Sustainability Spotlight: Ethan Hasiuk and Ben Johnson, ACSEM Interns

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We met with sustainability interns Ethan Hasiuk (Jones '18) and Ben Johnson (McMurtry '18)--pictured left to right--to discuss their summer recycling project, vegetarian cooking, and their environmental interests and backgrounds.

What’s your major and where are you from?

Ethan Hasiuk: I am studying civil and environmental engineering with a focus in urban infrastructure. I lived in Rochester, New York for my entire life before coming to Rice.

Ben Johnson: I have moved over a dozen times in my life, including to three different countries in Asia, so the “where are you from?” is hard. Currently, my family lives in South Carolina. Here at Rice, I’m majoring in ecology and evolutionary biology.

Did you spend a lot of time outdoors growing up?

Ben Johnson: I always laugh when I think about how I saw the outdoors as a kid. As a child, whenever my family would go hiking, I would complain I was getting a “heatstroke.” Lying to my parents about dying in the blazing sunlight seemed like an easy way to get out of the grime and weather of the outdoors. It wasn’t until high school that I realized I actually enjoy hiking and camping.

Ethan Hasiuk: I also had a bit of a conflicted relationship with the outdoors that changed in high school. For a while, I think I liked the idea of the outdoors more than the real thing, largely due to my general aversion to insects and other bugs. My family wasn’t the type to go camping either. But running cross country in high school and going on my first few camping trips at Rice have increased my connection to the outdoors. Now, spending time in nature is one of my favorite activities.

How did you become interested in environmental issues?

Ben Johnson: I have loved animals since I was a baby. My first word in English, in fact, was “gecko” because I was fascinated by the reptiles as they crawled around the walls of our apartment. That passion for and interest in wildlife has stuck with me all my life, but it wasn’t until middle school that I truly realized the severity of the threats facing wildlife in this day and age. I became interested in general environmentalism because I saw it as the best way to save and protect animals.

Ethan Hasiuk: My earliest memory of really starting to care about the environment comes from second grade, when some of my particularly politically aware friends (at least aware for their age) would talk about President George W. Bush’s policies. I remember writing letters to the president a few years later as a Cub Scouts activity and I asked him not to drill for oil in the Arctic. Although cliche, I think watching “An Inconvenient Truth” was a big moment for me as well. Before that, I had a dream of designing roller coasters for a living; the film made me want to pursue something with an environmental focus.

Both of you recently experimented with vegetarian cooking. How did that turn out? Do you have any favorite recipes?

Ethan Hasiuk: Working with vegetarians, vegans, and generally sustainability-minded people this summer has encouraged me to pursue vegetarianism as a long-term goal. This summer has also been my first time living off-campus and cooking for myself, so I decided early on that I would only teach myself vegetarian recipes. That way, when I graduate from Rice and move beyond its wonderful servery food, vegetarianism will be the default for me.

My first real attempt at vegetarian cooking was spinach gnocchi, which was an ambitious disaster. But I chose to press on despite haunting memories of the scent of overcooked spinach, and I have had a few surprise successes including an awesome vegan cinnamon roll recipe and sweet potato black bean burgers.

Ben Johnson: I’ve been vegetarian for six years now, but I’d never given much effort to learning how to cook. I decided at the beginning of the summer that this was the opportune time to try. After all, there was no servery at my off-campus apartment. The best thing I made were these delicious spicy tofu mango tacos. The recipe called for spicy guacamole and all of the flavors together were amazing. I got a craving for them a few days later so I’ve pretty much mastered the recipe. More than anything, learning to cook and trying new recipes gives me a better idea of how food and nutrition work, and how utilizing fresh, minimally processed, plant-based ingredients is a great way to make oneself feel healthy and energized.

We wanted to interview you both because this summer you worked together on a recycling project for Rice. Tell us about the project.

Ben Johnson: We undertook a holistic review of the recycling process on campus--from when someone at Rice places an object in a recycling bin to when the large compactors of waste are taken off campus by our vendor. This review involved a lot of interviews with campus leaders, which was probably my favorite part of the job. We got to hear a lot of diverse perspectives and try to figure out what the consensus was. Ethan and I also researched other universities’ recycling systems and analyzed spreadsheets of Rice’s waste and recycling data. This all culminated in a final presentation for several leaders and administrators on campus; a lot of good goals and discussions came from that meeting.

