By FRANCIS BOGAN/ecoRI News contributor
This report is a look at the waste-diversion practices at nine Rhode Island institutions. It focuses on the strategies and approaches that colleges and universities have found most helpful in reducing waste.
Each one of these institutions has different resources, cultures, strengths, and weaknesses. This report focuses on how every level of each institution — faculty, staff and students — navigate the challenges.
Recycling and waste-diversion rates feature prominently. These figures give insight into how much waste each institution creates, and show the methods used to measure it. However, some of these institutions don’t measure their waste at all, and some only measure part of the year, such as the Rhode Island School of Design’s recycling rate, which comes primarily from the results of RecycleMania.
Students and staff at multiple schools also emphasized that recycling and waste diversion do less to reduce environmental impact than creating less waste in the first place.
“It’s reduce, reuse, then recycle,” said Stephanie Zhou of the RISD student group the Earthlings.
Creative approaches to waste diversion get special attention, such as Rhode Island College using graduation caps and gowns recycled from water bottles, and then recycling them again into carpeting material.
There are also impressive individual efforts, such as Alex Duryea’s work at Providence College, where she, as a student, has lead student organizations, restarted an environmental publication, and created an “individualized studies” major that PC may use as a template for an environmental studies major.
Nine Rhode Island colleges and universities are profiled here. Media representatives from New England Tech, which opened its first dorms this year, declined an interview request. ecoRI News inadvertently left out the Community College of Rhode Island.
Brown devotes a large amount of resources to sustainability and waste diversion. The university has recycling containers with educational signs throughout its Providence campus, institutional composting which accepts almost all compostable items, an e-waste program, opportunities for clothing donations, and more environmental student groups than most other Rhode Island colleges combined.
Yet for all this, the university’s waste-diversion rate of 26.5 percent during the 2015-16 school year, falls far behind many others.
Jess Berry, the Office of Energy and Environmental Initiative’s sustainability manager, suggests that what an institution includes in both its waste-diversion tonnage and trash tonnage may skew the rate to favor one school over another.
Berry said she believes Brown’s overall waste diversion rate rose during the 2016-17 school year, thanks in part to the large-scale composting program instituted in July 2016.
Either way, the Office of Energy and Environmental Initiatives has taken action to improve Brown’s diversion rate. Last year the office set a university goal of 50 percent waste diversion by 2020, and is currently developing a “campus-wide waste plan” to reach that goal. To get there, Berry said Brown will need aggressive programming and infrastructure changes.
Here is what Brown is doing in specific areas:
Each residential building has a trash room, with bins for trash and recycling, and designated space for flattened cardboard boxes. Academic buildings also have recycling bins, many of which still have tops designed for sorted recycling.
Outside, Brown has 30 Bigbelly trash and recycling containers spread across the campus. These solar-powered bins compact trash and recycling, and notify facilities staff when they are full.
During move-outs, Brown provides donation bins and drop-off locations for students to give unused or reusable items to Goodwill Industries, which Brown works with year-round, as well as the Providence Animal Rescue League and the Rhode Island Food Bank.
Kevin Fisette of Goodwill said Brown is a “model university to work with,” both for its student involvement and organization. He praised Brown’s Clean Break Program, whose student volunteers place and manage collection bins and drop-off locations for student donations in May.
Erin Donnellan, the program’s director and an Office of Energy and Environmental Initiatives staffer, notifies Fisette when volunteers gather enough items for a pickup. Brown donates about 16,000 pounds of items to Goodwill during a single end-of-year collection.
To collect clothes donations year-round, Brown has also allowed Goodwill to install three permanent containers on Brown’s campus. Fisette said Goodwill collects about 35,000 pounds of items from the three bins annually.
Brown gives much of its e-waste to a private vendor, who takes everything from light bulbs to computers and printers, according to Berry. Brown also partnered with Dell to hold a joint e-waste recycling day in August 2016, when 17,500 pounds of e-waste was collected.
According to its 2016 Sustainability Report, Brown diverted 264.5 tons of organic waste that year. That year, the university also diverted 88 tons of yard waste, sent nearly 30 tons of used oil to Newport Biodiesel, donated 36.5 tons of food, sent 80 tons of other organic scrap to a local pig farmer, and composted just nearly 30 tons of food scrap.
