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Sustainability summer interns save thousands

  • Sustainability interns
    Sustainability interns  As interns for the Committee on Sustainability (COS), Tyler Koontz ('09) and Judi Sclafani ('11) spent their summer months evaluating William & Mary's recycling and waste services.  Photo by Stephen Salpukas
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As interns for the Committee on Sustainability (COS), Tyler Koontz '09 and Judi Sclafani '11 spent their summer months evaluating William & Mary's recycling and waste services. Thanks to that work - and a recommendation by the students - the College will now save $40,000 annually.

COS Summer Internships are an ongoing, competitive grant program supported by funds from the Green Fee that was initiated in the spring of 2008.  The grants are intended to afford summer research opportunities for graduate and undergraduate students that directly serve the sustainability needs of the College. Koontz  and Sclafani '11 were awarded two of the four grants made available in May of 2009 for their proposals to evaluate and improve the College's recycling program.

"As an undergraduate student, to be given the opportunity to conduct meaningful research as part of the College's commitment to sustainability has been exciting, unique, and both personally and professionally rewarding," said Koontz, adding he hopes to see the recycling program continue to grow. "I am confident that the recycling program has the potential to become a model for other universities nationwide."

COS asked the students to focus their research on improving the efficiency and cost-effectiveness of recycling on campus. Within the first four weeks of the internships, they had found a way to cut recycling expenditures by half. By shifting the recycling pick-up schedules from "on-call," where bins were emptied only when the College notified their recycling vendor, to a regularly scheduled service, Koontz and Sclafani estimated that the College would save around $40,000 each year. They also discovered that the solid waste dumpsters were emptied too often, creating the potential for tens of thousands of dollars in additional savings. Both were included in a final report issued in August.

Koontz and Sclafani set multiple tasks for themselves at the beginning of their internships, including examining the current recycling and waste practices at the College, exploring programs at other universities, finding new vendors in the region, and determining the relationship between the recycling and solid waste programs of the College. Their research highlighted promising new possibilities for improving recycling and lowering costs at William & Mary: the recommended changes made to the recycling contract make recycling cheaper per ton to service than solid waste, creating a needed economic incentive to increase the amount of waste diverted into recycling.

The students were advised and assisted by Sandra Prior, director of environmental health & safety, and Rowan Lockwood, professor of geology and the chair of the COS Programs and Education Subcommittee.  Helping the students navigate the intricacies of the recycling and waste programs were Dave Shepard, associate vice president of facilities management, and Bill Sanders, the College's support services supervisor. Shepard was particularly active in Koontz and Sclafani's research, suggesting avenues of inquiry and accepting many recommendations. "Their research points to significant cost savings for the processing of the College's recyclable materials and provides a strong foundation for the growth of the program to achieve more sustainable operations," Shepard said.

Neither student had previous experience in waste or recycling before the internship, but both had worked on sustainability projects on campus before. Sclafani is a member of the William & Mary Student Environmental Action Coalition (SEAC), and served on a working group within COS during the 2008-2009 academic year. Koontz has worked extensively with government professor Maria Ivanova on environmental policy research and assisted with the writing of the student green fees proposal in the spring of 2008.

Sclafani saw this internship as an opportunity to solve a visible campus problem. "I knew that recycling was something that people had been looking for a solution to for awhile," she said.  She credits Shepard with much of her and Koontz's gathering of recycling and waste knowledge, but noted, "There was no crash course. We pretty much just picked up information as we talked to everyone."

COS Co-Chairs Lynda Butler, law professor at the William & Mary Law School and Dennis Taylor, professor of marine science at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science, both commented, "We are pleased to see this success coming from the COS Summer Interns program.  It is an excellent example of how small investments from the Green Fee can result in large sustainability advances for the College."