Global Impact | Research | Response Magazine

Sorting garbage for sustainability

As a high school student in San Diego, Adrienne Elliott filled out a career assessment that asked her likes (nature and working outside) and strengths (people skills), promising to point her toward careers that may suit her.

“The career that stood out was trash man,” the 2017 Seattle Pacific University graduate says, laughing. “I was like, ‘What?! Why would it say trash man?’”

Now Elliott knows why. While a senior and assistant to the Seattle Pacific campus sustainability coordinator, Elliott compiled and produced the SPU 2015–16 Sustainability Progress Report. The report provides key information SPU uses in its mission to be carbon-neutral — meaning any carbon dioxide emissions are offset by planting trees or other practices — by 2036.

Since joining the American College and University Presidents’ Climate Commitment in 2008, SPU has submitted its greenhouse gas inventory results every two years to benchmark its progress, guide some decision making, and provide accountability and transparency.

“This fits with who we are,” says Sustainability Coordinator Bethany Davis ’08. “We’ve made this decision as an ethical imperative.”

The report, a cornucopia of waste-management details, includes information about the University’s total greenhouse gas emissions, waste and water management, and transportation. In short, Elliott found campus greenhouse gas emissions remained stable. Though total greenhouse gas emissions increased slightly from the previous year, SPU also acquired new property, so emissions per square foot declined.

To find the data, Elliott pored over utilities bills for every single SPU property, tracking electricity, gas, and water usage. “It was the whole nine yards — even how much trash was collected from each site,” she says. Ah, yes. Back to the trash.

In May 2017, Elliott conducted a waste audit, estimating the amount of debris in dumpsters the day before they were emptied.

“We did this every single day for a month,” she says.

Those numbers are now being tallied for the next report. The numbers aren’t final, but Davis says it looks like SPU has gotten better at managing waste since Elliott’s audit. Elliott wrote an audit based on 2016 data, which showed that Seattle Pacific had produced more than 310,000 pounds of waste in May 2016. For the year, SPU diverted more than 2 million pounds — 1,030 tons — of recyclables and compost from landfills. “It blew me away to realize numbers are really important,” she says. “Without them, we can’t name where we are, what we’re doing, and where we want to go.”

Elliott, who studied global development with a reconciliation studies minor, saw her academics intersect with her sustainability work. Preparing for a study abroad trip to New Zealand that focused on the economics of climate change, she compared SPU’s sustainability efforts with those of a small university in New Zealand.

Ross Stewart, professor of accounting and dean of the School of Business, Government, and Economics, co-led the study trip. He says that Elliott’s work on campus was great preparation for the New Zealand trip because it let her see firsthand how difficult it is to measure greenhouse gas emissions and how many factors impact gas creation.

Elliott’s work also influenced her future, which will likely include work with NGO Plant With Purpose, then graduate school.

“Sustainability isn’t all about big ideas,” she says. “It’s seeing the bigger picture, and realizing all of these little things contribute to that bigger picture.”

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