COVID-19 and Sustainability

UPDATED 5/13/21

For the past year plus, staff and faculty across the college have been working on the innumerable pivots necessary to ensure that the college could still operate.  The Zilkha Center has been working with our colleagues to support sustainable operations and has also been keeping track of how the pandemic and our decision-making has impacted sustainability in ways that a) decrease our environmental impact, b) are in opposition to our sustainability goals, and c) are a mixed bag. The following is a summary of just a few of those impacts that was originally written back in September 2020.  Updates have been added below in purple:

  • Air Travel – The pause on college-related air travel in the spring and prohibition through the end of the calendar year has had and will continue to have a significant impact on decreasing our scope 3 emissions for FY20 and FY21.   Of course this air travel hiatus is not a long term solution.  The Campus Environmental Advisory Committee (CEAC) and the recommendations of the Sustainability Working Group strategic plan draft have both advocated that the college improve the measurement accuracy of air travel and reduce air travel emissions.  The hope is that with an increased familiarity with video conferencing technology, a certain amount of travel can easily be reduced, which will lead to financial savings and emission reductions in the long term.  CEAC has spent the year exploring how the college could reduce GHG emissions from air travel and is finalizing an air travel policy proposal that will be shared at the end of the semester. 
  • Unoccupied Building Setpoints – The establishment of unoccupied building setpoints by Facilities Operations has decreased energy consumption in buildings across campus the past five months.  Facilities plans on a building setpoint adjustment during the November through January campus shutdown. Facilities Operations and the Zilkha Center created a setback plan for Winter Shutdown and modified those setbacks for January through mid-February to try to realize energy savings, where possible, while still maintaining thermally comfortable building environments for buildings that were in use during those times.
  • Building Energy Use – with a focus on residence halls – While establishing building setpoints and realizing energy savings in unoccupied buildings has been a positive, ASHRAE’s COVID-19 guidance for increasing ventilation and filtration will lead to increased building energy consumption.  It is unclear how these energy gains and losses will add up until a vaccine is widely available.  
    Each student dorm is equipped with a microfridge which enables meals to be kept cold and warmed for more convenient eating during quarantines and after dining hall hours – this also is a drastic increase in dorm electricity usage.
  • Microfridges (combination microwave and minifridge) were purchased for each on-campus student, which will increase energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions.  While the rationale is sound – ensuring students in quarantine can have nutritious food for a multi-day quarantine as well as reducing labor issues and minimizing risk for Dining staff – this solution, even if temporary, will still have environmental impacts that will not likely be offset by closing kitchenettes across campus. It was recently announced that mircofridges will be left in dorms for the summer and the upcoming academic year.
  • Reusable To-Go Ware Dining Services’ reusable “clamshell” containers will reduce waste related with to-go dining.  Reusable is always better than single-use disposable (even if that product is compostable) provided that folks return them.  In order to help Dining Services, please return them promptly!  Thanks in advance!  In order to increase the reusable to-go ware program to meet the campus’s Covid needs, Dining Services shifted staff around to bolster their Collection Program.  While the loss rate for reusables was higher than we had hoped, Dining is working on ways to maximize that these containers stay in circulation. Additionally when Governor Baker’s prohibition on using reusable bags was lifted, Dining offered students reusable bags in order to carry their reusable to-go ware back to their dorms.
    Compost collection bins will be distributed throughout campus in order to provide the appropriate receptacles for compostable to-go ware.
  • Compost Collection – Compost collection has expanded beyond the dining halls to dorms in order to appropriately collect and divert compostable products and food waste from the trash, which ends up going to a regional incinerator.   Due to the fact that dining halls were closed for eating, the amount of food (and therefore food waste) and additional compostable items that made its way back to dorms increased dramatically this year and, as students are aware, the odor became noticeable and challenging.  Part-way through the spring, additional operational challenges proved to be too much and compost collection was discontinued through the end of the semester.  The compost program will relaunch this summer targeting strategic high-traffic locations and will continue to be ramped up in the fall.  With a proposed return to eating in dining halls in the fall, we anticipate that food waste in compost collection bins will decrease dramatically – and with it, the smell.
  • Moving from paper to electronic – OIT and the Controller’s office collaborated this past spring to move college purchasing card reconciliation to paperless.  The combination of an increase in faculty GLOW usage and Print Services’ request to limit the printing of course packets should lead to some reduction in both energy use and paper waste.  Invariably there will still be room for improvement.  
  • Virtual Meetings, Conference Attending, and Conference Hosting – In addition to reducing travel for meetings, video conferencing technology will also enable us to realize financial and carbon savings by reducing the number of speakers that we bring to campus and enable faculty, staff, and students to attend some amount of conferences remotely and potentially host virtual conferences, like the ‘68 Center for Career Exploration did last July. See Hugo Hua’s write-up about virtual events and case study of the ’68 Center’s conference here.
  • Single-Use Waste – The necessary procurement of COVID-19 PPE has led to a dramatic increase of this new single-use waste stream.  In addition, waste from other single-use items will also increase, including plastic bottles, and single-use compostable to-go ware (hot and cold cups, utensils, and compostables for students in quarantine).  Efforts to curtail or divert this waste include the reusable containers and compost collection mentioned above, as well as the offering of three reusable masks to members of the campus community.  Waste data is reported by our campus haulers and once they finish their academic year reporting, we will have a better idea of the quantitative impact of the pandemic pivots on waste.  For any students interested in digging into this data over the summer or in the fall, please get in touch with the Zilkha Center staff.  
  • Plastic bottles –  Obviously a subsection of single-use waste, but one that is worth talking about in a bit more detail.  Last summer, the VP for Finance Administration and the Provost’s Offices along with Dining Services worked to eliminate single-use plastic water bottles from the college, focusing on the Catering office.  Plastic juice and water bottles increased this year to stock the rooms of quarantine students and at the various Grab n Go stations.  Governor Baker’s order that self-serve beverage machines could not be used at the start of the fall meant that cold drinks came in cans and bottles for the first half of the fall.  The order was revised towards the end of 2020, so that compostable cups – but not reusable bottles – could be used.