As part of the First-Year Seminar (FSEM), “Sustainable Living and Learning,” 56 first-year students in the Colleges’ Sustainable Living and Learning Community recently toured the Ontario County Landfill and zero-sort recycling center, giving them the opportunity to find out what happens to garbage after it’s thrown out. The students not only learned about the significance of reducing waste, but also of the integral role the landfill plays in the local economy and community.
On the landfill and recycling center tour, students observed operations, including how waste is contained under various conditions, as well as inside the recycling center where they saw the complex process of using conveyor belts, optical scanners and magnets used to sort 300 tons of recyclable materials per day. The second largest landfill in New York State, Ontario County Landfill takes in 2,999 tons of garbage on average each day, equating to 1 million tons annually. Through the gas produced in the facility, the landfill provides enough electricity to power 7,000 houses, day and night.
“The hope is that the students will start thinking about what they consume, what they throw away and what happens to it once they do,” says Professor of Economics Thomas Drennen, who teaches a section of “Sustainable Living and Learning.” “Experiences like this make everything seem much more real. Right now we’re reading a book about garbage and where it goes, but until they see the long line of giant tractor trailers, they don’t think about it. Once they see it, then they get it.”
As part of the Sustainable Living and Learning Community, which was launched last year, students in “Sustainable Living and Learning” investigate the intersection of sustainability and consumption while exploring the relationship between local actions and global effects. The landfill tour was one of several experiential learning components integrated into the special, two-semester course.
Unlike the traditional one semester FSEM experience, “Sustainable Living and Learning” has four sections that run through both semesters, each taught by one of four professors. The entire community of students also meets once each week with all four professors and two upper class teaching assistants for an extended lab time used for larger discussions and experiments in the kitchen and learning commons of Rees Hall.
“The idea is that by having the classes in the residence hall and having extended lab time, we have more time to explore all these really in-depth topics, and more importantly, it’s all about building community,” says Drennen, who chairs entrepreneurial studies and is the former chair of environmental studies. “The idea is to help the students feel connected to HWS much quicker than in a traditional FSEM, and we saw last year that the students became a very strong and tight-knit community.”
In addition to visiting the landfill, students also have attended the Geneva Farmers Market and have visited the HWS Fribolin Farm to plant a vegetable garden for next year. This fall, they will also take a trip to the apple orchards at Cornell’s New York State Agricultural Experiment Station to learn about the scientific research conducted at the station.
Leading up to the visit to the landfill, students collected their garbage and trash, weighing it each day and comparing the results.
Lauren Workman ’19 says “living with such an intelligent group of interested, dedicated and hardworking students has really enhanced my living and learning situation. We all do work together, hangout in the classrooms, and challenge each other’s intellectual ability.” She says visiting the landfill and seeing the “mountain of garbage” was “a shock.”
“After seeing the enormous mound of waste just a few miles from campus, it became clear to me that our trash is not simply out of sight, out of mind,” says Ryan Montbleau ’19. “I have taken a second look at my daily consumption.”
In addition to Drennen, who is also the co-chair of the President’s Climate Task Force, other faculty members who lead the Sustainable Living and Learning Community are: Assistant Professors of Environmental Studies Beth Kinne and Robin Lewis, and Visiting Professor of Environmental Studies Tarah Rowse. As the four professors – each with a different academic focus – converge on a weekly basis to hold extended lab discussions with the entire community, the students have the unique opportunity to experience how different disciplines engage with the same problem.
“I think they see that we take very different approaches to tackling issues,” Drennen says. “One of us might focus on the economics, while one might focus on science or on policy, but it’s good for them to see an interdisciplinary approach to dealing with some of the most complex problems in the world today.”
The Sustainable Living and Learning Community is one of the many initiatives developed at the Colleges with a goal of creating more sustainable residential areas and reducing the campus’ environmental impact through collaboration with the greater Geneva community. From water quality to sustainable economic development, the Colleges’ Finger Lakes Institute (FLI), for example, has been integral in facilitating meaningful sustainability student projects that connect HWS with individuals and institutions from the Finger Lakes region.
Hobart and William Smith have consistently been nationally recognized for their commitment to environmental leadership and sustainability. This year, HWS was ranked No. 53 on Sierra’s “Cool Schools” list, moving ahead 63 spots since first appearing on the list in 2009 and earning the highest possible rating in the categories for co-curricular sustainability programs and initiatives, as well as innovation in sustainability. Hobart and William Smith were also featured in the 2015 edition of The Princeton Review‘s “Guide to 353 Green Colleges” as one of North America’s most environmentally responsible schools. In 2014, the Colleges were also named a Tree Campus USA for the third consecutive year by the Arbor Day Foundation and Toyota.