From the roles of the Green Advisors to the use of take-out containers at Sharples, each member of the Office of Sustainability has had their roles affected by the pandemic. Though many things remain the same, the office has made some changes to the sustainability policies since the Fall 2020 semester.
On February 25, 2021, the Office of Sustainability sent an email to all students detailing some of these changes, including the resumption of composting and the discontinuation of compostable single-use utensils. Worthmore, a free store that gives students access to items they might not have otherwise been able to purchase, also opened to students through the G.E.T. reservation system this semester on March 10, 2021, after being closed in Fall 2020.
Aurora Winslade, Swarthmore’s sustainability director, told The Phoenix about the reasons for the composting reinstatement and changes.
“Composting is a key component of our Campus’s Zero Waste efforts,” Winslade wrote. “Last semester we had limited numbers of Green Advisors on campus to sort; this semester we have increased numbers and our Green Advisors have taken on additional shifts and responsibilities to ensure as much compost gets composted as possible.”
According to Kyra Hall ’22, the green advisor coordinator, the use of reusable utensils is extremely important, especially since Swarthmore received word from its partner at Kitchen Harvest, a program that collects compostables around the Philadelphia area, that the college’s “compostable” silverware has not been composting properly.
“We also recently got feedback from our partner at Kitchen Harvest that the green straws from the cafe in the Science Center and the silverware distributed all over campus have not been breaking down with the rest of our compostable material, which means we can no longer compost those materials. Spreading the word regarding this change has also been an undertaking, as single-use cutlery is being used in large quantities across campus right now…” she said.
In her email to The Phoenix, Winslade wrote about the updates to the composting system itself.
“Last semester Kitchen Harvest, also notified us they were no longer accepting several items, and we were able to update all our signage and place new waste signage across campus in response to this change. Also, our Sustainability Advocate project on outdoor waste bin management was able to develop new signage that is being piloted at the tents on campus. Finally, we have shifted to a self-hauling composting system, meaning we take our own compost to Kitchen Harvest rather than having them transfer it, which allows us to increase the regularity and amount of compost we bring weekly to Kitchen Harvest,” she wrote.
According to Winslade, the composting efforts have gone smoothly, but students are still using disposable utensils and throwing garbage in the incorrect containers. At the beginning of the semester, the college provided a set of reusable bamboo utensils to all students on campus.
“Because [utensils are no longer compostable], it is important to remove all silverware from the compostable clamshells and place it in the trash prior to the clamshell being placed in the compost bin,” Winslade wrote. “Alternatively, if the reusable utensil sets were used instead of the compostable or plastic silverware, there would be an incredible amount of waste diverted from the incinerator, so their use should be prioritized over the compostable and plastic silverware. Also, if students could remove any condiment packets, plastic grill containers, milk containers, and non-campus items and put them in the appropriate waste bin, the sorting time would be greatly reduced for our Green Advisors, and our compost would be free from contamination.”
Ryan Rodriguez ’24 said that the composting changes aren’t always the easiest for students to accommodate.
“I personally spent the first two to three weeks being very conscious of my reusable utensils, and it was a pain in the butt to clean them all the time,” Rodriguez said. “But then I fell off that horse, like I stopped using them, and it was a result of the compostable stuff at like Sci Center or Sharples … but [consistently using the reusable utensils] takes another level of consciousness that I just don’t always let myself entertain.”
Some of his friends, however, have embraced the switch from compostable utensils and encourage others to do the same, including GA Cynthia Shi ’23. [Shi is a photo editor for The Phoenix but was not involved with the writing or editing of this article.]
“I prefer my personal reusable [utensils],” she said. “I carry them with me most of the time. What’s made easier this semester was that there are dish soaps placed in dorms that allowed me to clean them after using. I think once you start using the utensils, you just get into the habit of using them, and slowly that replaces the compostable ones.”
Shi said that the knowledge that single-use utensils are no longer compostable reaffirmed her commitment to using reusable utensils.
“What incentivized me is the fact that all the utensils being used on campus right now, even though the material could be compostable, should be placed into trash due to issues with the compost company we work with. Knowing that, using your own reusable ones certainly reduces the waste on an individual level,” she said.
GA Olivia Fey ’23 also agreed that the inability to compost is a great reason for students to turn to reusable options.
“I think this will provide students with a great opportunity to prioritize the reusable mindset because at the end of the day, although composting is a great alternative to incineration, reusing is the most sustainable option. We’re also really lucky that the campus supplies all students with a set of reusable utensils so that all have the option to switch to reusables without the concern of affordability and accessibility,” Fey said.
