Vassar may be changing, but the climate is too

Courtesy of Sandro Luis Lorenzo.

Every day without fail, trash bins across campus reach maximum capacity. It is impossible to miss the omnipresent, ever-growing piles of Deece grab-and-go plastic containers and single use utensils filling the fetid, wasp-guarded bins. Judging by the amount of containers tossed into trash receptacles around campus, an overwhelmingly large percentage of the student body still does not seem to realize that the black-bottomed containers, once washed, are in fact recyclable.

While the switch to single-use plastic utensils and containers in the Deece is just one of this semester’s many precautionary safety measures, one can not help but wonder just how far actions like this will set Vassar back in its long term goals for a sustainable campus. With years of progress to reflect on and plans already in motion for a greener, more eco-friendly campus, will this single-use plastic overload chip away at the years of advancement that members of the Vassar community have worked towards? Or will the community rise to the challenge, adapt to their surroundings and press even harder for a more sustainable campus? 

Amanda Berry ’23 uses her reusable silverware to eat dinner outside of Main Building. Courtesy of Monika Sweeney.

A number of students, such as Tess Ruddy ’24 and Amanda Berry ’23, have taken initiative and invested in their own sets of reusable silverware. “I am continually working to reduce waste in my personal life, and given the necessary changes in the usage of plastic containers in the Deece, I have been trying to figure out other ways that I can become more sustainable,” said Ruddy. 

Office of Sustainability Director Micah Kenfield recently joined students in this endeavor, sending out a Google form for those interested in ordering their own set. Currently, a caddy sits outside the Office of Sustainability with dozens of reusable silverware containers for students to take. Celeste Weidemann ’23 happily ordered her own collection of reusable silverware last week. 

Courtesy of Monika Sweeney.

Weidemann, an active member of Students for Equitable Environmental Decisions (SEED), worked throughout the 2019-2020 school year to push the college and President Elizabeth Bradley to formally declare a climate emergency. The strategy detailed in the Climate Emergency Response Plan (CERP) includes a complete divestment from fossil fuels, implementing changes to make the Deece more sustainable and initiating more policies to keep both the administration and individuals on track with Vassar’s goal. Through this formal declaration, Vassar responded to the increased awareness and education promoted over the past few years by clubs like SEED, Vassar Greens and the Vassar Bike and DIY Repair Shop, as well as committees such as the Climate Action and Sustainability Committee (CASC). 

CASC is one of the many mechanisms in place to keep Vassar on track with its promise of carbon neutrality. The group regularly meets with administrators to analyze past and future sustainability projects, and to offer its own input as to how the college can minimize its carbon footprint. As a committee of faculty members, students and administrators, a range of viewpoints are guaranteed to be heard. 

Additionally, Vassar Greens, an organization that starts action-based campaigns to create long-lasting positive impacts on the environment, has paired up with SEED this semester to provide the campus with information about waste reduction, an area members of Greens are very familiar with. Last year, pre-pandemic, Greens helped push Vassar’s dining facilities to use nearly 100 percent compostable materials. Even amid a pandemic, members of Greens are hard at work, currently organizing a sustainability week and a climate strike for next month. Those in the club also regularly focus on minimizing personal waste and working towards a zero waste living space.

Environmentally conscious students insist that sustainability can be practiced in every facet of campus life, including student residences. Weidemann suggests that houses work as a collective unit to combat climate change—they can start by electing an official within the building, similar to a House Fellow or House Advisor, to take on the position of Sustainability Director. Their job would be to educate the house on recycling, composting and other ways to live more sustainably. While compost bins within the dorms have always been a difficult task due to bugs and unpleasant odors, some students are still willing, to some degree, to give it another go. 

 Another pandemic-induced sustainability nightmare involving the Deece can be seen at the building’s exit: a sea of plastic water bottles bobbing in ice bins. In the past, Vassar had banned the sale of water bottles on campus and introduced refillable water bottle stations, which now lie unused. While the Deece’s water bottle bins and grab-and-go system are less than ideal for waste management, the dining hall’s food-service management company, Bon Appétit, recently announced on their website that it is the first in its industry to address the role food plays in climate change. The company has also shifted to using only sustainable seafood and supporting local farmers.