In July 2016, Brown partnered with The Compost Plant to institute a large-scale composting program. The university composted 460 tons of food scrap between the July 1 implementation and May 31 of this year, Berry said. She admitted that some of the weight could include contamination, such as non-compostable waste and, according Will Klimpert, a student volunteer, usable dishware and utensils that students sometimes drop into the composting bins.
In dining locations that compost “back-of-house,” where staff handle all composting, contamination is low, Berry said. In “front-of-house” locations, where students may have to sort trash, recyclables and food waste, contamination is a problem, she noted. Student volunteers have helped other students and guests compost by standing at bins and explaining how to do it properly.
Education and student involvement
Brown has some 13 student groups that work on environmental issues. Many of those, such as SCRAP and Brown’s Eco-Reps, operate under the emPOWER umbrella group.
Eco-Reps run many events throughout the year, such as Gameday Recycling and waste audits, to promote recycling and other sustainability measures. The program, which is entirely student run, also provides volunteers for composting education.
With a 32 percent and climbing waste-diversion rate, improving energy efficiency, ample recycling containers placed throughout its campus, and cooperation between staff, faculty, administration and students, Bryant University is a strong example of how an institution can decrease its impact when it coordinates efforts and communicates well.
Bryant achieved this success recently, and it was in large part the result of nearly a decade of careful coordination and newly implemented sustainability measures.
It began in 2008, when Gaytha Langlois, professor of environmental policy, helped organize a sustainability summit for faculty, administration, staff, and students.
Bryant was performing poorly in certain environmental measures — it had a 10 percent recycling rate — and Langlois was frustrated with the university’s lack of communication and understanding.
At that time, Langlois said, students felt that the university didn’t provide sufficient recycling containers, staff believed the university had and that students didn’t want to recycle, faculty members were misinformed about Bryant’s recycling practices, and the administration wasn’t prioritizing recycling, largely because there was no unified voice calling for it.
So Langlois invited members of each group, including professors, key administrators, facilities workers, and leaders of student groups, to a summit. They met multiple times during fall 2008 and came up with ways the university could improve waste diversion and energy efficiency. Some of the measures were quickly implemented.
In 2009 the university’s recycling rate nearly doubled. It hovered around 17 percent, before climbing to 32 percent in 2016.
Issues of sustainability are now advanced by students, faculty, staff and administration. Members of each of these groups sit on Bryant’s 25-person Sustainability Committee, which Langlois co-chairs.
Here is what Bryant is doing in specific areas:
Bryant has labeled recycling containers across campus and in all buildings, except the new Academic Innovation Center, which Langlois said will soon receive bins. In academic buildings, recycling containers are placed directly outside classrooms, so students can dispose of recyclables on the way out, which Langlois and others have found effective.
Residential buildings have trash rooms with recycling sections, many of which were painted various colors by student groups to help clearly differentiate the recycling and trash sides. Staff have added recycling bins to every room of residential suites, according to Dave Leduc, Bryant’s assistant facilities engineer and a member of the Sustainability Committee.
Bryant regularly recycles faculty- and some student-produced e-waste. The recycling surges during the weeks of Recyclemania. During Recyclemania 2017, the school recycled 19,553 pounds, according to Leduc. That weight marked a more than 12,000-pound increase from 2014 and earned the university fourth place in per-capita electronics recycling, at 7.7 pounds per person.
Bryant gives much of its used electronics to Goodwill Industries of Rhode Island, which has been reusing and recycling Bryant’s used electronics for about six years. Goodwill has collected 32,252 pounds of e-waste from Bryant during the past three years.
Goodwill of Rhode Island also collects clothes from the university. The organization collects about 12,000 pounds of donated clothing annually from its bins on Bryant’s campus, according to Goodwill.
Bryant’s food service provider, Sodexo, arranges for some of the school’s food scrap to be composted or reused, in compliance with the state’s 2014 composting law.
My Blue Heaven Farm in Burrillville feeds its pigs some of Bryant’s food scraps. Newport Biodiesel converts the school’s used cooking to fuel.
