By Emily Flynn Pesquera
At the start of the pandemic, there were glimmers of hope that the unprecedented suspension of normal human activity had, at least in the short term, seemed to bring about positive environmental impacts. Images of blue skies in Asian cities, views of the Himalayas in India, and clear water in Italy were shared across social media, inspiring a small amount of hope. But one of the major counterpoints was the rise in single-use products to prevent viral transmission, with masks, gloves, and plastic film clogging shorelines across the globe.
Even before the effects of the COVID-related disposables were seen, the Kennedy School had identified plastic reduction as a strategic and necessary priority for our campus. In 2019, the HKS Sustainability Leadership Council, comprised of Dean-appointed senior leaders, faculty, and students, prioritized plastic as a major problem and also an area to embrace a leadership role in piloting new reduction projects. The focus had HKS investigating common campus operations, practices, and policies across many areas and departments, including facilities, custodial services, food and dining, and campus life and culture. A 16-person working group of students, faculty, and staff convened over five months to develop seven high-impact plastic reduction projects approved by the Council in February 2020, including:
- Limiting single-use products and non-recyclable plastics in the cafeteria, (pre-COVID, the campus had used nearly 90,000 single condiment packets annually);
- Exploring a mandatory zero waste-only strategy for events (at its peak, HKS hosted at least 150 individual events per week); and
- Adapting custodial schedules to more effectively utilize trash bags (previously, HKS consumed 51,000 office trash bags a year, many of which were emptied daily resulting in unnecessary plastic waste with half or near-empty bins).
While some of these projects had to be paused, especially the ones that hinge on a fully-occupied campus, HKS remains committed to reintroducing each of these projects in a COVID-safe way, with the support of senior leadership, the Campus Planning and Operations staff, and the Office for Sustainability and Harvard’s Environmental, Health, and Safety team.
Soft Plastics Recycling
With the campus shutdown, HKS shifted tactics to focus on system and policy strategies that could, to borrow a phrase popular with the Biden administration, “Build back better.” In April 2021, HKS launched the first Harvard campus-wide soft plastics recycling pilot, which includes plastic bags, films, and wraps, a waste stream that had previously not been tracked, weighed, or recycled. Working with the Harvard Recycling team, HKS has begun recapturing these materials with a goal of one ton of plastic recycled by 2023. We seek to not only reduce HKS’ waste volume, but to model a strategy for other campuses to follow suit. Harvard occupies more than 650 buildings in Cambridge and Allston; imagine the plastic waste that can be recycled, repurposed, and avoid the landfill if even 10 percent from each building can be recaptured.
Reducing Plastic in our Supply Chains
The EPA estimates that that plastics recycling rate is a meager 8.7 percent, so while recycling is a necessary part of our plastic strategy, the plastic problem cannot be solved by recycling alone. Building on our efforts, we are also engaging with Harvard vendors to reduce the plastic that arrives on campus in the first place. By proactively working with vendors to encourage, and where necessary, pressure them to limit plastic, we seek to increase the demand for more sustainable supply chains. Recognizing the power of coalitions, we convened a new group of sustainability staff in January 2021 from Boston-area campuses, including Endicott, Tufts, Boston University, and Brandeis, to join forces in engaging shared vendors and leveraging pressure for operational change.
“The Post-COVID Sustainable Campus”
As Harvard moves toward reopening in Fall 2021, HKS will introduce more sustainable systems before community members return. An important aspect of our new sustainability portfolio will focus on identifying which aspects of the pandemic provided unanticipated benefits, such as our radically reduced emissions from air travel. Resuming some air travel will clearly be an important part of the School’s future efforts to pursue its core teaching and research mission. But emissions from air travel are bad for both people and the climate, and the COVID crisis has revealed that not all travel is equally important for our core mission. The School’s Sustainability Leadership Council is therefore actively pursuing efforts to measure the damages to health and environmental of our air travel, to explore alternative means for connecting with people and places around the world, and to assess options for offsetting some of the air travel damages that we cannot avoid.
There are many other elements of our campus that can, and should, change to be truly sustainable. With that focus, in March 2021 we developed an HKS working group on the “Post-COVID Sustainable Campus” that is examining which practices and policies should be fundamentally changed when we return, investigating campus culture, classroom life, new dining and catering operations, operations, human resources, and many more. We are excited to share the results of this working group later this spring as we aim restructure and rebuild campus policies in a way that help us work better as a community while committing to our ambitious but imperative sustainability mission.
COVID provided a unique window into how the status quo can be altered, and climate change will necessitate even more drastic changes if we are to begin to mitigate even some of its more damaging effects. While we are working to reverse the negative impacts from new public health protocols like our reliance on disposable plastics, the HKS community needs to evaluate which practices we can no longer afford to continue if we are to be a leader on climate and, as our mission declares, effectively create a more safe, free, just, and sustainable world.