Vassar Today

Recycling 101

By Jessica Winum

Last year, the Vassar community threw out 1,743 tons of solid waste, which the Dutchess County Incinerator Plant disposed of for $76 per ton. Almost 40 percent of that was material that could have been recycled or composted, according to a report compiled by Cynthia VanTassel, buildings and grounds manager of custodial services. It's a percentage that several concerned and active students are determined to decrease by educating the community on the finer points of composting and recycling.

At the forefront of this effort is Jesse Feldman '01, Vassar's first environmental intern. The concept for the internship originated in Erika Diamond's '98 senior thesis and was fine tuned by Michelle Sargent '01, Benjamin Lee '01, and Filomena Riganti '00, all members of the environmental subcommittee of the college's User's Council. They envisioned a paid student employee who would be in charge of streamlining the college's efforts to be ecologically mindful through research and coordination of student groups and administrative offices. The post was created and Feldman named to it at the start of the spring 2000 semester. He will continue in it this fall.

As environmental intern, Feldman's basic duties are "to monitor and improve recycling and composting, as well as energy and water use," he wrote in an e-mail last April. "In addition, the intern is supposed to undertake a project of his or her choosing and research it. After researching the intern develops a plan for improvement and goes through the proper channels to make it happen."

Make it happen is exactly what Feldman has done. "The biggest problem with recycling at Vassar is contamination of recyclable material with trash and improperly sorted recyclables," he said. So, he began a hall monitoring program on the residential floors of Main building. A person in each hall checks the recycling station regularly and lets fellow residents and Feldman know if things are not being recycled properly. Large signs clearly outline what can and cannot be recycled.

Feldman and his supervisor, Ms. VanTassell, have been working to get new recycling bins that will have material-appropriate lids (slits for paper and round holes for cans and bottles) for campus buildings. Feldman has also organized a recycling competition among the residence halls (Lathrop won last spring), developed a short talk for student fellows to deliver to incoming freshman during orientation, and collected campus convenience food packaging trash and piled it in the College Center to raise awareness about the amount of waste generated on campus.

Also working to address community awareness of waste are the Vassar Greens, an environmental group. Last fall the Greens placed barrels donated by Buildings and Grounds near the Terrace Apartments, painted them bright colors, and distributed fliers encouraging TA residents to dump their kitchen scraps in the barrels.

"Overall, the purpose of the Vassar compost program is to decrease waste output by the Vassar campus and to recycle organic materials into productive soil at the same time," wrote Petra Todorovich '00 in an e-mail. "By instigating the compost program, the compost committee hopes to raise awareness in students, faculty, and administration about alternative methods of waste disposal, as well as the values of using compost to enhance productive soil, instead of using chemical fertilizers, which pollute the environment by creating harmful runoff into nearby streams."

Since it began, the program has expanded to four barrels, two near the TAs and two near the Town Houses, and during Earth Week the Retreat began adding its kitchen scraps to the compost pile. So much material is generated that the Greens have employed an off-campus person to empty the barrels and haul the contents to a site at the Vassar Farm. The group is actively searching for grant money to further support the program.

"The compost committee hopes to eventually use the compost from the pile for organic landscaping on the Vassar campus," Todorovich wrote. "For example, the compost committee would like to plant an organic flower bed on campus using Vassar compost and no additional chemical fertilizers or pesticides, to demonstrate the feasibility of organic landscaping on campus."

But while it might be feasible to have a pesticide-free plot of tulips, it would not be so easy to have a chemical-free campus, says Jeff Horst, director of grounds, who has been enthusiastically working with the Vassar Greens to make the composting program a success. Still, he is quick to point out that the educated and judicious use of fertilizers and pesticides make Vassar the beautifully landscaped paradise that thousands of students, alumnae, and alumni have come to cherish.

"I think it's [organic gardening] a great idea," Horst said. "But if we didn't use the chemicals we wouldn't have the landscape we do."