The Sunday after a frat party, a basement swells with crumpled cups, wood floors sticky with spilled jungle juice and the sickly sweet stench of vodka–soaked gummy bears. The brothers will spend a few hours sweeping up the mess. That night, these brothers sit down to one of their regular chef–cooked communal dinners. After eating, they rinse their plates and place them in the dishwasher. They recycle nothing.
That same night, Tiffany Lu (C’ 15) and eleven fellow members of the Penn Haven Housing co–op, a non–hierarchal community for Penn students and recent grads at 518 Woodland Terrace, hold their weekly house meeting. They plop among the low–slung seats and tables scattered with oatmeal balls and bell peppers, past the kitchen’s bulk containers of food and wheat. The students ensure that each individual has completed their respective chores, go over the status of conservation issues and discuss pressing house issues. Tonight’smain question: How to best recycle the house’s extra mattress?
They vote to pay for recycling the mattress at a local sanitation center if free options are not available. As always, their goal is to make the house as sustainable as possible.
The co–op is an anomaly among student housing options, but Penn’s nationwide green rankings tell a different story.
Less than two weeks ago, Penn was named the Environmental Protection Agency’s number one green power user out of all universities nationally, as the largest university purchaser of wind power in the world. For the past six years, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) ranked Penn among the best colleges in the country in terms of generating its own sustainable energy.
But despite the University’s attempts, for many Penn students green living takes a backseat to convenience and carelessness.
Penn’s administration excels at enacting environmentally–friendly policies, but it often fails to engage its very own students.
“[The University] is always looking for best practices with sustainable landscape design, sustainable cleaning product brands and more,” says Environmental Studies major Jisoo Kim (C ’18). She cites the university’s Climate Action Plan 2.0, which encourages Penn employees to commute to work by walking, biking, carpooling or using public transportation.
Beyond policy attempts to reduce energy waste and carbon emissions in University City, Penn takes an active role in making the community more environmentally conscious.
On campus, Penn provides resources for those who are passionate about environmental issues, but students must seek them out. In programs like PennGreen, a freshman pre–orientation program, incoming students can learn about the university’s environmental initiatives and the campus groups focused on continued participation in conservation and sustainability.
But most students don’t learn about these initiatives. In the midst of finals, date nights, OCR and whatever else fills our GCals, the Penn bubble can extend to the homes on campus itself.
Within residential dorms, Penn’s Eco–Reps work to raise awareness about environmental issues. Each of the on–campus college houses has an Eco–Rep responsible for hosting events in the dormitory that raise sustainability awareness and educate the community on topics from climate change to e–waste.
“We also implement initiatives to facilitate sustainability,” explains house Eco–Rep Rachel Marx (C ’18). “My co–Eco–Rep and I are hoping to hang up posters in the floor lounges of Harrison reminding people to turn the lights off.”
But even with positive school initiatives, dorms can fall through the cracks.
“I have not met my Eco–Reps, and I'm not sure as to what initiatives they are pursuing,” says Hill House resident Abigail McGuckin (C ’19). “People on my hall rarely recycle. The recycling bins are in a closet, not next to the trash cans.”
Most of the 41 percent of students who live off–campus only conserve energy when convenient.
“You could say Campus Apartments is a huge proponent of sustainability, solely because they don't include the utilities in monthly rent payments,” says Jack Tyree (W ’17), a Wharton Energy Group member. “It certainly makes me think twice before leaving the lights on or my AC unit running.”
Still, he’s not sure Penn should address the issue.
“Even if the majority of students weren't fully aware, I don't think that would necessarily mean Penn should make an exerted effort to promote eco–awareness,” he says. “Especially if taking such measures would be costly.”
And in the Greek system, green living isn't exactly prioritized.
One junior fraternity member acknowledges that his house does not pay attention to living sustainably.
He says his house can go through four hundred red solo cups in one weekend—and afterwards, “these cups are simply thrown away in the dumpster and no effort is made to recycle them.” A brother from a different fraternity estimates that his brothers buy a thousand cups for a single party.