The still-widespread usage of single-use utensils has extended the waste-sorting done by on-campus GAs, who are already working tirelessly to sort as best they can.
“We have one to two sorting shifts per day, which means that each GA is sorting through the campus compost twice a week. We have noticed more contamination in our compost stream, such as condiment packets, plastic silverware, snack bags, and newly introduced plastic takeaway containers from Sharples … This has meant more diligent sorting on the end of the Green Advisors and a push for more education/signage across campus clarifying what can and cannot be composted,” said Hall.
Though sorting is a difficult job, Hall maintains a positive attitude and pride in the goals of the GA program through her support in overseeing it and continuing to improve the Swarthmore compost/waste diversion system.
“Seeing the quantity of sorted, compostable material that EVS brings to Kitchen Harvest three times a week makes me proud of the work that we are doing. Although spending four-plus hours of my week sorting through post-consumer waste behind the Science Center in a variety of weather conditions can sometimes feel monotonous and sticky, I really value each bag I sort through and, thus, divert from the Covanta Incinerator,” Hall said.
As a sophomore, Fey is virtual this semester, and she’s noticed difficulties doing the jobs she might have been able to do on campus. GAs at home cannot participate in sorting compost, which is one of their largest responsibilities. The distance also makes connecting with students difficult. Instead, the virtual GAs contribute more concretely via their Sustainability Advocate projects.
“You can pass on information and hold remote office hours and activities. But at the end of the day, I don’t blame people for not wanting to spend more time on Zoom. Because of these difficulties, I would say that the place where remote GAs can have the greatest influence is through our Sustainability Advocate projects, which cover a wide variety of sustainable issues on campus ranging from dining services to athletics to the Worthmore free store.”
According to Clare Hyre, the sustainability program manager, Worthmore has different rules and opening times this semester as opposed to previous years, and it wasn’t open for move-out donations until move-out in Fall 2020. Hulices Murillo ’23, a GA who helps run Worthmore, spoke to The Phoenix about why it wasn’t open last semester.
“Because of the state in which Worthmore was in since Spring 2020’s frantic move-out, last semester Worthmore was not open. We spent most of the semester cleaning up and organizing the materials in the store in preparation for Fall 2020 move out — when we expected to be open for donations,” he wrote.
In an email to The Phoenix, Hyre wrote about the differences opening Worthmore this semester as compared to in years previous.
“In previous years, Worthmore was only open for a limited amount of time during move-in, with restricted access to the space for the majority of the semester. Because the store was not available during move-in this year, and there was such high interest in accessing Worthmore items from students, we have continued to keep the store open for visits two times per week.” Hyre wrote.
According to Hyre, Worthmore is open on Wednesdays from 4-6 p.m. and Fridays from 2-5 p.m. Students can sign up to visit the store through the G.E.T. reservation system, and all reservations must be made in advance.
In an interview with The Phoenix, Rodriguez said that he had been to Worthmore and picked up an assortment of items.
“I [went] one time right as they opened. I went in the afternoon, and I got a painting … and a bunch of cooking utensils, which I’ve actually been using, so I love Worthmore. I think it’s a good resource for students in need,” he said.
Hyre said that as long as students remain interested and staffing is available, Worthmore should remain open for the semester.
“As long as students continue to utilize the available reservations slots, there continues to be staffing available, and it continues to be safe to do so. The Office of Sustainability will make Worthmore available to students this semester.”
To manage Worthmore in accordance with Swarthmore’s COVID safety guidelines, the Office of Sustainability has implemented new safety measures.
Upon visiting, students are required to wear both masks and gloves and follow campus COVID-19 safety guidelines and occupancy limitations.
Hyre said that there have been no issues with Worthmore so far besides the slight learning curve of adapting to the G.E.T. registration system.
Murillo told The Phoenix that his job is rather consistent and includes dealing with confused students and scheduling.
“Although my job still consists of occasionally cleaning and organizing, most of the time I assist students if they need help finding certain items and manage the appointments of the day,” he said.
According to Murillo, Worthmore is not currently accepting donations but is expected to do so during the Spring move-out.
“We are anticipating being able to collect donations for move-out. Therefore, we encourage students to hold on to their items until then, if possible, or find other ways of repurposing their items,” Murillo wrote.
Photo courtesy of Anatole Shukla for The Phoenix.