SEED president Lucinda Carroll ’23 believes that the Deece should also swap some of the meat products served throughout the week for healthier, greener alternatives. SEED members are also seeking to minimize the egregious amounts of both plastic and food waste coming out of the Deece. A group of SEED members, in collaboration with those in Greens, have compiled a tentative list of some possible solutions, of which include a recycling campaign, exploring dishwashing options for the to-go containers and displaying more images around trash bins to educate students on how to sort disposable materials such as containers, utensils and napkins. 

“Sustainability at Vassar is largely connected to individual actions and decisions, but there’s a lot of work to be done on an administrative level,” says Carroll. SEED members are calling upon the administration to repurpose the Vassar Golf Course, a generous plot of land that was recently at the center of a campus debate on the prevalence of non-masked visitors. Sonali Deshpande ’21 and Jacob Hunter ’21 came up with the idea to use the course as a Photovoltaic Solar Facility, a system of solar panels that are able to generate a direct current through a conversion of electricity through sunlight. Melissa Hoffmann ’21 created a petition to push the administration to adopt their proposal. This project includes tables and graphs of Vassar’s energy projects and global growth in net electricity generating capacity, in addition to a proposed solution, a breakdown of numbers, and an emphasis on underutilized property. Although the school’s golf team does not practice on the Vassar Golf Course, there is even a section listing alternative course locations for the team’s use. This proposal concludes with a call to action through competition. It lists a handful of comparable schools, such as Bowdoin College and Fordham University, that have already implemented on-site solar initiatives.

According to Vassar’s website, existing initiatives in building on-site solar, along with switching to natural gas for heating and purchasing greener electricity, have been the areas in which the most significant carbon reduction has occurred. As of 2018, Vassar came to an agreement with BQ Energy, in which the college would purchase 15 percent of its electricity via a community solar project just a few miles off campus. Members of the Vassar community that pushed for this agreement were also responsible for the 34-kilowatt on-site solar array installation put in at the Vassar Farm and Ecological Preserve later that year. Another 10 percent of Vassar’s electricity is purchased from Gravity Renewables, a company that runs a hydroelectric dam in Beacon, NY. 

Vassar is still planning to slowly move toward some of their climate action goals during the COVID-19 pandemic. Renewable Fuel Oil (RFO) is a sawdust and tree trimming-derived biofuel that Vassar plans to use to further its goals in reducing the college’s carbon footprint. A tentative schedule proposed for this partial decarbonization process has it take place up until 2022. Some more immediate steps include implementing alternative heating technologies into buildings and establishing more locations for electric vehicle charging. As of now, there are only two on-campus electric vehicle charging stations, both of which are outside of Josselyn House. 

A new Climate Action Plan is also in the works, one that will wholly and clearly articulate Vassar’s sustainability plans for the next five years. With this plan, students across campus hope to see a higher level of commitment from the administration to promoting environmental justice—not just at Vassar, but also in the surrounding community. As Carroll puts it, “We have a duty to use our resources and give back to the place we call home, and that includes supporting the environmental initiatives in Poughkeepsie and Arlington.” 

Hoffmann, an Environmental Studies major, active member of SEED and former member of Greens, summed up why sustainability is so important to our communities: “Sustainability means preserving what we have left of the environment and stable climate to protect communities most hurt by harmful extraction practices, and continu[ing] to provide necessary resources to communities that have been left out from receiving them.” 

Hoffmann’s advice to the Vassar community is simple: Educate yourself on environmental issues, including environmental racism, indigenous rights and everything in between. The path to a better future, she believes, will be paved by a commitment among students and administrators alike to reduce the campus’s energy consumption and implement a plastic-free policy. Carroll advised building more water bottle refilling stations in dorms or devoting an aspect of orientation to discussing the college’s sustainability goals as immediate goals for the Vassar administration.

Despite discouraging vistas like the plastic water bottles left on Joss Beach or the egregious amount of water wasted in the College Center’s dispenser, conscientious organizations, open-minded faculty members and inspired students will continue to tirelessly work for a better, cleaner Vassar that future generations will be able to enjoy. 

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