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Actual environmental record belies public green cred

Published: February 10, 2012
Section: News


Even as Eco-Reps work to celebrate “Brandeis Loves Recycling Month” with fun events such as Recyclegrams and as Hillel collaborates with Students for Environmental Action (SEA) to celebrate Tu B’Shvat, awareness and waste reduction still remain challenges for environmental activists on campus.

Five years ago, Brandeis received a C in overall sustainability and a B in recycling and waste management from the Sustainable Endowments Institute. Since then, campus sustainability efforts have increased and improved dramatically.

SEA and Brandeis University Recycling Program (BURP), both student-run initiatives, have a strong presence on campus. More than 100 students attended the first SEA meeting of the semester, in which they split into subgroups to work on 20 separate initiatives. The projects range from the Locally Grown Food Banquet held each semester to environmental activism, all meant to turn environmental consciousness into action.

First-years have also been exposed to more environmental opportunities since arriving at Brandeis than previous classes. This past fall semester was the first time first-years could apply to live in the Thinking Green Community, a sustainability-themed floor in Massell Quad, which learns about environmental issues outside of the classroom and participates in projects such as gardening in the Fellows Garden behind Massell.

The results of an online poll revealed that all first-years surveyed were at least aware of recycling initiatives on campus. They were aware that every dorm room receives a recycling bin. Brandeis Recycling and Waste Web page gives students clear instructions on what can be recycled and which Eco-Reps to contact with questions.

There are still factors, however, that affect the success of recycling on campus. In many residence halls and campus buildings, recycling bins overflow with wrappers and other trash even though there is a clearly marked trash can nearby. Some students rarely empty their own recycling bins, even after getting green-room certified.

In Usdan, which attempts to operate sustainably, easily recyclable water bottles can be found in the trash. When purchasing takeout, most students use the non-recyclable cardboard boxes instead of recyclable plastic containers placed at checkout.

Sara Feit ’15 says there are not enough recycling bins in some campus buildings. “Sometimes I’ll have to carry a water bottle with me for a while to recycle it,” she said, explaining why it’s easy to forgo recycling.

SEA member Elise Sobotka ’15 adds, “The placement of the bins is a problem. They are often placed in awkward, hard-to-notice areas and there just aren’t enough of them on campus.”

But the misplacement of trash has a negative impact on the quest for sustainability. According to Sustainability Coordinator Janna Cohen-Rosenthal ’03, trash and recycling are handled precisely with the Single Stream system. While recycling goes to a recycling-only single stream facility, trash is burned in an incinerator. There it is turned into energy, which is “better than doing nothing” according to Cohen-Rosenthal, but still, “less trash is better.” This is why proper disposal of trash is important. Recyclable items mixed into the trash are incinerated when they could be reused instead.

Certain Facilities workers, who asked to remain unnamed, have claimed that both trash and recycling are thrown away together. This is because one piece of trash in a recycling bin renders the entire bag un-recyclable and, despite caring, Brandeis students still fail to dispose of their waste properly.

“Despite the obvious intellect and passion for social justice here, this has been a real challenge for Brandeis,” Cohen-Rosenthal says about recycling. Still, there is hope for the future of Brandeis environmentalism. People agree that there needs to be an equal combination of heightened awareness and waste reduction. Jesse Koklas ’14, the Waste Reduction and Recycling Eco-Rep, mentioned the Eco-Reps’ efforts to raise awareness. These include more signs that specify what is or isn’t recyclable, a March field trip to the trash incinerator and a waste sorting competition in Usdan next week. Students can win prizes for separating the trash from the recyclables.

Professor Laura Goldin of the Environmental Studies department uses her academic position to help with waste reduction as well. In her course “Greening the Ivory Tower,” which discusses sustainability, students visit WeCare, a recycling and recycled products plant.

Goldin says the biggest challenge we face is “the need for far greater participation in conscientious waste separation and recycling.”

“However, the real need for improvement precedes the recycling challenge; we need to focus on greatly reducing materials consumption and waste reduction overall.”

Cohen-Rosenthal adds: “I will always go back to that first step—reduction. That is the best way to reduce waste—don’t make it to start with! Initiatives such as reducing bottled water, using double-sided printing, and avoiding to-go containers are a great start.”