It takes a campus: Student leads peers in campus recycling project

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Veronica Johnson

As a junior, Emi LaFountain ‘15 participated in a sustainability competition called the “Project Green Challenge," hosted by the national organization Turning Green. The more she learned about what can be done to green a college campus and the more she heard about what others were doing to make a difference, the more she wanted to do something meaningful at Rice University. Over three hundred recycling bins later, LaFountain graduated Rice leaving a remarkable sustainability legacy.

After constantly seeing her peers toss paper and plastic bottles into trash bins due to the lack of indoor recycling bins in classrooms, LaFountain decided to undertake a campus-wide indoor recycling project. She began with a focus on Rayzor Hall. She convinced her friend Travis Kwee ‘18 to help her conduct a waste audit of the building. Kwee and LaFountain (middle picture) sorted through the recycling and trash bins in Rayzor Hall three times a week for three weeks to establish a baseline of data to calculate the waste diversion rate for the building. They found that about 35% of the waste stream was being recycled, but also saw that this number could be much higher. Then LaFountain requested sixteen additional recycling bins for the building from Mr. Eusebio Franco, Director of Custodial and Grounds Services for Facilities Engineering and Planning at Rice. When the new bins arrived, she placed them throughout the building, and then she and Kwee again sorted through all of the trash and recycling to calculate the new waste diversion rate. With the new bins, the recycling rate for the building jumped to 50%.

Coincidently, this was not LaFountain’s first time dumpster diving on behalf of recycling at Rice. In the class ENST 302/SOCI 304 - Environmental Issues: Rice Into the Future, LaFountain and fellow project group members Patrick Huang ‘15, Tierra Moore ‘15, Shannon McNamara ‘15, and Joshua Soucie ‘14 completed waste audits to determine ideal locations on campus for outdoor recycling bins. As a result of their research, Facilities Engineering and Planning installed twenty new outdoor recycling bins earlier this year.

Sensing an opportunity to make a difference at a larger scale, LaFountain reached out to the Rice Environmental Club, who were looking for sustainability projects to undertake for the academic year. Through the Environmental Club, she put together a team of volunteers and developed an action plan. The team identified almost forty buildings on campus, both residential and academic, that were in need of more indoor recycling bins. Team members walked throughout the buildings and marked-up maps, showing locations of existing trash and recycling containers and suggesting locations where new recycling bins should be added.

LaFountain then presented the findings of her Rayzor Hall project and requested funds for several hundred more recycling bins to Mr. Franco and to Richard Johnson, the Director of the Administrative Center for Sustainability and Energy Management. “Emi had clearly done her homework,” said Johnson. “She was able to show us real data about the improvements in recycling at Rayzor Hall, and she and her team had conducted their building walk-throughs in a logical, methodical way. She made a very convincing case for why we should allocate the resources to purchase so many more bins. She made it easy to say yes.” Funding for the indoor recycling bins came from Facilities Engineering and Planning, the Rice Green Fund, and the Rice Environmental Society. “Sustainability is an investment, and without budget allocations for initiatives like this one, we'd still have academic buildings without basic recycling,” LaFountain said.

In total, 367 indoor recycling bins were purchased and distributed over 39 buildings by a team of about 20 volunteers in a project spanning a total of seven months. “What at first was an impossibly daunting personal project became a popular, fun, and straightforward way for students from all colleges to pitch in and make a visibly green difference on campus. I'd like to thank both Richard Johnson and all of the students who helped do the grunt work to get the buildings checked and bins moved. Students and friends from all of the colleges, the Rice Environmental Club, and even people who had never done any sustainability-related stuff in their lives came together to get all of the bins out. It was amazing seeing everyone pull together,” LaFountain said.