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Trash Talk November: Recycling and Environmental Justice

What does recycling have to do with environmental justice? Turns out, a lot! This month, we decided to explore the intersections between recycling and waste, environmental racism, and justice. Read on to find out what we learned.

Part 1: Landfills and Plastic Production Plants

How are recycling and waste connected to environmental justice? Part 1: Landfills and Plastic Production Plants
How are recycling and waste connected to environmental justice? Part 1: Landfills and Plastic Production Plants
When we throw something in the trash, it goes to a landfill or incinerator.

Landfills release methane, the most potent greenhouse gas contributing to climate change.
Unlike landfills, waste-to-energy incinerators burn the waste for energy, thereby reducing emissions.

Similar to landfills, however, incinerators still have negative impacts on the environment and human health.
Landfills and incinerators are disproportionately located in low income and BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) communities, and have negative public health impacts on these communities.
Plastic Production Plants: Plastic production plants are petrochemical facilities that use fossil fuels and emit toxic chemicals into the air, soil, and water.
Both surrounding residents and workers at these plants are at high risk of contracting respiratory disease, cancer, or other illness.

Like landfills and incinerators, plastic production plants are disproportionately located in low-income and BIPOC communities.
Waste reduction and recycling are forms of environmental justice.

Reduce the amount of waste we send to landfills and incinerators by making smart purchasing decisions that avoid trash items, and even better: refuse to buy into the waste system all together and say no to plastic.

Part 2: Recycling Workers

How are recycling and waste connected to environmental justice? Part 2: Recycling Workers
Recycling is a glamorous topic in the world of sustainability, but we don’t often think about the dirty underbelly. When we throw something away, it doesn’t just go “poof” and disappear. It goes somewhere, and from landfills to sorting facilities, there is someone on the other end of our waste!
When contaminants end up in the recycling bin, they can get caught in the machinery at the sorting facility, shutting it down, costing money, and posing a safety hazard to the workers who sort them out at the conveyer belt. Such contaminants include wires, hoses, and any soft plastics such as grocery bags.
Additionally, placing sharp items into the recycling bin can pose a hazard to custodial staff, who are not expecting it when handling the bags.
What does this mean for us? For the safety of our recycling and waste workers, who are often members of the communities that we advocate for, avoid contaminating the recycling stream. Know your local recycling rules, and when in doubt about whether something can be recycled, throw it out!

Part 3: Where does Trash from Tufts Go?

Part 3: Where does Trash from Tufts go?
Proximity to waste facilities increases the vulnerability of communities. We decided to learn more about the people and places near where trash from Tufts goes.
The majority of Tufts’ trash goes to the Covanta Haverfill Facility, a waste-to-energy facility.

Waste-to-energy facilities burn waste for energy and are preferable to landfills. Covanta Haverfull is committed to sustainable waste management.

Still, the incineration process pollutes nearby communities with toxins that diminish health.
In the area surrounding the facility:
44% of residents identify as a racial minority
34% of residents are low-income
17% of adults have less than a high school education
17% of households are linguistically isolated
Reducing waste and choosing to recycle your recyclable items lessens the impact Tufts has on these communities.

What will you do to reduce waste, starting today?

Part 4: Massachusetts Landfills and their Communities

Recycling and Environmental Justice Part 4: Massachusetts Landfills and their communities
Graphic depicts the locations of active landfills in Massachusetts, Environmental Justice communities in Massachusetts, and the geographical relation between the two.
Graphic depicts a close-up of the destinations of Tufts’ trash and their relation to Environmental Justice communities.
As defined by MassGIS, EJ communities meet one or all of the following conditions:
-Greater than 25% minority population (M)
-Median income less than or equal to 65% of state median income (I)
-greater than 25% of the population is English-isolated, meaning no person over the age of 14 speaks English “very well” in a household (E)

Trash to Treasures: Closing the Loop During the COVID-19 Pandemic

Kristen Kaufman and Carly Thibodeau

What we do, and why it’s important

Desk lamps at the Back to School Sale

When students move out of college campuses, they discard items they do not need or want anymore, most of them in good reusable condition. To prevent tons (literally- Tons!) of salvageable waste from ending up in landfills and incinerators, the Office of Sustainability (OOS) facilitates a campus reuse economy through our Trash to Treasures program.

