainability Research Fellowship programs, but still requires the cooperation of the whole campus in order to divert 80 percent of waste from going to the incinerator to either recycling, composting or repurposing. Small initiatives like Terracycle, which recycles waste that cannot normally be recycled, contributes further to the greater impact. Awareness surrounding sustainability grows every day and evidence of this can be found in conversations across campus or in memes shared on social media.

Correction made on Oct. 11: The article previously incorrectly stated that Green Advisors had distributed bamboo utensils at first-year orientation. This was an SZW initiative. The error has been amended above.

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