Supporting Sustainability at UChicago

While sustainability should remain a primary student concern, there are several ongoing efforts that aim to make UChicago more sustainable.

After reading the “Sustaining Sustainability” article published in early February, we write on behalf of the Program on the Global Environment (PGE), the Environment, Agriculture, and Food (EAF) Working Group, the Frizzell Family Speaker and Learning Series (Frizzell), and Phoenix Sustainability Initiative (PSI) to address the author’s points and clarify any misconceptions.

Regarding concerns about campus recycling, we support the idea of increasing opportunities for recycling at the University. Many students have expressed the desire to place more recycling bins both on the Quad and across campus in general (as indicated by survey responses from the BA thesis research of one of the writers of this article, Caitlin Piccirillo-Stosser). However, we don’t believe that placing recycling bins in the dining halls would be an effective route. Waste produced in the dining halls can’t feasibly be recycled; used napkins have been contaminated by food, the disposable cups are paper-based, and the plastic plates at the Kosher station would have to be rinsed before being tossed into recycling bins.

The more salient issue is that waste management on campus needs to be improved. We agree that the level of recycling in the residence halls is not optimal. For example, in Burton-Judson, although personal recycling bins were distributed to each resident’s room at the beginning of the quarter, it is difficult to monitor who is and isn’t recycling. In addition, community recycling bins can be few and far between, and confusion remains as to which items can be recycled.

In response to this issue, the Recycling Signage group within PSI has been working to improve and increase signage in the residence halls. More broadly, PSI, Student Government’s Committee on Campus Sustainability, and the Office of Sustainability launched a pilot program in January that aims to create a permanent dialogue between the residential student community and on-campus sustainability stakeholders. Sustainability Czars, tasked with informing their Houses about sustainability-related information and campus activities and facilitating recycling best practices, were elected in 14 pilot Houses. We also hope to start quarter-long recycling competitions in the dorms and award study break prizes to the best performing Houses after implementing the Sustainability Czar program across all Houses in the spring quarter.

Regarding concerns about food waste, PSI operates a project dedicated to recovering leftover, edible food and donating it to local organizations, such as the Chicago City Life Center. Although we haven’t yet established a system to recover uneaten food in the dining halls (we are working on it), we have successfully recovered food from several events on campus. Aside from the one-off events such as COUP’s Boos n’ Ribs, we collect food regularly from the Energy Policy Institute’s speaker luncheons and Hillel. This quarter, we saved and donated 115 pounds of food and 56 liters of juice/coffee, and we continue to expand our network across campus to encompass a consistent pipeline of events. 

During the 2015–16 school year, EAF students worked with the Office of Sustainability and Campus & Student Life on a campus café sustainability project with a course practicum component. Participants conducted in-depth audits of four student-run cafés (Cobb, Ex Libris, Grounds of Being, and Harper Café) and then delivered feasible sustainability recommendations based on extensive research. PSI’s Campus Cafés project group has been building upon EAF’s work. For example, we are trying to replace current cafe products, such as the disposable cutlery and plates, with compostable alternatives. 

Last spring, EAF, PSI, and Frizzell teamed up with six campus partners, including the Office of the Provost, UChicago Athletics, and UChicago Dining to run the 2017 Earth Fest, which featured the UAA Track and Field Championship as a zero-waste event that successfully diverted 80% of the waste from landfills. We also invited Sam Kass, former White House Chef and Senior Nutrition Policy Advisor to President Obama, as our keynote speaker to engage in a conversation about food security, health, and youth education.

This spring, EAF, PSI, and Frizzell are partnering with PGE, I-House, and the Arts, Science, & Culture Initiative for a lecture and performance by Lisa Schonberg. This event, Documenting Ecosystems: Soundscapes and Percussion Composition, will serve to highlight the intersection between art, music, and ecology. In conjunction with Healthy Soil Compost, we will run the event as zero-waste and hope to divert as much waste as possible through composting and recycling. 

Keeping issues of sustainability at the forefront of our minds is crucial, as the article correctly notes. We publicize our events mainly through social media in order to conserve paper, and we acknowledge that our respective organizations could do better to update the campus at large about our work. However, this does not mean that little is being done to deepen and advance sustainability at the University, and we hope this article clarifies our past and ongoing efforts in this area. 

Annabella Gong is a third-year economics major in the College, serving as president of Phoenix Sustainability Initiative. Caitlin Piccirillo-Stosser is a fourth-year economics and public policy studies double major in the College, serving as the student coordinator of both the Frizzell Series and EAF.