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Tuesday, June 25, 2024

The pandemic’s effects on campus sustainability

Campus operations at colleges across the nation have been undeniably different from previous years due to COVID-19, and UW-Madison is no exception. From an environmental and sustainability perspective, one can only wonder what the impacts of the pandemic will have on the environment. 

Sustainability is the ability for humans to coexist with the earth in a way that meets both the needs of the present and the future — it’s a way of living that tries to ensure that future generations will be able to safely and healthily inhabit the planet. Malorie Garbe, the Sustainability Coordinator at University Housing and Dining, describes sustainability as having three parts: social, environmental and economic.  

“It's wanting to protect our environment, but also doing it in a way that's sustainable for people and for our economy, too,” Garbe said. 

The university implemented various sustainability programs previously, particularly in housing and dining. “Sustainability Move Out” is an initiative that helps students in residence halls part with items that they no longer need in an environmentally friendly way, through donations and recycling. 

Gordon Avenue Market, a dining hall on the southeast campus, as well as lakeshore dorm Leopold Hall, both have solar panels on their roofs. Gordon Avenue Market has rain gardens on the roof to address storm runoff. 

However, one campus-wide program in the dining halls — ticket to takeout — has come to a halt during the pandemic. 

The ticket to takeout is a program in the dining halls for students to take food to go in a reusable container; students check out a container with a token and exchange the container for a new token once they’re done. To protect dining staff, the program was put on pause this year. 

“It created a great model for just returning and keeping that culture of reuse in mind,” Garbe said. “Something like a reusable to-go container might not seem like it’s that big of a difference or has that big of an environmental impact. But then, when we look at all the containers this semester that are being generated because we have moved to disposable systems, it really does have a huge impact on campus and our footprint.” 

Travis Blomberg, Campus Resource Coordinator at the Office of Sustainability, noted that the large concentration of waste on campus comes from residence halls. Since dining halls are operating at a reduced capacity, residents are now eating in their residence halls more often. Thus, it’s highly likely that students are consuming single-use materials, like takeout containers, in their dorms more frequently than they would be otherwise. 

When the semester started, the university had to bring in large roll-off dumpsters to the residence halls to account for the increase in disposable material. 

Getting the message across to students about which materials are recyclable or compostable has presented challenges in the past, and is proving to be more difficult during the pandemic. Students now need to sort their own trash in both dining and residence halls, to protect the safety of custodial and dining staff, so there is a combined lack of education and/or lack of motivation to properly dispose of trash into the proper bins.

There is, however, a trade-off seen between increased single-use materials in dorms and decreased product usage at other buildings across campus. 

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Steve Heitz, Custodial Service Program Supervisor at Facilities, Planning and Management, mentioned that since the university is running at a significantly decreased capacity, the custodial department has seen a decrease in products such as toilet paper and paper towels — even decreased waste collection from university buildings. 

“I can tell you one thing with our waste and recycling group who does pick up the dumpsters and everything, they stopped their weekend service...because the waste generation is so far down that they don't even come in on the weekend to do it,” Heitz said.

Traditionally, because campus can populate a large amount of people within its defined space, the per person energy consumed is more sustainable. If heating and cooling temperatures in campus buildings are adjusted less frequently and you have less people, this consumes more energy per person. 

To that end, both Blomberg and Heitz pointed out that per-person energy consumption on campus has most likely gotten worse due to the fact that more people are staying at home with fewer residents occupying campus buildings. 

Although the pandemic is still relatively new, it is hard to guess its long-term effects on sustainability efforts. While UW-Madison might be investing in more single-use medical material to keep students and staff safe, there are fewer people occupying campus buildings and using those resources. Consequently, the university is trading increased waste and consumption in concentrated areas on campus for decreased waste and consumption elsewhere.

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