Bryant also has prioritized food tracking to reduce waste, and is working closely with Sodexo to improve sustainable practices, Langlois said.
The university composts other organic material, such as grass trimmings and other landscaping and yard waste, in its soil yard, according to Leduc.
Education and student involvement
One of the first problems Langlois sought to address after the original meetings of the Sustainability Summit was the transience of the school’s student environmental groups.
Langlois said she noticed Bryant students forming environmental groups and committing their energy to environmental issues. They lacked, however, long-term planning and organization, and some groups would fall apart when original members graduated. Because of this, she believed Bryant was missing out on student energy, a problem she believes other schools also face.
To handle this, she helped create the Sustainability Ambassadors, a student environmental leadership organization that works with faculty and other students to help push for environmental progress on campus while being trained as leaders.
Bryant has other student environmental organizations, including the Environmental Society, Enactus Green Team, the Scientific Community Initiative, and The Community Activism and Leadership Organization. They, along with the Sustainability Ambassadors, promote awareness of sustainable practices through outreach and events.
Through its sustainability measures, Bryant also has notably increased its energy efficiency. Despite extensive construction, which added nearly 150,000 square feet to the campus, Bryant’s electricity use dropped slightly from fiscal 2010 to fiscal 2017, according to Leduc.
Johnson & Wales University
The university shines in its recycling practices. The school’s waste-diversion rate is 47.8 percent, according to Tim O’Connor, the school’s director of environmental health and safety.
Ryan Crowley, with the university’s communications department, provided some recent numbers: total waste, 2,735 pounds; total recycled, 1,308 pounds; amount landfilled, 1,427 pounds.
He explained that “total recycled” includes not only properly placed items in recycling bins, but also “recycled” food scrap, waste from construction and demolition, and yard waste.
Also of interest is the work of Matthew Fannon, the school’s energy conservation Officer and a 2008 graduate, who applies his experience of working with students in residential life to do the same in sustainability.
Fannon noted that today’s students care more about the environment than when he was in student, which helps in educational efforts.
Here is what JWU is doing in specific areas:
The university has recycling bins inside of each building, but not outside, O’Connor said. He said the school doesn’t place bins outside, in part, because of higher contamination rates in those bins.
E-waste and clothes
The school sends much of its e-waste to Goodwill Industries of Rhode Island. Since 2016, the organization has collected 9,080 pounds of e-waste from the university, according to Goodwill.
Goodwill also sets up several indoor cloth donation bins on the campus throughout the school year.
Aside from dining halls, JWU has a secondary source of food scrap, its School of Culinary Arts. In the beginning of the last academic year, the school had the highest amount of enrollees of any JWU Providence program at 2,321. The school used to have a food digester, which “cooked” food scrap and turned it into a soil supplement for campus use. After taking the digester off-line in October 2016, food scrap is now given to a local pig farmer.
Food scraps from classes are put in “pig buckets.” The scraps are then brought to a central location and sent to farms. Some of the food from culinary classes is kept by or given to students, or shared with other classes.
Education and student involvement
Although O’Connor said he believes JWU students do a good job at recycling, he noted that they aren’t provided with much direct instruction or encouragement from faculty members like him.
One exception is the direct instruction provided in the Culinary Arts program. Another is Fannon, who worked as a residential advisor for the university when he was an undergraduate student, then professionally in JWU’s residential life.
Four years ago, he became the university’s first energy coordinator, which, he said, works with students and departments to try to reduce energy use. He and his department worked with a student government member to help run this year’s Student Sustainability Summit. The summit, which has run for three years, is attended by multiple local colleges and universities and serves as a place of discussion for successes and failures in making institutions more sustainable.
Another educational event that JWU hosts is the Clean Plate Challenge, Fannon said. As part of the challenge, volunteers weighed students’ leftover food to make them aware of how much food they were throwing out at the end of meals.
PC maintains a 25 percent to 30 percent recycling rate consistently, according to Thomas Schenck, the health and safety coordinator at the Office of Environmental Health and Safety, who calculates the rate from trash and recycling weights.
Some school officials and students, however, are working to improve the college’s recycling practices.