This includes collecting donations during Move Out in the spring and giving them back to students during fall Move-In through our Back to School Sale. To make this happen, we collaborate with a range of campus partners, including Facilities, the Office of Residential Life and Learning, and the FIRST Resource Center.

“Closing the Loop” (also sometimes called “Cradle to Cradle”) is the idea of moving from a linear production system to a circular system. In the traditional linear economy, products are made, used, and then disposed of— often in landfills, which can be harmful sources of pollution to their local environments and communities. Products are born, and when they are disposed of, they “die” (“Cradle to Grave”). In a circular system, items are reused or transformed to be reborn again. So, rather than moving in a line from creation straight to a landfill, products complete a full circle of being made, used, and then used or remade again.

Collecting Move Out donations

In the midst of the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the move-out program went a little differently this year. Despite challenges, it was a success! Read more about 2020’s March Move-out madness and our impromptu May Move Out Day here.

Gearing up for the Back to School Sale

At the end of the spring semester and our May Move Out Day, we were eager to enjoy the summer outdoors. But alas, treasure calls! After a few months to decompress, in August we kicked back into gear to organize the sale.

As the pandemic raged on, the first step was to develop protocol for how to safely plan and run the sale. We contacted, the one-stop-shop for questions about COVID and Tufts, to develop guidelines for if and how we could safely run the sale.

Once we had our protocol, we hired on-call student recycling workers to help prepare the sale. This included 9 student recycling workers, who worked a total of 92 hours over 10 shifts that spanned a week-long period. Though the donations had been sitting in storage untouched for most of the summer (so that any virus would have died), we provided student recycling workers with access to a range of PPE items, including gloves, aprons, goggles, and tongs. In addition to wearing masks as required, most workers also opted to wear gloves. Hand sanitizer was also made available.

The first thing we did as a team was sort all of the donations we’d collected. We had already initiated a rough sorting system at the end of Move Out when we counted and weighed the donation items to gather data on each donation category. Now, however, it was time to be a little more thoughtful. We sharpened the categories into sub-categories, turning broad categories such as kitchenware and toiletries into sub-categories such as keurigs and pots, or feminine hygiene products and shower caddies. In doing so, we identified items that were either broken or of such poor quality that they were not salvageable and discarded of them.

The home decor section of our sale

As we cleaned, sorted, and even laundered items (thanks to Event and Conference Services for lending us their van!), we began to think strategically about which categories should go where. Our space was the second floor of 550 Boston Ave, where there are a few different rooms—some were small and office-sized and some were large and open. Together we created a map and began setting everything up in its spot. The student recycling workers were a great help for this—some even had retail experience and were able to creatively arrange our items for a polished store appearance.

For photos of this year’s sale, view our Flickr album.

Running the Sale

While preparing donations, we made a plan and timeline for the sale. Scheduling was tricky. Due to COVID, students were arriving to campus in waves: one wave for out-of-region students, and then another wave for in-region students two weeks later, after out-of-region students had been tested and were out of quarantine. We decided to open in two waves based on the move-in and quarantine schedule. Similar to 2019, we opened up the sale exclusively for FIRST Resource Center students first and gave almost everything away. Only on the last day of the last wave did we price items more expansively and open up for the rest of the Tufts student body. 

Once all the donations were set up for the sale, the campus planner came to assess the space. We marked the floors for social distancing and determined both the COVID-safe building capacity as well as the capacity for individual rooms. The student recycling workers spent the final day making signs for the sale categories and sections, room occupancy, and social distancing markers.

