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Sustainability on Display at Historic Commencement

On the Friday evening before commencement, Danforth Campus faculty and staff received a communication that the university would no longer restrict the number of guests allowed each graduate. The recent lifting of local Covid-19 restrictions enabled graduates to invite all of their loved ones to witness this momentous occasion in person; a wonderful gift to celebrate the resilience of the classes of 2020 and 2021.  

Among the guideline changes was the ability to serve food, a time-honored tradition following the ceremony. With three days to pull it all together, the planning team worked incredibly hard to coordinate 15,000 meals across 11 receptions (in addition to the 8 meals already planned for the 160 daily staff volunteers). “It was great news not just for the graduates and guests but the entire local community, because we had an opportunity to support many local small businesses,” Gina Tramelli, Executive Director of Special Events, reflected on the last-minute changes to commencement. She and Michelle Gelven, Director of Commencement, led the planning team for commencement activities. 

Tramelli shared that the biggest impediment to making the event more sustainable was existing Covid restrictions. For safety reasons, a buffet-style reception was not possible and every meal had to be individually wrapped or packaged with disposable utensils. To mitigate the waste impact, “we requested that all items be recyclable or compostable,” stated Tramelli. Butler’s Pantry further ensured waste reduction by seeing to it that leftovers were distributed to shelters.  

Even under such tight time constraints, the planning team was able to source from and highlight multiple local producers: Billy Goat Chips, Park Avenue Coffee, Bridge Bread Bakery, Amighetti’s, Missouri Baking Company, Pretzel Boys, Fitz’s Root Beer, and Garret Paper. Sourcing locally is an important aspect of limiting a meal’s carbon footprint.  

Food items were not the only area where waste minimization was considered. The commencement planning team was able to significantly cut down on paper usage by adding large LED screens to highlight student names and incorporating QR codes to the abridged booklet to link to additional information. 

Another way of curbing the carbon impact of Commencement was to compost organic waste materials. Composting has become standard practice at WashU, thanks to the hard work of student advocates, supportive departments and services, and a university culture of environmental stewardship. Compost takes elements that grew or were fed from the earth and returns them back to the earth to complete the natural cycle of decomposition. When organic materials end up in a landfill, the process of mechanical compaction removes oxygen. The lack of oxygen creates methane gas, a byproduct of microbial decomposition (anaerobic digestion).  

Methane has been gaining notoriety in recent years with growing public familiarity with belching cows; its effect on global warming is between 28 and 80 times greater than that of carbon dioxide, depending on the time scale. 

Well aware of these facts, Assistant Director of Sustainability, Cassie Hage, got to work making waste diversion plans for the newly organized receptions. “It is important to note, Cassie and the sustainability team were instrumental in our planning to ensure we made arrangements to minimize waste through meals,” said Tramelli on her team’s collaboration with the Office of Sustainability. 

Because green events are part of the event planning culture at WashU, last minute pivots—like waste management for 15,000 meals—is significantly less challenging. Hage explained, “We already have the vendor relationships and the interdepartmental collaboration is well established. Instead of losing valuable time evaluating whether or not we should compost or use local food vendors, we just do it because at this point, it’s what we always do!” 

The short turnaround time did pose some communication and sourcing challenges. Compostable packaging is more of a specialty item and is rarely something that caterers stock in larger quantity.  

To help manage the waste on-site, WashU hired the services of Recycling on the Go, a program through nonprofit earthday365 that allows groups to hire trained staff to sort event waste.

Bob Henkel, Program Director of earthday365, also lent a hand in sorting waste with the Recycling on the Go team.

“The Office of Sustainability is a great partner for our program. Their team is so professional and their extensive knowledge about implementation strategies for waste reduction at events makes our job so much easier. They have already coordinated with vendors and facility staff to mitigate as much on-site waste as possible through purchasing recommendations and site layout considerations. Our staff just show up and get to sorting!” 

Bob Henkel, earthday365 Program Director

In addition to the hired support, the waste stations were monitored by a crew of volunteer staff from the Office of Sustainability, School of Medicine’s Operations and Facilities Maintenance Department (OFMD), and volunteers from WFF’s corporate office (WFF is a custodial service provider at WashU). The WFF volunteers are regular additions to the effort, collectively offering dozens of hours of support, which makes staffing the stations possible. 

The last step in diverting waste from the landfill is taking the sorted materials from their stations and getting them into their appropriate receptacles for final disposal. WFF Special Services team are always a vital component of the successful execution of any large (or small!) event on campus. Always the first to arrive and last to leave, WFF staff ensured that the waste station tents were up and ready to go in the morning and folded and stored at night. Their staff was regularly seen making rounds to the various waste sites and hauling away reception trash, keeping everything carefully organized by color-coordinated category. 

While actual waste data is not available, Hage estimates that 60-75% of the reception waste was diverted from area landfills. The main types of waste included: food (compost); plastic containers, meal boxes, beverage containers (recycle); wrappers, utensils, and coffee cups (landfill). Some wrapped non-perishable foods that were uneaten were collected and donated to an area food pantry. As part of WashU’s educational strategy, waste station personnel worked with guests to sort waste, rather than hide this work in the background. 

Henkel shared why a small detail like waste sorting stations at events is so important. “Waste reduction is about culture creation. When you create a culture around the value of our resources AND you create infrastructure for participation in best practices to reduce waste to landfill, it’s a win-win for people and the environment.” 

Upon reflecting on commencement, Assistance Vice Chancellor of Sustainability, Phil Valko offered his thoughts. “We all know that Commencement for the classes of 2020 and 2021 were unlike any other year. The same challenges applied to our efforts to green the events through waste diversion. Like so much of the past year, our successes were due to the contributions from countless staff members, campus partners, and community partners who worked fast and smart to compost and recycle the majority of the event waste. It was just one more aspect of why we can be extremely proud to be part of the WashU community.”