Student Alex Duryea expressed concern that too many students aren’t interested in recycling properly. She believes, however, that the school has become more environmentally aware, noting that an Eco-Reps program has been added and an increased number of educational events related to recycling and other sustainability efforts.
Here is what PC is doing in specific areas:
PC has about 50 outdoor recycling containers, with more on the way, Schenck said. He added that every building has containers, as do classrooms, and, as of this fall, every dorm room.
Duryea said that there are efforts to label recycling containers with stickers that detail what can and can’t be recycled in Rhode Island. To deal with contamination, Schenck said the school tries to “catch contamination at the source.”
Education and student involvement
As of this semester, PC is relying more on students to help educate and guide other students to proper environmental practices. For instance, this past summer the Office of Environmental Health and Safety worked to create an Eco-Reps program to educate students about sustainability efforts in residence halls.
Duryea also restarted The Campus Green, an instructional environmental publication for students.
Rhode Island College
James Murphy, the school’s first sustainability coordinator, is involved in RIC’s effort to lessen the institution’s environmental impact. Part of his job, he said, is to advance sustainability within RIC’s budget. As a state school that provides an affordable education, it doesn’t have as much resources to put toward sustainability. Similarly to the University of Rhode Island, it is subject to state purchasing regulations, which limits how they spend their resources in certain cases. This requires intelligent approaches and some creativity.
“We have to be smart,” Murphy said.
Still, RIC excels in certain areas of waste diversion and sustainability. It regularly recycles e-waste through Goodwill Industries, and construction and demolition waste through varying outside companies, and it offers a multidisciplinary environmental studies major.
Here is what RIC is doing in specific areas:
Murphy said RIC could “use more” recycling containers on campus. Dormitories have recycling bins, as well as the common areas on each floor. He noted that overall recycling contamination is low, and that only had one recycling load has been rejected at the Central Landfill in Johnston during the past five years.
The school also has about 20 water-bottle-refilling fountains on campus, which have poured the equivalent of nearly 250,000 single-use bottles, according to the school.
Education and student involvement
RIC has a student environmental club and a multidisciplinary environmental studies program.
There are biology, chemistry, political science, anthropology and economics courses that have an environmental focus. Murphy gives guest lectures a few times each semester.
The school also has a good relationship with Goodwill Industries of Rhode Island, which recycles RIC’s e-waste and accepts students as interns through the college’s Career Development Office.
RIC was selected as a 2017 U.S. Department of Education Green Ribbon Postsecondary Sustainability Awardee. The award recognizes success in a number of sustainability areas, including waste diversion.
As an example, Murphy noted that RIC’s graduation caps and gowns are made of recycled plastic water bottles, which are then repurposed into carpeting. He outlined three “pillars” that helped RIC win the award: reducing the institution’s carbon footprint, improving the health and wellness of student, faculty and staff, and environmental and sustainability related education.
Rhode Island School of Design
RISD’s waste-diversion rate is limited to Recyclemania scores and school estimates. The school reached a 42.3 percent waste-diversion rate during Recylemania 2017, placing it 74th; Bryant was 96th at 33.2 percent. This reflects a mostly consistent rise in RISD’s Recyclemania diversion rates: 31.9 percent in 2013, 39 percent in 2014, 42 percent in 2015, and 36.8 percent in 2016.
The Recyclemania rates are some of the only recent measures of RISD’s waste diversion, since the school hasn’t calculated its own in recent years. Alan Cantara, RISD’s environmental health and safety manager, who provided the numbers and estimates matching them, said he may resume calculations soon.
RISD, however, has found a few effective approaches to cutting waste, especially its art and design waste.
Here is what RISD is doing in specific areas:
Cantara described RISD’s e-waste recycling program as “aggressive.” He estimated that the school recycles somewhere between 1,000 and 1,500 pounds of e-waste each month during the academic year.
Students can recycle non-universal e-waste by putting in a work order with RISD’s facilities workers. A worker then picks up the e-waste from the student’s residential building to be recycled properly. A company picks up the e-waste every two to three weeks.
Additionally, the campus has five used-battery drop-off bins. RISD also hosts an employee safety day, during which employees can dispose of e-waste from their homes.