Finally, it was time to open! Eco-Reps helped to greet students and run the sale. At the entrance to the sale, all students were required to show us a negative COVID test result from Tufts to confirm they had been approved to leave quarantine. To ensure the sale was as equitable as possible given the scheduling challenges and restraints, we restricted shoppers to one item from each category so that folks who could not attend until a later date would still have a wide selection of items to choose from.

The first two days were packed, and due to limited building capacity and COVID-restrictions, we had students waiting in a social distanced line outside that curled around the building and up Boston Ave. Subsequent days were slower with a trickle of students throughout our open hours. Overall, we had about 260 shoppers in attendance!

Wrapping things up (metaphorically speaking)

By the last day of the sale, it was amazing to see how few items were left! At noon, almost all remaining items became free and the sale opened up to the larger Tufts community.

School supplies. Some Medford community members we freecycled to were school teachers.

Afterwards, we tried something new: remaining items were either donated to Goodwill or freecycled via the “Everything is Free Medford” Facebook page. Freecycling is a great way to give away unneeded items to people who will make use of them, diverting them from the landfill! We gave away a range of items to Medford residents and calculated the value for Community Relations; check out our free-cycling totals here. For more information about freecycling at Tufts, visit our reuse page.

Winter Clothing Drive

Instead of freecycling, the OOS held on to remaining winter and professional clothes, bedding and sheets, and books. These items had been collected in separate streams for FIRST, and the plan was to make them available to FIRST students later in the semester.

In mid-December, the OOS met with Tufts’ Director of Infectious Disease Control, Michael Jordan, to discuss how to safely distribute remaining items to students in need of them amidst the worsening pandemic.

With enhanced guidelines in place, the OOS was able to collaborate with Tufts Mutual Aid to host a winter clothing giveaway for FIRST Resource Center students, international students on financial aid, and any other student in need of winter clothes. A great textile upcycling opportunity, students browsed our jackets, hats, scarves, and sweaters just in time for the holiday break. Students also had the opportunity to browse through our remaining selection of sheets and books.

Remaining clothes were donated or recycled through our Bay State Textile bins and remaining books and textbooks were donated to Boston-area non-profit More Than Words.

Reflections on closing the loop

After all was said and done, we were able to divert the 10 tons of donations we collected in the spring from landfills and incinerators and put them to good use by new owners. That’s the equivalent of 10 Jumbos!

In addition to serving an environmental purpose, the program is beneficial from economic and social perspectives. The redistribution of items helps students save money and learn about the reuse economy. The University also saves money on hefty waste disposal fees typical during a Move-Out season. The process additionally promotes social sustainability: redistribution of items for the community from the community contributes to the interconnectedness and resilience of the Tufts community, along with the well-being of its individual members.

Through the hard work of the OOS, student workers and donators, and collaborating departments across the University, we were able to close the loop and turn trash into treasure.

Climate change is increasingly prompting mental health problems among college students

Grace van Deelen, Research Intern at Tufts University Office of Sustainability 

Recently, colleges and universities are witnessing a sharp increase in the number of students seeking mental health treatment. In line with the national trend, Tufts University has seen a notable increase in the number of students with significant and ongoing mental health needs.  

In response to increased needs for mental health resources, Tufts University President Anthony P. Monaco launched the Mental Health Task Force in 2016. After undertaking extensive research on the mental health needs trends in all four campuses, the Mental Health Task Force reported in 2019 that students are suffering from increasing mental health issues, particularly those related to anxiety and severe stress. 

While the Report of the Mental Health Task Force did not mention the environment as a possible contributing reason, climate change’s associated mental health risks could be responsible for this sharp increase in the number of students with mental health needs. Climate change could contribute to mental health disorders in multiple ways, either directly or indirectly, and affects even those of us who do not live in places experiencing climate-change-induced natural disasters. Here are some of the following ways that climate change affects mental well-being: 

Immediate or long-term exposure to climate-induced natural disasters has been proven to cause multiple mental health disorders.  