But mistaken viewpoints like this can contribute to waste. Red Solo cups are a form of recyclable plastic and can be placed in any blue bin in the city.
Companies like Frackit—a business started by two Penn students last year that brands itself as creating “the perfect jacket to wear to parties”—also promote waste, as do costume parties and events that require attendees to stock up on clothes only worn once.
Dustin Klein (C ’16), a brother in SigEp and a member of the Eco–Rep executive board, sees campus waste as a combination of misinformed negligence and a failure to seek out the proper avenues.
“The main reason hosts don't recycle is because they're not sure of the correct way to go about it. For most off–campus houses, it isn't well communicated to the residents how and when the recycling is being picked up,” Dustin explains. “Additionally, I think that some students don't believe that their actions will result in change. This belief promotes unsustainable behavior. In reality, every choice to be sustainable does provide an environmental benefit.”
“There’s a cheesy way of answering this that I learned from my elementary school life: the three R’s of waste are Reduce, Reuse, Recycle,” explains Jack Pilutti (C ’16), co–chair of the Student Sustainability Association. “Reduce comes first in this order because it is the most important and has the greatest effect, while recycling should be thought of as the last ditch effort.”
Recycling can lull people into thinking they are being more responsible than they actually are. After all, plastic degrades in quality every time it’s recycled and is impossible to infinitely reuse.
While the kitchen staff has worked to improve sustainability in dining halls, students have failed to match their efforts.
Penn Dining has established initiatives to reduce this waste. Dining halls recently stopped providing trays in the hopes that students would be less inclined to take as many plates of food. They also offer composting, food recovery and “Green2Go” programs, which aim to eliminate two–thirds of the 171,000 annual food containers students use to take food out of the dining halls.
One political science class, “The Politics of Food,” analyzes Philadelphia food production and consumption. Class members visit local farms, supermarkets and schools.
Last year, food teams from the class found that 75–percent of food waste generated in the dining halls is caused by students.
Student teams worked to reduce the sizes of pizza slices or the amount of food the employees dish out at comfort stations, and the staff has been open to trying these initiatives. Still, students have failed to meet Penn’s progress halfway.
Sarah Fox (C ’18), an earth science major and member of Penn Environmental Group, discovered a study at an Urban Nutrition Initiative event on the shocking amount of dining hall waste.
“A lot of energy is going into food that no one is eating, plus the amount of trash that comes out of the dining halls takes a lot of energy to transport and store,” she says. “They did a study last year in Kings Court and found that every two Penn students waste enough food off their plate to feed a third Penn student.”
Back at Penn Haven Housing, Tiffany beams as she describes the measures Penn Haven takes to reduce waste. Her housemates compost, maintain bulk food storages, limit packaging and purchase stock items with a communal mindset. The house relies on one large laundry detergent.
“I would like to set an example for how others can achieve sustainable living on campus,” she says.
Before the meeting, house members cleaned the basement, combing out leftover items from previous members to recycle and discard, while selecting some furniture and useful items to keep and reuse in the house. They build a pile of scrap metal to take to the curb on Tuesdays.
Afterwards, Tiffany discusses with her fellow Monday cook how to best utilize the cabbage and broccoli from their Lancaster Farm Fresh Cooperative Community–Supported Agriculture. In order to minimize waste, they plan out the portion sizes in anticipation of the two additional guests for dinner, who are both applying to live in the house.
Tiffany and her fellow co–op members eventually end up at the long dining room table doing homework. They discuss everything from campus activism after college to the ways that communal living can encourage democratic representation and reinforce personal values. The next morning, they will take out the trash and recycling bags and fill their compost bin, as they did after brunch that morning.
But tucked off campus on a quiet, tree–lined street, Penn Haven is a rare exception to Penn’s excess.
Nick Joyner is a freshman from Texas studying English and communication.