Minimizing Ecological Footprints at Boston University

An Interview with Kaity Robinson

By Morgan Walsh

If you were to ever tour Boston University’s campus you may notice green stickers outside of offices displaying their “green levels,” cafeteria garbage labels that diagram exactly what goes in what bin, or vegan and vegetarian options now offered at student dining halls. The group responsible for this change to BU’s climate is none other than their sustainability department. Since 2009, BU has been working to reduce its ecological footprint anyway it can. It has a host of programs such as its wind farm in South Dakota, soon to be built geothermal building, and zero-waste program. The other day, I learned more about the latter in an interview with Kaity Robison, the manager of Boston University’s zero waste department. 

Kaity Robinson, manager of Boston University’s Zero Waste Department

         For some, the term zero waste elicits images of a mason jar filled with a year’s worth of trash, cupboards with a sparse amount of packaged foods, and a relinquished social life in favor of not having to use straws when going out with friends, but that isn’t necessarily true. As Miss. Robinson put it, “As long as 90% of what you’re consuming is going into the recycling, compost, or is being reused, that’s pretty close to zero waste.” Zero waste is actually pretty simplistic in that the most important thing is buying less and reusing more. Boston University has made its goal to be zero waste by 2030, only a mere ten years from now. With projects, they are currently undertaking they seem to be right on par for successfully meeting their goals. 

Reducing, Reusing, & Recycling  

Dining at BU has seen many green successes. Menu items feature plant-based options and locally sourced produce. Students can now receive 25 cents off their purchase of coffee when they use their reusable cups at cafes around campus which saves two different types of green. Recycling and composting have also become an important part of reducing waste in cafeterias. According to Kaity, the medical campus at BU lets students put their recycling all in one bin, the rest of the campus is for the most part dual-stream. While they intend on allowing all the recycling on campus to become a single-stream, as of right now it seems that the dual-stream helps the quality of recycling. 

“The dual-stream actually helps create a purer batch of recycling,” Kaity informs me, “That may be because students have to think more about what they’re putting where. When a batch of recycling has too many materials in it that aren’t recyclable it contaminates the whole batch and they end up having to discard the whole thing.” 

This same problem occurs sometimes in composting, where students will place materials that are non-compostable in the composting bin. That’s why they started a back of house composting program where all the food scraps from the cafeteria are shipped to an anaerobic digestion facility and used as biomass which is a form of renewable energy. At the facility, bacteria are placed in an airtight container with the food scraps and, as the bacteria breakdown the food, they release methane which is burned to produce electricity. 

Currently, the Zero Waste Task Force has been doing a lot of work with reducing the amount of garbage from BU that ends up in landfills as well. The task force focuses on reducing packaging and deliveries, developing an online education program for sustainability, receiving new data on the amount of waste they produce and save, and trying to get students more involved in sustainability.

 “The whole task force Process has been one of the most rewarding parts of the job so far. To manage the task force requires getting stakeholders involved, and we had to get 50+ workers, residences, and companies to meet and talk about the issues.  It was also a bit of a struggle to make sure they all came to every meeting,” she said with a laugh, “but today we get to send our proposal over to the president which is something to be proud of.” 

The Future for Colleges, Schools, and Students 

         Colleges operate like fashion designers when one has success with a new program, others are likely to follow in a competitive suit. Hopefully, BU will be the next trendsetter when it comes to sustainability. “There isn’t really a college that I can think of off the top of my head that is the best in environmental work. It’s not like medical, tech, or business programs that some schools are known for…” says Kaity, “This gives BU a unique opportunity to be a leader in it right now.” She hopes that BU and other colleges will start to work more on their environmental programs and possibly incorporate it into other majors, like how she took the business in addition to environmental studies at Tulane which helped her in her job now. 

Besides just making greener improvements to their campuses and opening up new programs, colleges have the power to influence what becomes the norm for students. There is no doubt that there is a stigma surrounding taking the effort to incorporate sustainable practices in your life, but Kaity thinks that because of all the education programs BU and other schools now have to offer it might be lessened in younger generations. Seeing programs that support recycling, using cleaner energy, and wasting less helps people accept it as part of everyday life. 

For students, it sometimes seems near impossible to take the steps to living greener. Common complaints may be that parents control most of their lives, they don’t want to be judged for helping the climate, and most of all it requires effort for something that might not make that much of a difference, but that’s not the mindset to have. 

In high school, Kaity used to always participate in earth day trash pickups, and she was shocked by how much trash was in the environment. Once she took AP Environmental in high school she realized that saving the environment was something she wanted to pursue as a carrier. When asked what the best advice for someone who wanted to go zero waste was she said, “Commit to making small changes in your life and educating yourself about the issues and be open to other people’s perspectives. Push forward the changes that need to happen… It may not seem important if you’re the only one doing it, but individual action adds up. If 15 million people do one action it is going to make a difference.” 

Kaity’s Zero Waste Tips:

  • Compost and Recycle: Both are really easy things to do, especially the latter. If you have a yard and garden, composting makes sense as well. (If you don’t have space and still want too, there are some programs such as Rhodeside Revival in North Kingstown that collect compost from companies, schools, and residence of RI)
  • Switch from paper towels to cloth towels: If you do the laundry anyway why not bother throwing in a towel as well. Plus you save money not having to buy paper ones every week. 
  • Buy products that are recyclable or have reduced packaging: Many times being zero waste is as simple as buying food in a cardboard box instead of plastic bag. If packaging can’t be avoided, remember that less is more. For example, toilet paper is a necessity, but you can buy coreless ones to conserve the unnecessary cardboard that is placed in the middle. Buying in bulk is also a good way not only to reduce the packaging needed but the number of trips you need to take to the grocery store. 
  • Go to clothes or furniture swap or store: The first goodwill was actually started on the BU campus, but now there is no shortage of second-hand clothing stores to buy clothes from. At BU they also have a warehouse with extra furniture leftover from past students that new students can purchase for their dorms.
  • Take advantage of reusable products: Seriously, using reusable bags, water bottles, utensils, and Tupperware is extremely easy, so easy that there really is no excuse not to. If you are short on reusable products, head up to the BU sustainability festival; I hear they give out water bottles and bags. 
  • Join a volunteer program: Even if you decide to participate in a one-time thing such as a beach clean up, recycling program, or a tree-planting group, the little action makes a difference. (Plus it’s a good way to gaining volunteering hours) 
  • Buy Local: Farmers’ markets are great because not only do they reduce packaging, but they also reduce carbon emissions since all the food is grown nearby.

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