SU sustainability lab conducts waste audits, looks for sustainable solutions

[The Daily Orange] SU sustainability lab conducts waste audits, looks for sustainable solutions

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On Oct. 27, Olivia Happel and a group of volunteers spent their afternoon gathering trash bags from the second floor of Syracuse University’s Schine Student Center.

Happel, an SU junior majoring in public policy and environment, sustainability and policy, was conducting a waste audit for SU’s Dynamic Sustainability Lab, a research lab working to reduce waste on campus.

Jay Golden, a professor of environmental sustainability and finance at the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs, founded the lab in fall 2021 with the intention to work with SU to devise ways to reduce waste on campus and mitigate the university’s environmental impact.

DSL’s three goals, Golden said, are to reduce the environmental footprint of the university, to find ways to reduce costs through substitution and reduction, and to get more students interested in a sustainable future.

A waste audit quantifies the amount and types of waste generated by an organization. Waste audits, Happel said, help identify shortcomings in sustainability practices and ways for the university to do better.

She also said many of the volunteers were shocked by the amount of unnecessary waste after finding bins filled with excess food and unused utensil packs. She added that the audit can start a conversation about waste on campus.

“As people who throw things away, we don’t ever think about what the life is of that material post throwing it away, so it really forces you to think and look directly at things that you don’t (do) every day,” she said.

Golden said the audit’s findings are still preliminary. Happel and other volunteers often found people misusing waste and recyclable bins.

“You’d find containers, both inside buildings and outside buildings that aren’t labeled for recycling or composting or waste. No one knows so they’re just throwing stuff,” Golden said.

DSL also works with supply chain experts on finding more sustainable versions of the products it purchases. For example, Golden said the university could be choosing dining utensils made from bamboo instead of plastic.

In late September, SU announced it was part of a team awarded a $60 million grant to advance “climate-smart commodities,” or agricultural products produced through sustainable methods.

DSL will help work under the grant, with Golden working as its principal investigator. SU researchers on the team plan to develop and expand the markets for climate-smart commodities produced in New York state over the next five years, according to the university’s news release.

Happel said she hopes the waste audit’s upcoming findings and the DSL’s role in improving sustainability as a whole can create change on campus. Specifically, she wants to label disposal bins more clearly so students are aware of their choices.

Harrison Vogt, a communications fellow at the DSL and Student Association’s director of sustainability, said he looks for sustainable policy for the university to adapt.

Vogt emphasized that SU has the capacity to change, saying the support and resources the university has to offer in sustainability are what drew him to SU in the first place.

“Other schools don’t have a $60 million grant to study sustainability issues. We do and we also have the opportunity, a big opportunity to improve our campus in general,” he said.

Vogt said managing waste and improving practices on campus need to be a collective effort, but much of the issue involves balancing the responsibilities between students and the administration.

Happel said coordinating the audit with the Schine Student Center was difficult because employees didn’t understand why her group wanted to collect trash.

“It was honestly kind of stressful, because, again, this is not something we have done at Syracuse, and probably (for) a long time,” Happel said. “We’re okay with things being the way that they are. We throw things away, it gets picked up — we don’t think about it.”