In the summer of 2021, I started with Simon Kissam ’23 what would, unbeknownst to me, become a multi-year project to promote zero-waste hygiene at Williams. That summer, I was a Zero Waste Intern with the Zilkha Center for Environmental Initiatives. My job was fairly straightforward—investigate any and all ways to move Williams College to zero waste with Simon. Well, okay, it was maybe not that straightforward. Where does someone even begin to make a college zero waste? Moving the college to a point where it actually produces zero waste seems like an insurmountable task. And how much change can I actually influence in a short summer? The final destination is a long way away, but it is still possible to make incremental steps towards that goal. What I would like to tell you about in this blog post is exactly that: an incremental step.
In the middle of the internship, my supervisor Mike Evans introduced me to G.L. Genco. G.L. is the CEO and founder of Generation Conscious (GenCo), a New York City based company whose goal is to advance climate justice on college campuses, provide accessible and sustainable hygiene products to communities most affected by climate change, and foster interest and careers in climate justice. Mike and G.L. were curious about whether or not there was enough interest on campus for GenCo’s two flagship products—laundry detergent sheets and toothpaste tablets. Laundry detergent sheets are small (3.5″x4.5″) rectangles of paper-like laundry detergent that you tear into even smaller pieces and put into your washer when you are doing laundry. It is actually quite similar to traditional laundry detergent products such as Tide pods. Laundry detergent sheets are much better than tide pods, though, for a number of reasons. First, the laundry detergent sheets do not have water in them; they use the water that is naturally used when washing clothes. This drastically reduces the cost of shipping these products compared to traditional laundry detergent products, especially liquid detergent. Furthermore, the laundry detergent sheets do not come with any plastic packaging. Much like the laundry detergent sheets, the toothpaste tablets also do not have any water incorporated in them nor plastic packaging. They are little capsules that you chew for a few seconds then brush as normal.
To see whether or not these products would be popular amongst students, Simon and I gave out roughly one hundred samples to students on campus during that summer on the condition that they give us feedback on whether or not they liked using the detergent sheets and toothpaste tablets. Although students seemed not to like the toothpaste tablets, the laundry detergent sheets were a hit. Encouraged by the positive feedback, Simon and I wrote a recommendation that the college install a refill machine on campus such that students, especially first-generation, low-income, and international students who typically do not have the means to access hygiene products as easily, can effortlessly utilize the sheets. We hoped to make being sustainable simple. Then, the summer ended.
A year after that summer, when I returned to campus in the fall I was delighted to find that a refill machine for laundry detergent sheets was installed in Mission Park as part of a GenCo pilot program. I reached out to G.L. to see if I could work on the project again, and he said yes and hired me as a GenCo intern! So I was back, and I felt confident that such a project that makes a basic necessity more accessible and sustainable would find success at Williams. Throughout the fall semester, I refilled the machine weekly and was astonished by how much use the machine was seeing. Near the end of the fall semester, we put out a survey which received more than 200 responses. Nearly all of the students who responded to the survey indicated that they would like to see an expansion of the program.
This brings us back to now. I am currently working with Mike, Tanja, and Christine from the Zilkha Center, G.L., and the cohort of GenCo interns at Williams to find ways of securing funding for this program despite College-wide budget cuts. One idea we have thought of so far is to establish GenCo as an RSO and request funding from FAST to support the program. Keel Brisset ’25, another student working on the GenCo initiative, and I have also had the pleasure of meeting with President Mandel directly to discuss different ways that we can move this program forward. After meeting with her, it was clear that the biggest hurdle to this program would be to find funding for it amongst the plethora of other incredible projects as well as college-wide budget cuts. Although I am leaving Williams this year, I feel confident that this program will find success at Williams because there is a dedicated team of students who will continue working on making this project a reality. And I truly hope it does come to fruition because, not only will this program benefit the environment, it will more importantly benefit the people on this campus.
Jacob Chen ‘23.5 was a Zero Waste intern at the Zilkha Center for Environmental Initiatives at Williams College in the summer of 2021.