Upon returning to campus this semester, students face several changes meant to contribute to Swarthmore College’s sustainability initiatives. In June, the college established a new goal: to become a zero waste campus by 2035 and transition to energy-efficient practices in the coming years. Current efforts towards zero waste include diverting waste away from incineration and towards recycling and composting.
Dining at Swarthmore has undergone various changes in an effort to meet this goal. Most notably, there has been a transition to compostable utensils, trayless dining, and reusable take out containers in the new Dining and Community Commons. In an interview with The Phoenix, Associate Director of Sustainability Clare Hyre detailed the nuances of this step to Zero Waste.
“We’ve transitioned to providing 100% compostable utensils. Additionally, the new Dining Center will use trayless dining to help reduce food waste and contamination in the food waste stream,” Hyre explained. “Once [the new] Sharples Commons is completed next year, we will also expand the reusable takeout container program to make it available to all students, greatly reducing the number of single-use takeout containers and utensils used on campus,” she said.
Hyre also described several other eco-friendly waste management methods that will be implemented in the Dining and Community Commons.
“Waste stations are strategically placed around the new facility, and a pulper has been installed to pulp the compost, making our back-of-house management easier, ” she said.
Reducing and diverting waste is an important goal for the Sustainability Office. The Zero Waste Working Group hosts annual waste characterization studies to monitor how much waste is in each of the three categories: trash, recycle, and compost.
All trash generated on campus reaches CovantaChester, an incinerator in Chester, PA. The incinerator is the source of one of the largest cases of environmental racism in the country. This past April, the Delaware County Solid Waste Authority extended the county’s contract with CovantaChester. The incinerator has already caused severe health risks for Chester residents. As a result, students have voiced concern that the 2035 deadline might be too late for the college’s Zero Waste goals. Green Advisor (GA) Jiho Shin ’25, responded to these concerns in an interview.
“I think we definitely have to push a little more, but it’s coming along pretty well … The annual waste characterization studies are actually a good indicator of where we stand in terms of waste diversion rates,” Shin said.
Shin also emphasized the importance of student involvement in sustainable practices on campus.
She explained that although Swarthmore students are deeply passionate about the social justice aspects of environmental activism, they do not always translate these beliefs into their daily actions. Many students, for example, repeatedly deposit compostable items in the trash.
“When it comes to implementing the little practices in daily life, it can be a little rough. I think GAs can help make these practices as easy and accessible as possible. We aim to make it so that the right choices don’t require too much thought,” Shin explained.
One goal the GAs are currently working on is to increase the composting of paper towels. Many residence halls do not have compost bins in their bathrooms, resulting in students simply trashing the paper. Shin explained that for her residents, she placed bins in the bathrooms to encourage easy and mindless composting.
Environmental activist Zamir Ticknor ’25 added that student involvement shouldn’t be the crux of sustainability. Back home, Ticknor co-founded the Virginia Youth Climate Cooperative and was involved in climate change protests across Virginia.
“Regarding the transition to aluminum cans and compostable materials, I think those are great steps, but I don’t think that that’s all we should do … We need institutional action to combat climate change, because in the long run that’s what the issue is — it’s not individuals,” Ticknor said.
Ticknor went on to clarify that individual actions alone are not enough to combat climate change.
“Although we can make a difference and do our part, it is institutions, governments, and companies that are contributing the most toward climate change and should be taking the lead,” he elaborated.
Looking forward, the college is determined to be part of these institutional changes. The Roadmap to Zero Carbon outlines the college’s plan to reach carbon neutrality by 2035. Hyre highlighted that the Dining Commons represents a step towards this goal.
“The Dining Center also includes other sustainability features, including rooftop solar panels, all-electric cooking equipment, mass timber construction to reduce embodied carbon, and is designed for stormwater management and recapture,” she said. “The building will also house a geoexchange energy transfer plant, which will serve the entire campus and enable the College to transition away from fossil fuels.”
When asked about the 2035 deadline for Zero Carbon and Waste, Ticknor expressed concern.
“There is not as much time; we don’t have ten years to achieve this goal. This is an urgent issue and I think we need a more radical approach in addressing climate change. I am very glad that Swarthmore has set a carbon emissions goal, and I appreciate that effort,” he urged.