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November 30, 2023

University refocuses on sustainability initiatives

By BEN SCHWARTZ | September 12, 2013

The University is ramping up its sustainability efforts, even as it embarks on a search for a new director of the Office of Sustainability following the departure of former head Davis Bookhart over the summer.

In partnership with the undergraduate organization Take Back the Tap, the Office of Sustainability is working to add water bottle refilling stations to water fountains across the campus. Many, if not most, buildings around Homewood already feature the retrofitted hydration stations.

Recycling and composting are also getting a big boost. The University has replaced nearly every waste receptacle in the academic halls with three-bin, color-coded stations. The blue bins are for paper, the green for commingled glass, plastic, and metal, and the grey for trash. Each bin now features a handy frame with pictures of products okay to deposit into it. Even the custodial staff have expressed approval for the system because of its relative simplicity.

Recycling paper separately, which is nominally profitable, actually helps offset the cost of the rest of the program.

“About $55,000 [was] invested, just so you know, in terms of the commitment of the University, on the Homewood Campus at least, to making recycling and waste diversion not only more effective but more of staple and standard that people will see in the buildings,” Leana Houser, manager of recycling services on the Homewood Campus, said.

In the dining facilities, near cafés and at events, yellow bins and bins labeled “compost” are more readily available for composting as well. Bon Appétit and other food service providers on campus are now also mostly using so-called “corn plastic” cups and takeout boxes, which are actually meant to be composting, not recycled. Houser and her colleagues are working to get to 100 percent corn plastic on campus in the future.

In the residence halls, the recycling program is introducing TerraCycle bins for hard-to-recycle items such as toothpaste tubes and candy wrappers and E-Cycle bins for electronics with either a battery or a cord or both.

Nevertheless, difficulties abound. Recycling and composting in the dining facilities and residence halls remain outside the purview of the Office of Sustainability and the recycling program, causing tensions within the University over whether enough is being done to lower waste production. Getting students to sign on is still a significant barrier.

The Homewood Campus diverted only 26 percent of its waste last year, somewhat lower than the figures for peer institutions and much lower than for the Medical Campus. The goal is to bring that number up to 35 percent this year.

In part to combat the apathy surrounding recycling and composting, the University worked to integrate sustainability into the Undergraduate Orientation 2013 program.

“Our tag line is ‘Think Before You Toss’ and so if you walk onto campus your first day and you don’t see composting and you don’t see recycling, you just see trash and it’s just sort of outside of sight outside of mind, you just toss the stuff. What we wanted was for students to step onto campus and just sort of immediately go, ‘Oh! There’s an option to compost here,’” Houser said. “But, by and large, students saw that [recycling and composting] was not only an option but also an expectation.”

An extension of the orientation effort was that the Office of Sustainability worked with the Office Student Activities to develop a guide to planning “green” events. Greek Life is also getting a “green” lift.

“I’ve been working a lot with Student Activities and Greek Life... to develop a Sustainability Chair position for fraternities and sororities so we can have a little bit of a more structured sense of accountability for some waste and recycling issues with Greek Life as well as just identify some opportunities that are unique to that community,” Ashley Pennington, outreach coordinator for the Office of Sustainability, said.

Meatless Monday, which originated at the School of Public Health, is another initiative getting an upgrade as well as Bon Appétit takes over as the new main food provider on campus.

The ECO-Rep program is also being revamped, with internships available for upperclassmen who participated as freshmen. And the Sustainable Hopkins Infrastructure Program (or SHIP) is getting new life breathed into with a new rain garden set to be planted in front of Gilman Hall next spring.

“This year I would really like for the focus to get back to the fundamentals of community based social marketing, which is basically a social behavior change theory that a lot of higher education sustainability offices subscribe to as a way to assess your audience and the barriers and benefits to any kind of behavior,” Pennington said.

To top it all off, when the men’s football team hosts Dickinson on Oct. 18, it will be a “green game” to raise awareness of the University’s growing sustainability efforts.

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