Dining services and its catering branch composts, Cantara said. The Metcalf Refectory (Met), RISD’s largest dining hall, has “post-consumer” composting, where students can compost food scraps after eating.
In the Met, students can only compost fruit, vegetable, grains, rice, paper napkins, and tea bags. This leaves out meat, oil, and dairy, which, according to Micah Epstein, a RISD student who studied the issue, makes composting difficult.
Epstein conducted a small study of the Met’s composting, and found that students composted poorly. Out of the students he observed, only 38 percent attempted to properly sort food scrap. Students that he interviewed cited the difficulty of separating the various kinds of food scrap.
To combat this, Epstein designed new signage and helped reorganize the composting section. He is working with dining services to either improve what the current compost hauler can take, or find a new one. He plans to analyze the result of the additional signage and reorganization this semester.
Student-run composting has also taken a foothold at RISD. Last year, the Earthlings, a small student environmental group, began a student composting program. The group gives interested students a free composting bucket, in which students can store food scrap. There are four compost drop-off points for these buckets on campus and more than 100 students have signed up for the program.
RISD also offers water bottle-refilling stations.
Waste from the arts, mainly supplies, pose special challenges. Art supplies are a large source of waste, and some students feel that, in the studios, recycling isn’t always prioritized.
Stephanie Zhou, one of the Earthlings, said she feels most frustrated about RISD’s recycling practices when she’s in studios. Other Earthlings agreed, finding student’s recycling habits poor in studios, where trash bins have open tops and poor signage.
Not all used art supplies are thrown out, however.
RISD’s used art supply store Second Life provides students and the public a place to donate some of the many art supplies that can be reused. It also provides an inexpensive source of good art supplies.
One opportunity for students to donate clothes and other unwanted items is RISD Flips, a staff-organized summer yard sale.The sale is meant as a method to reduce the “incredible volume” of unwanted items that fill Dumpsters when students move out. The sale raises money for the student scholarship fund. It raised $6,000 last year.
Program organizers also forward any donated art supplies to Second Life, set aside winter coats for RISD’s annual coat exchange, save difficult-to-transport goods for international students, and donate leftover clothes to local charities.
Roger Williams University
The university has a well-rounded waste-diversion program that includes recycling, composting, other organics recycling, and construction and demolition waste recycling.
Cat Conley, the university’s associate director of environmental health and safety, provided numbers on recycling from 2010-15, which showed a drop in trash tonnage from 1,200 tons to 775.
Scott Yohan, the supervisor of the school’s Eco-Reps program, noted the importance of reducing and reusing, saying that recycling is important, but a less effective way “to be green.”
He noted that the university added “hydration station” fountains to refill reusable water bottles, in an attempt to cut back on plastic waste.
Here is what RWU is doing in specific areas:
Containers and bins
Every building has recycling containers inside and out, according to Gerry Keaveney, associate director of custodial and event services. He said the school no longer puts recycling bins in individual dorm rooms, because students used them as trash bins when they did.
The university began composting in 2015, collecting food scraps “back-of-house” in dining facilities. The material is collected by The Compost Plant.
Some student kitchens also have composting containers, thanks to Eco-Reps, who bought and distributed some for students who cook their own food.
To handle other organic waste, the university has a yard-waste Dumpster, which Republic Services, school’s contracted trash company, empties. The university’s grounds crew reuses the water it uses to wash vehicles thanks to a closed-loop system.
Education and student involvement
Multiple student groups have worked to educate students about environmental issues, including recycling, Conley said. She noted that signage, reminders and posters throughout campus help instruct students.
Student volunteers help make sure cardboard and packing materials are properly disposed of during move-ins and move-outs.
To deal with construction and demolition waste, the university has specific wood and metal Dumpsters. Conley said the school tries to donate furniture before scrapping it. She said they’ve donated chairs, desks and filing cabinets.
Salve Regina University
The university’s trash and recycling are collected as part of the town’s pickup, according to Eric Milner, assistant vice president for facilities. The university hasn’t calculated its waste-diversion rate. In fact, the school lacks a waste-reduction plan, like those present at Bryant University, Brown University, and the University of Rhode Island.
