Divinity School Trash Audit Is Harvard's Best Ever

October 19, 2015
Leslie MacPherson
During the audit, Leslie MacPherson holds up the only aluminum can inappropriately tossed into the trash. / Photo: Rob Gogan

This past Earth Day, Harvard Divinity School's Green Team audited nearly all of the previous day's refuse, including recycling, compost, and trash.

Auditors found the lowest fraction of recyclables in the trash of any waste audit ever performed at Harvard University: 13 percent. Equally impressive, six of the compost bags and four of the recycling bags were perfectly sorted with no contaminants. 

The recovery rate for each commodity was 38 percent for single-stream recycling; 41 percent for compost; and 21 percent for municipal solid waste (i.e., residual non-compostable, non-reusable, and non-compostable).

HDS Green Teamers claim their waste would have been even lower had they not hosted several dozen visitors for a conference serving box lunches. (Several guests closed up and discarded their boxes with compostable food scraps and recyclable bottles inside.)

HDS Green Team member Leslie MacPherson Artinian, who also serves as departmental administrator in the Office of Ministry Studies, led the Earth Day audit on the HDS campus. Though the sample did not include residential trash from the Divinity School, the 79 percent recovery rate shows stunning progress towards Zero Waste. 

Why has Harvard's holy corner had such waste reduction success? Here are a few of their practices:

  • Recycling and compost receptacles in all common spaces, classrooms, and most offices
  • Compostable service ware at all catered events
  • Custodial supervisor Jyoti Rana’s personal dedication to recovering all recyclables, compost, and reusables
  • "FreeCycle Shelf" monitored and used year-round in Rockefeller Hall
  • Active Green Team with full institutional support
  • Culture of thrift and sustainable practices
  • Blue battery recycling tubes campus-wide

Chaired by HDS director of operations Ralph Deflorio, the HDS Green Team set a goal last year of reducing their trash by 90 percent from their 2006 levels by 2020. Ten years ago, the campus buildings whose waste we studied generated 380 pounds of trash per day.

This past April, the same buildings generated 24 pounds, including all those box lunches that were discarded by campus visitors. That is a reduction of almost 94 percent.

HDS might already be at 90 percent reduction campus-wide. Further study is needed to confirm this. Until then, keep up the good work, HDS, and be grateful for your heroic Green Team!

—by Rob Gogan, associate manager of recycling services in Harvard's University Operations Services