Overview of Swarthmore’s Sustainability Efforts in COVID Era

Given the impending climate crisis, many members of the Swarthmore community are concerned about sustainability.  Changes in on-campus operations brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic have forced the Office of Sustainability, tasked with making Swarthmore a part of the solution to the climate crisis, to adapt. These adaptations include both the office’s Green Advisor (GA) and the President’s Sustainability Research Fellows programs moving to a virtual platform, projects like the Zero Waste Plan being delayed, and the post-consumer composting system being put on hold. 

GA Program Updates

According to the Office of Sustainability’s website, under normal circumstances, GAs serve as residential peer leaders, environmental justice experts, and sustainability advocate liaisons. A mostly remote semester means that GAs can’t fulfill their usual obligations in the same way. 

Kyra Hall ’22, the 2020-2021 GA coordinator, explained the role that GAs serve in the campus community under normal circumstances, placing emphasis on the importance of in-person meetings. 

“Normally, being a GA involves sorting the compost, being an educational resource for residents in your hall, hosting sustainability events, coming together for a group meeting every week, and engaging in these really meaningful sustainability advocates projects,” Hall said. 

She explained that this semester, though some aspects of the program are continuing, all of the programming being virtual has presented new challenges. 

“There’s definitely a feeling of the work not being as meaningful and there’s an understanding that there’s a lot less to do than in previous years. This semester, it’s [doing things like] hosting virtual office hours. Are people going to show up? Maybe not,” she said. “We’re still continuing those sustainability advocate projects again but it’s a little bit harder not being in person.” 

Worthmore, a free store usually available to students during the academic year and a reuse collection program during spring move-out, is managed by the Green Advisors. Worthmore will not be open this semester, but according to the Office of Sustainability, two GAs are working behind the scenes to help organize and inventory the store so that they can possibly collect donations again at the end of this semester and minimize waste generation from

move-out. 

On-Campus Composting Pauses

Another key component of the GAs’ role on campus is to sort through composting bins. Since 2016, the Office of Sustainability has undertaken a substantial effort to reduce waste and to divert it away from incineration in Chester and into compost or recycling. 

According to a PBS article written in 2017, the incinerator in Chester is one of the biggest in the country, burning as much as 3,510 tons of waste a day. Most incinerators in the United States burn fewer than 1,000 tons of waste a day. In the surrounding neighborhoods, 75% of the population is Black, and about one-third of residents live below the poverty line. Neighborhood residents frequently experience health problems related to air pollution from the incinerator. 

The effort to divert waste away from Chester includes a campus-wide post-consumer compost system that offers compost bins in every campus building. Post-consumer compost includes material that has reached the end of its lifespan and has been used by the end consumer. This composting system relies on the GAs to educate the community about sorting practices and to sort through the compost themselves so that it arrives at the Kitchen Harvest composting facility uncontaminated. 

Originally, the Office of Sustainability planned to continue compost sorting after 3 weeks of COVID-19 testing and to hire additional sorters on Job X to aid the five on-campus GAs. On Friday, Oct. 25, on-campus GAs began training for the compost sorting process.

Hulices Murillo ’23, a GA on campus, attended the virtual training and was planning to take part in the sorting. He expressed that not all of the on-campus GAs felt comfortable sorting because of safety concerns related to the virus.

“Composting for this semester is optional for GAs. We have five on campus GAs but as far as I know, only three of us are composting which is very understandable because it’s just another thing to worry about on top of everything else. I understand why some people may opt out but I personally am okay with it,” he said.

Earlier this week, however, the Zero Waste Working Group and the Office of Sustainability ultimately decided that the post-consumer composting program would be put on hold for this fall. 

“Unfortunately, COVID-19 has presented some challenges and has limited our

ability to effectively maintain our composting program. Up until last week we had been planning to begin composting post-consumer waste, but due to changes in what Kitchen Harvest will accept, alongside several other unanticipated challenges, the Zero Waste Working Group has determined that the best choice is to delay our post-consumer composting this fall until it can be done safely and effectively,” representatives from the Office of Sustainability wrote in an email to The Phoenix. 

Hall spoke on behalf of all of the Green Advisors, expressing disappointment and confusion surrounding the decision.

“As Green Advisors, working so closely with the compost on campus and understanding the benefits of waste aversion and the impacts of our trash on the community in Chester, this news has been really hard for the group. There have been a lot of follow up questions, a lot of confusion about how the Office of Sustainability came to this decision, and a lot of general disheartenment,” she wrote in an email to the Phoenix. 

Student Reactions

Students have varying opinions about what the changes to the compost program will mean for Swarthmore’s environmental footprint. 

Ananya Bhattacharya ’21, a President’s Sustainability Research Fellow, feels that effectively, this change will not make a sizable difference in overall waste production compared to past years. 

“I haven’t really thought about waste increasing due to COVID precautions. I think the resources that are being saved by many students not being on campus (less food waste at Sharples, etc.) and using electronic resources instead of physical copies of readings is probably outweighing any increases in waste from COVID,” she wrote in an email to the Phoenix. 

Eliza Murphy ’23, a member of Sunrise, a national movement of young people fighting climate change, feels that the change means students will need to make an extra effort to manage their waste. 

“I think that since there are fewer GAs and Sharples isn’t using reusable dishes or utensils, it’s becoming increasingly important for individual students to put in the extra effort to be sustainable. For example, the containers from Sci and Kohlberg can be recycled if people take an extra two minutes to wash it out first,” she said. 

The Office of Sustainability echoed Murphy’s sentiment, emphasizing the importance of re-use. 