Jameson Chace, associate professor of biology, coordinator of the interdisciplinary environmental studies major and advisor to school’s Environmental Club, expressed concern about poor recycling practices that contaminate recycling bins, forcing the material to be dumped into the waste stream. He and his students have found plenty of contamination in bins during “Dumpster Dives,” but a problem he said Salve Regina can address.
Much of Salve Regina’s successes have resulted from the efforts of students and small groups of individuals pushing for change. Chace provided one example: three members of the women’s hockey team pushed Salve Regina to institutionalize trayless dining in their cafeteria. Such a switch has reduced food waste at many colleges.
Here is what Salve Regina is doing in specific areas:
Education and student involvement
Students and the university’s handful of student groups have helped institute changes at the university.
The Environmental Club, one of a few groups on campus that works on environmental issues, has focused on promoting reducing, reusing and recycling this past year, according to Micaela Griffin, the club’s president. In the past few years, the club has shown documentaries about waste and recycling, spoken with students about recycling practices, and built and distributed planters made from recycled material.
Salve Regina offers an environmental studies major and a few classes that touch on waste diversion and recycling, according to Chace. He emphasized the importance of students recycling properly.
Clothes and dorm items
The Community Service Office runs a clothes and dorm item collection during the university’s move-out period, in which volunteers collect items and donate or sell them. Chace said many items are saved for Salve Regina students who may need them.
The university diverts food scrap in similar ways as other area institutions. Dining services, which works with Sodexo, donates surplus food to local community members and cooking oil to Newport Biodiesel. The Compost Plant picks up food scraps.
The University of Rhode Island
URI diverts about 35 percent of its waste, according to Mary Brennan, the school’s waste minimization and recycling coordinator.
Brennan said the exact waste-diversion figure, as opposed to a recycling rate based on the weight of waste, isn’t easy to pin down because waste services don’t weigh all types of waste. Waste Management, URI’s contractor, does weigh some waste and recycling, but she noted that the state’s switch to single-stream recycling made some aspects of recycling more difficult to measure.
She also noted that with more than 14,000 undergraduates, the school is akin to a small city, and recycling practices vary in some buildings and sections of campus.
Brennan’s biggest “gripe” is with disposable cups and containers, mainly plastic and Styrofoam cups, that fill campus garbage bins. She said an increase in the use of reusable mugs would noticeably lessen URI’s waste stream.
Here is what URI is doing in specific areas:
URI has 150 sets of trash and recycling bins spread out throughout the Kingston campus, and all of the 3,000 dorm rooms have recycling bins, whose contents students are expected to bring outside to the proper Dumpsters.
URI hasn’t had a recycling load rejected at the Central Landfill since Brennan started in 2010, but she frequently finds large amounts of recyclables in trash bins.
To improve office supply reuse, URI implemented an online program, where offices and departments can post if they extra supplies. However, Brennan has found the program to be less successful than she would have liked, partially because of state restrictions that don’t allow the supplies to be sold to students or freely given away, due to the fact that they were bought with taxpayer money.
Water bottle-refilling stations have been installed in three buildings. The stations keep count of “bottles saved,” measuring the amount of times the machine dispenses enough water to fill up a typical plastic water bottle.
In May, the stations counted 928,645 “bottles saved."
Education and student involvement
Residential assistants are educated every fall about proper recycling practices, which they are expected to share with students, Brennan said. But she expressed concern that recycling education falls to the bottom of the long list of information new students are given when they arrive.
URI has a few student groups committed to sustainability, such as Student Action for Sustainability. The school also has a “Living and Learning Community,” in which students live in an environment dedicated to learning about and practicing environmentally sustainable living.
Most yard trimmings are dumped into nearby woods, which Brennan called “informal composting.”
URI’s dining halls have two large compactors, one that composts food scrap, and another that compacts cardboard. Outside of the dining halls, the university has two composting pilot programs. A student-run coffee shop sends coffee grinds to a farm for composting, and a group of students who cook in dorms bring scraps to the same farm.
Brennan said additional institutional composting would be difficult to implement at the moment, because of a lack of infrastructure for dealing with large amounts of food scrap. The university would need another loading dock, and methods for keeping food scrap at the proper temperature, controlling odor and draining.