Sustainability at Mac

TMW: What brings you to work with the Sustainability Network?

GQ: At the end of my freshman year, I started looking at work-study position openings for the next fall. I saw the position for Zero Waste Coordinator and thought it would be a good opportunity to spend time in a work-study position that involved an issue I already cared about. Since then, I have been promoted to my current position, “Sustainability Network Coordinator for Facilities.” Part of this position involves co-chairing the Sustainability Network with my colleague Rick Beckel.

How did you get involved in sustainability projects at Macalester?

I started working on different sustainability projects when I began the Zero Waste Coordinator position. I worked closely with sustainability workers both at Facilities and the Sustainability Office, and have taken part in a number of different initiatives. My first major project involved creating a campus-wide clothing swap.

What is the project you’re working on that you’re most excited about?

Right now, I am most excited about my Zero Waste Pledge project. The concept behind the project is pretty simple: getting individual offices and departments to sign a physical pledge stating their commitment to the goal of Zero Waste at Macalester by 2020. Macalester has a pretty lofty goal of reaching zero waste (or diverting 90 percent of waste from landfills and incinerators). At this point, we have around a 70 percent diversion rate, so we still have a ways to go to close that gap. Because department coordinators and office managers are often the ones making the actual decisions for purchasing, waste disposal etc., connecting with these individuals can make a huge impact. Meeting one-on-one with these office leaders has been really eye-opening. I’ve seen firsthand the huge knowledge gap between students and staff regarding composting, and it’s been great to be a resource for offices that have questions about how they can be more eco-friendly. I’ve met with over 20 different department coordinators and office managers at this point. I still have quite a bit more to do, but it’s been a great experience so far.

What difficulties have you faced in trying to make Macalester a more sustainable school?

The biggest hurdle I’ve faced in trying to make Mac more sustainable has been the disconnect between the campus “caring” about sustainability and the campus caring enough to actually make a change. It’s easy enough to get a number of students and faculty to say that they support efforts to reduce waste on campus, but it’s an entirely different situation when you ask students and faculty to make sacrifices to their current systems. The reality is that no one ever really wants to change, especially if those changes are going to impact their efficiency in some way. I think a perfect example of this issue is our current track record with waste. There was a huge push for composting on campus for years from nearly all members of the Mac community. However, once we started implementing composting on campus, we were shocked by the results. A 2013-2014 waste sort indicated that 77 percent of Macalester’s trash could actually be composted or recycled. It wasn’t enough that we had new bins on campus; actually getting people to take time out of their day to learn proper sorting and disposal was an entirely different challenge. To really make Mac a sustainable campus, all of us are going to need to make fundamental changes to the way we work and live at this school.

Why do you do the work that you do? Why do you think this type of work is important?

I love my job because I’m able to use my work study time to engage in activities I genuinely care about. If I wasn’t employed by the school, I would still be working on these issues in a different capacity. I do the work that I do because I think sustainability issues are something everyone should care about. I’ve heard a number of people say “I just don’t think about this stuff all the time; sustainability isn’t something that really impacts me.” That couldn’t be farther from the truth! Our actions as individuals have global impacts. As a school that loves to pride itself on global citizenship, cultural awareness etc., I find it absolutely mind-boggling that people don’t see how singular choices can snowball into wide-scale trends and impacts.

What do you hope for the future of sustainability at Macalester?

I would love to see Macalester utilize the idea of sustainability both inside and outside of the classroom. There are a number of changes that could be made to our physical campus (such as expanding our green landscaping technologies and practices to include a greywater system) and our current consumption habits (such as requiring our suppliers to ship with eco-friendly substitutes for styrofoam), but there’s so much more we could do. Sustainability as a concept needs to be embraced by the entire community at Mac for our efforts to make any kind of difference. It’s one thing to have a goal for Zero Waste by 2020, for example, but it’s something entirely different when any individual on this campus can confidently recognize and appreciate the hundreds of ways that waste reduction can benefit us socially, economically and environmentally. It’s a lofty goal, but that’s something I would like our campus to aspire to.