What are some key recommendations from your research?

Ethan Hasiuk: I think our primary finding was that Rice needs stronger programs that educate our community about recycling. We could optimize Rice’s recycling process to the nth degree, but none of that matters if items are not going into the appropriate bins and, ultimately, the appropriate compactors. Our proposals to address this issue include the standardized labelling of bins, the introduction of a very brief recycling education session during O-Week, and recycling training through the new faculty and staff Eco-Ambassador program.

We also think that Rice has room for improvement in terms of the ways university policy encourages the re-use of goods. From analyzing the recycling data, we found that larger waste items, like furniture, have a significant impact on our recycling metrics. Reducing waste by re-selling or reupholstering old furniture makes environmental, economic, and social sense. Ben and I suggested a number of options for exploration here; one of our favorite ideas is the establishment of a secondhand furniture store in Rice Village both for community items and as an outlet for Rice University’s old furniture.

There is so much I could talk about. Most importantly, though, is that we have gathered a great deal of information about Rice’s recycling process from individuals and organizations that do not always have reason to collaborate, or even communicate. I hope that the way we organized and presented our findings will encourage others to think about the system and make their own recommendations. Ultimately, I think this will have more of an impact than our specific ideas for improvements.

Did you two encounter any surprises along the way?

Ben Johnson: Going into a project tasked with working out flaws and inefficiencies, I was initially pessimistic. I was surprised when we found statistics suggesting Rice is doing better than expected in some aspects of recycling. Rice has some great policies and, more importantly, great people committed to seeing recycling succeed.

Ethan Hasiuk: I agree with Ben. I was surprised not only by Rice’s performance, but also the extent to which other universities recycle. Rice recycles around 30% of its solid waste by weight, which is certainly more than I expected. But Stanford, for example, is at 65% with the goal of reaching 75% by 2020. That a university with a high on-campus student population, much like Rice, can have such success with recycling makes me hopeful for the future of this campus and institutions of higher learning across the country.

What other environmental activities are each of you involved with at Rice?

Ethan Hasiuk: I was the electrical systems subteam lead for Rice Solar House last year. Working at the ACSEM has certainly increased my interest both in becoming more involved in environmental organizations on campus and also introducing sustainability into some of my other extracurriculars, such as DREAM (an engineering mentorship program) and KTRU.

Ben Johnson: I am one of the heads of the Education Committee for the Rice Wildlife Conservation Corps and one of the heads of the Environmental Committee at McMurtry College.

It sounds like you two come from very different backgrounds, yet you worked very well together on a recycling project. What did you learn from your experience this summer and where do you go from here?

Ben Johnson: The topics we researched this summer were outside my usual scope of interest in environmentalism. The news and articles I generally read are all focused on conservation and ecology, but I have found myself reading more and more articles concerning other topics within environmentalism. Diversion rates and composting systems never seemed as interesting as extinction rates and endangered species, but this project has given me enough knowledge to understand and enjoy researching such topics.

As for the future, I plan to go to graduate school and get my doctorate in ecology. Actually, I am taking the GRE tomorrow! My career goals involve field research in wildlife conservation--whether that be at a university, within the government, or for an NGO.

Ethan Hasiuk: I want to attend graduate school as well, although I cannot say I have planned as carefully as Ben. For now, I am interested in obtaining a master’s degree in transportation engineering from a program with a strong public transportation component. Additionally, I share in Ben’s experience of gaining more awareness of recycling and broadening my environmental interests. For example, I now find myself noticing recycling and trash infrastructure at Houston businesses and trying to imagine how collection works from various receptacles.

But more importantly, what we learned this summer is that planning is only effective when there is a seat for everyone at the table. If we had set out to an create ambitious master plan based only on our own observations, we would have missed most of the important information. The people who work on recycling every day at this campus know the system best and have so many ideas for improvements. I truly believe our project was only successful because we tapped into this institutional knowledge. As a transportation engineer, I will be working on projects that rely on community engagement for success, and I think that what I have been able to practice this summer is the process of working with stakeholders in the pursuit of a truly collaborative product.