The most common varieties of mental health disorders caused by this direct experience with climate change are post-traumatic stress disorders, increased levels of anxiety, depression, increases in aggressive behavior and domestic violence, and self-harm that might lead to suicidal ideation and substance abuse. In fact, according to a 2016 study from the American Psychological Association, 25-50% of people exposed to an extreme weather disaster are at risk of adverse mental health effects.  

Climate change could create a feeling of loss or grief for a changing world.  

While the direct mental health impacts of climate-change-induced traumatic events are important, climate change can incur mental health impacts in individuals who have not experienced such events, as well. Even the tiny changes in one’s environment, such as a decrease in yearly snowfall, or a shifting of other familiar seasonal markers, can create a sense of anxiety. One paper by Wooster College Psychology Professor Susan Clayton described climate anxiety as a “loss of ontological security,” which is a feeling that one’s knowledge, way of being, or understanding of the world is no longer true due to the landscape changes that climate change can cause. Other vocabulary that describes this feeling include: solastalgia, a type of loss that happens when people become less familiar with the place in which they live, biospheric concern, a type of anxiety that happens when people perceive animals or plants in danger, and eco-anxiety, a feeling of loss, helplessness, and frustration caused by climate change, according to Paolo Cianconi, a neuroscience professor at Catholic University in Rome, Italy. 

Climate change can cause anxiety and worry about the future among young people.  

This climate anxiety or “eco-anxiety,” according to the American Psychological Association, is a leading cause of worry among young adults and college students. The unpredictability of climate change increases worry and anxiety in college students because they tend to be young people who spend much of their time planning for the future. A 2018 Gallup poll of 4,103 adults living in all 50 states and the District of Columbia found that 70% of 18- to-34 year-olds worry “a great deal” about global warming, compared to 63% of adults aged 35- to-54 and 56% of adults aged 55 and older. A national poll by Clayton in 2019 found that 57% of teens said that “climate change makes them feel afraid.” The same poll found that “a small, but not inconsequential, proportion of the public (17-27%) reported a degree of climate anxiety that was having some impact on their ability to function.” In general, younger age groups worry more about climate change than older adults.  

Climate change is making young people re-think their life plans.  

A 2020 Washington Post article quoted an 18-year-old from Alabama on the confounding stresses of college life during the climate crisis; “The ice caps are melting and my hypothetical children won’t get to see them, but also I have a calculus test tomorrow.” This is a familiar feeling among college students, and having children is becoming a widespread topic of concern among young people. This trend is evidenced by movements such as the BirthStrike movement, a worldwide movement of people refusing to have children due to the ecological crisis. A New York Times poll in 2018 found that “25% of the 1,800 Americans surveyed said they expected to have fewer children than they considered ideal; of these, 33% cited worry about climate change.” 

Climate change’s mental health impacts will continue to be more widespread.  

As climate change accelerates, the mental health impacts of climate change will not only be limited to young people and those who have experienced climate-induced traumatic events. As climate change becomes more widespread and serious, so will its mental health impacts, according to a paper by Policy Analyst Dr. Katie Hayes. For example, while the Boston area has been spared from the most severe hurricanes and wildfires recently, it can expect to see continued increases in sea levels, extreme precipitation, and extreme high temperatures in the future, according to Boston Research Advisory Group’s 2016 report . Even though Tufts may seem far away from these events at the moment, climate-induced natural disasters will become more common in the future. Furthermore, is important to note that many Tufts students either live in or have family in parts of the world that are experiencing climate disasters far more frequently than the Boston area, and are therefore susceptible to the immediate mental health impacts that these events can bring.  

Individual and institutional commitments to climate activism, along with climate literacy among counselors, can help to alleviate these climate-induced mental health problems, according to Yale Climate Connections. Part of the efforts to alleviate these mental health issues among college students should include initiatives from universities that display a commitment to meaningful climate action, in addition to improving campus mental health resources. 

