This week Pratt’s Envirolutions club took its campaign for waste reduction on campus to the annual Green Week celebration. Tabling for two days, the club had two main projects. The first was a continuation of a campaign kicked off earlier in the semester to promote CulinArt’s Green Container program and other sustainable cafeteria initiatives. The second, a new project, was to initiate a video project that engages members of the Pratt community in a dialogue about recycling.
Thanks to Pratt’s Student Government Association, the club got another big bag of Green Container tokens to give away to students for free. As I described in a previous post, the tokens usually cost $5 and can be used to obtain a reusable plastic container to hold your meal. Whenever you bring back the container you get another token back, creating a sustainable cycle that would drastically reduce the amount of waste generated by the Pratt cafeterias if everyone adopted the practice. Getting behavioral buy-in is the goal of the Envirolutions club. Informational tabling has been a critical component of reaching this goal, as it turns out that most people either do not know or misunderstand how the program works.
As part of the Green Container campaign, Envirolutions club members are running a “get caught green handed” promotion. Anyone found using a green container on Pratt’s campus will be awarded a $10 gift card to the PrattStore courtesy of the Center for Sustainable Design Studies. In an indication that the Green Container program still is slow to take off, the club was only able to give away one gift card in their first pass through the cafeteria last Thursday. The hope is that as more students become aware of the program and understand how it works, giving away gift cards should become easier.
The second Envirolutions project emerges from several years of confusion over Pratt’s recycling policy. Although you can find out how Pratt recycles and get some sense of why this is the method chosen by the administration on the Pratt website [1, 2], most members of the Pratt community are pretty unclear on what if any recycling program Pratt maintains. In part this is due to what the recycling policy is: almost none of Pratt’s waste stream is pre-sorted for recycling, and it all goes into the same truck which hauls it away to post-sorting facilities maintained by Five Star Carting. Even amongst those who understand that Pratt does recycle, the post-sorting method seems less than “green”. Rather than asking members of the Pratt community to bear the burden, we offload that job to garbage sorters off site who literally pick through our trash looking for recyclable matter. Not only is this inefficient from a labor perspective, it also reduces the amount of recyclable material which can be recovered, as it only takes a single half-full cup of coffee tossed into a bin of paper to send an entire bag of recyclable material to the landfill.
Envirolutions’ goal for the semester is to understand the consequences of this policy more clearly. To this end members of the club met with Tony Gelber, Pratt’s Director of Administrative Sustainability, to get a fuller understanding of the recycling policy. Tony explained that in the past attempts to pre-sort recyclable material had been unsuccessful, as members of the community did not properly separate their garbage. For facilities this is a problem: you either run a recycling program that effectively pre-sorts or you do not bother pre-sorting at all. Tony also expressed his feeling that recycling receives disproportionate attention while other issues that are more critical to campus sustainability get ignored. He cited as an example the very small difference that recycling makes on one metric of campus sustainability, our carbon footprint. As Tony described it, our carbon footprint is about “kilowatt hours and therms”, measures of how much electricity and heat our campus uses. By Tony’s estimations, changing our electricity consumption habits would lower our impact much more profoundly than any change to our recycling habits. This opinion was important for club members to hear as they considered where to devote their consciousness-raising efforts.
During Green Week Envirolutions club members interviewed members of the Pratt campus community, asking them what they knew about our recycling program and what they think the recycling policy ought to be. I am excited to see what insights this project yields. Clearly one question dictating whether or not to pre-sort or post-sort recyclable material centers on whether the general Pratt community can become a trustworthy ally of facilities by consistently sorting their recycling. Based on what Tony Gelber reports, this partnership has failed to materialize in the past. But was this failure due to poor motivation on the part of students, staff, and faculty, or was the recycling sorting system poorly explained and disseminated? Given how much Pratt folks express frustration over the lack of recycling, it seems like it is at least reasonable to assume that a campus-wide sorting program could be successful if properly advertised and explained. One of the goals of the Envirolutions recycling video project is to assess how sorting of recyclable material might work at Pratt.
Beyond Envirolutions’ work, there were a lot of other Green Week activities happening on campus. The club paired up again with the Pratt NYPIRG program, running parallel activities on two days. NYPIRG picked up the baton on bringing free helmets to Pratt (a tradition now in its third year) courtesy of the New York City Department of Transportation.