“We do encourage everyone to remember that as we continue to sort compostable items, re-use remains very important and to choose reusable options whenever possible,” they wrote.

Murphy also reflected on the uncertainty surrounding the composting process for this semester, and shared with the Phoenix a desire for more communication from the college. 

“I was aware that they weren’t sorting [compost], but I heard just from another student mentioning it offhand, so I definitely think the communication from the college could be improved. Like I don’t even know what has been happening to the compost if it wasn’t being sorted.”

Hall recognized the potential for a perceived lack of transparency, given that the Office of Sustainability only released information about composting for this semester to the Swarthmore community at large in an email from Sustainability Director Aurora Windsale on Thursday Oct. 8. 

“On a campus where waste aversion is such a priority and the Office of Sustainability is generally so aggressive in all of the right ways in terms of sustainability education and action, I would hate for this setback to result in a lack of trust in the sustainability work and governing body on campus because of unclear messaging or perceived lack of transparency about decision-making,” Hall wrote. 

The Office clarified that even with a hold on post-consumer composting, not everything that goes into the compost bins will end up in the trash. They also highlighted the importance of maintaining usual sorting practices.

“Limited sorting of composting will be taking place as we pilot test some necessary changes to make sure that our sorting protocols are in place. It continues to be very important that our campus community sort their waste, so that the temporary pause on post-consumer compost sorting this semester does not disrupt our efforts to ingrain waste sorting, sustainability, and environmental justice as core norms of the Swarthmore community,” they wrote.

Despite post-consumer waste composting being put on hold, recycling is still ongoing and food waste coming directly from Sharples is still being composted. 

“Recycling has continued, and Sharples food waste is being composted. Recycling isn’t ‘sorted’ in the same way that our compost is.” they wrote. “It’s up to community members to recycle correctly. Our recycling is sent to our recycling facility, J.P Mascaro — they are the ones who determine if a load is rejected because of contamination — and this process has not changed because of COVID-19.” 

The Office of Sustainability acknowledged that there has been a recent increase in waste production, but there is no concrete data available yet to analyze specifics. 

“We do get waste data from our haulers, but there is not much data for this

semester yet.We recognize the recent increase in waste production, and think that this year serves as an interesting case study for thinking about waste generation and sorting on campus,” they wrote in an email to The Phoenix. 

The Office of Sustainability encourages students who want to know more to reach out to zerowaste@swarthmore.edu. They are in the process of releasing more information to the Swarthmore community. 

Zero-Waste Plan Delayed

On August 21, 2017, the Zero Waste Working group released a comprehensive plan with the goals of creating a zero waste campus and educating Swarthmore community members on ways to minimize their waste footprint via their on and off-campus actions. The Zero Waste working group is composed of faculty, staff, and students, and leads the College’s operational and educational efforts to achieve waste targets.

 A secondary zero waste plan was expected to be released in 2020 to establish robust targets and metrics for reduction, diversion, and the social justice components of zero waste work, but has since been delayed. 

“The Zero Waste plan has been a bit delayed in its release partly due to our focus

on the more immediate needs and challenges emerging in response to the

pandemic and partly due to staff transition,” the Office of Sustainability wrote.

New Leadership at the Office of Sustainability

In addition to changes specifically related to the Covid-19 pandemic, the Office of Sustainability has recently hired a new Sustainability Program Manager. According to representatives from the Office of Sustainability, Melissa Tier, who has played a central role in developing the office over the past five years, left Swarthmore to pursue a Ph.D. at Princeton. Clare Hyre took over the position. 

“We are delighted to have successfully recruited Clare Hyre, a highly qualified

candidate with over ten years of experience in sustainability, farm and

environmental education, and food justice programming,” the Office of Sustainability wrote in an email to The Phoenix. 

Hall expressed that she is pleased with the new hire, but that the change in staff is contributing to the difficulty of adjusting to all of the new requirements because of Covid-19.

“Melissa Tier, who used to be in Clare’s position, basically built the GA program from the ground up.  It’s in the fabric of her being, so she knew the answer to everything and was super understanding. She was a great nucleus to all of us. Nothing against Clare, she’s doing a great job, but she’s new so that adds a certain level of questioning and uncertainty,” Hall said. 

A Hopeful Outlook

Despite all of the challenges this semester presents, GAs and PSRF fellows are proud of the work they’re doing and eager to facilitate change. According to the Office of Sustainability, there are nearly forty students working between the two programs this year on twenty-four distinct projects. 

“It definitely feels like I can do less about everything than I could if it was a normal semester. It is a bit discouraging but the optimist in me hopes even with virtual things that there’s someone out there that’s like ‘oh wow this is interesting, I didn’t think about this before, let me focus a little bit more on sustainability goals,’” Murillo said. 

The office maintains that their overarching goals and plans for achieving them are still moving forward during these unprecedented times.

Just this past summer, Swarthmore was recognized as one of “America’s Top Colleges for Renewable Energy” by Environment America, making several top ten lists.  Representatives from the Office of Sustainability confirmed that the College’s commitment to achieving carbon neutrality no later than 2035 is still intact. 

The Office has also taken up an exciting honey bee initiative in collaboration with the Scott Arboretum and the Environmental Studies Department. A hive was installed on the David Kemp Green Roof on Friday, Sept. 25. The goal of adopting honeybees is to help change people’s perspective on the urban environment and to reconnect the Swarthmore community with the subtle wonders of nature.

Frequently asked questions about the College’s sustainability efforts and COVID-19 can be found on the Office of Sustainability’s website, along with sustainability tips for students residing off campus. 

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