The full Tufts Office of Sustainability memo on this topic can be found here, while an annotated bibliography of literature pertaining to this topic can be found here.

Get outside! A brief overview of local greenspaces

Written by Colette Smith

After a few months of social distancing at home, many are yearning to soak in the summer weather and explore the outdoors. One great way to get outside is to visit some of your local greenspaces. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, greenspace includes “any open piece of land that is undeveloped (has no buildings or other built structures) and is accessible to the public… [and] is partially or completely covered with grass, trees, shrubs, or other vegetation.” Specific examples of greenspaces include areas such as public parks, community gardens, walking, biking, or hiking trails, and even cemeteries. Greenspaces have a range of benefits, from individual and community health benefits to environmental sustainability. Below, we break down some great greenspace options near Tufts, the benefits of greenspace, and some tips for staying safe outdoors. 

 Although Boston ranks low among large cities for greenspace density, with only 168 feet per resident, there are still plenty of options to get outside and absorb the summer air for those of you still around Tufts. The Tufts campus itself has a lot of greenspaces, such as the President’s Lawn or the academic quad, where you can lay out in the sun and enjoy the warm weather. One of my favorite things to do in the nice weather is grab lunch from Hodge and sit out on the President’s Lawn with my friends.,_presidents_lawn.jpg

Another greenspace that is only 2 miles from campus is Middlesex Fells. Professor Ninian Stein took my Introduction to Environmental Studies class here for a field trip last semester. I was astonished at how close it was to the somewhat urban environment near Tufts. It offers a wide variety of activities like hiking, renting a boat, riding a bike on one of the bike trails, or visiting the dog park.

Another local option is Nathan Tufts Park, located just across from Tufts at Powderhouse circle. This park features the seventeenth-century Old Powder House, which was built as a windmill but has served many purposes throughout the years. Today, you can walk-through, picnic, or be active on this historical greenspace.

If you would like to get off campus to explore the greater Boston area instead, there are some really great places you can go. One gorgeous option is the Rose Kennedy Greenway. The Greenway features a 1.5 mile long path through central downtown and the waterfront. Walking along you will see outdoor artworks and performances.

Another iconic Boston greenspace is the Boston Common. This area of land used to be a cow pasture, but it has been an important place for the city throughout the years serving as a site for a wide variety of occasions. Founded in 1634, the Boston Common is a great place to go for a stroll or to sit and have a picnic.

The next option, located at 695 Hillside St. in Milton, the Blue Hills Reservation is a great place to go for a hike since it has great options for all hiking experience levels. It includes 125 miles of stunning, scenic trails that will take you through a variety of landscapes from marshes to meadows. There are many different route options so make sure to pick up a map!

In addition to their aesthetic appeal, greenspaces have been reported to improve both mental health/well-being as well as physical health, since they provide opportunities for urban dwellers to get active. From an environmental perspective, the benefits of greenspaces include air quality improvements, natural ecosystems, reduction of noise, and better storm drainage. A final advantage of having greenspaces is that they have been shown to foster increased social interaction as people visit these sites and get to meet other people in their community face to face. 

Finally: don’t forget to stay vigilant! Greenspaces are a great opportunity to get outdoors amidst the COVID quarantine and are relatively safe thanks to the open air. Still, you must social distance, wear a mask, and wash your hands frequently. Also, don’t forget sunscreen and bug repellant!

How to Start Commuting by Bike

A commuter on their daily route. Image by Luca Rogoff.

Written by Elisa Sturkie

It’s been over two months since most of us have been able to safely head into work, and even longer since we could ride the T without thinking of the threat posed by COVID-19. For some, remote work is coming to an end: with Massachusetts entering into phase one of reopening on May 25th, Tufts researchers will be getting back into their labs, and some offices can resume work at a reduced capacity. Yet, with the Baker-Polito administration admitting that public transportation “unavoidably creates some risk” for COVID-19 transmission, many are still wary of taking the T.   

This is where the Office of Sustainability can help! With spring in full swing, there is no better time to maintain social distancing and start your bike commute. Somerville is ranked fifth nationally in number of biking commuters per capita, and is especially friendly to new bikers–something I know firsthand. Also, Massachusetts is the fifth most bike-friendly state in America, with Boston earning a “Silver” as a Bike Friendly Community. I started biking to work last summer for the first time, and it helped me to be healthier, more sustainable, and to explore new trails and bike paths in my community. I really couldn’t recommend it more. So, how do you get started planning your bike commute?  

1. Get a bike!  

In need of a bike? There are plenty of ways to purchase a bike sustainably in the Boston area–and many of them will also save you a little money! I got my bike used from Facebook Marketplace for a little over $50 in a move-out sale. Craigslist also has used bikes you can buy from neighbors, and until retail reopens, Cambridge Used Bicycles is conducting online bike sales with free delivery options within a five-mile radius of their store.  

Buying something used is of course more sustainable, but if you’d like a new bike, go to your local bike shop or buy from a smaller vendor online rather than from a big box store if you can. Here are the most environmentally conscious bike brands. Also, if your commute is actually pretty far and you have some money to spend, an electric bike will help you get to work fast, without all the sweat. If you’re trying to decide on a road bike, hybrid, or upright, check out this helpful webpage

Be sure to buy a helmet and bike lock! U locks are the most recommended form of lock, as they are much harder to cut through than cable locks, which prevents bike theft. 

Have a bike you need to fix up? Bike Boom in Davis Square is open for tune-ups and bike assembly, and now offers a contactless bike pickup and delivery service. Loads of other Boston-area bike shops are open now too. 

Not sure you want to commit to buying a bike? Join Blue Bikes and take out a shared bike whenever you like, without any of the upkeep! Speaking of upkeep… 

2. Take care of your bike!  

So now you’ve bought a bike. How do you keep it in good shape? It’s as simple as ABC: Air, Brakes, and Chain. Make sure you keep the right amount of air in your bike’s tires. Check the sidewall of your bike’s tires to be sure you know the correct amount of air pressure, and keep a bike pump and patch kit handy in case of a flat. Next, check your front and rear brakes to be sure they engage properly. Finally, keep your bike’s chain lubricated and clean to extend the life of your bike!  REI has some great how-to videos on the bike basics if you’d like a step by step.  

3. Plan and practice your route.  

When biking to work, never underestimate the importance of a practice run. I did and ended up sweaty and astonishingly early to work for most of my first week as a bike commuter. Be sure you know your route and what you need to commute comfortably and safely– even if that means packing a change of clothes. You’ll thank yourself later. Want some help planning your route? Trail map is here to help! You can also use Google Maps (click on the bike image), or if you work on one of Tufts’ Boston campuses, you can sign up for a Ride Amigos account here, and use their platform to plan your trip. 

4. Stay safe on the road!  

Lastly and most importantly, read up on cycling road signs and the rules of road biking. Hand signals are essential! When turning left, stick your left arm out straight; for a right turn, signal with your left arm, but bend your elbow ninety degrees (as if you are about to give someone a high five). It’s also important to be visible to cars, especially if biking at night (bike lights and reflective gear are a must!). Bikes are more vulnerable than cars and learning bike safety is the most important part of biking. Be a cautious rider, always being aware of your surroundings and stopping at red lights. Try to ride on roads with bike lanes and bike trails, or roads with bike sharrows, if there are no bike lanes near you, always ride closer to the right side of the road. Roads are safer for you than sidewalks, trust me! 

Have more questions? The Office of Sustainability has a great webpage about biking at Tufts, and a quick bike guide which might help, and we’re happy to take questions! Now that you have all the basics, hopefully you’ll be able to make the jump to a bike commute with confidence. Soon you’ll be exploring new bike paths, maintaining social distance in the fresh air, and getting to work sustainably! 

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