Campus & Community

Earth Day draws thousands

7 min read

Cleanup along the Charles, in MAC Quad, and elsewhere is a sustainability success story

While joggers and strollers streamed merrily along sunny Memorial Drive on Saturday (April 25), Robert M. “Rob” Gogan Jr. was just a few yards away, bobbing in a kayak while combing the banks of the Charles River for litter.

He’s associate manager for recycling and waste at Harvard — a guru of trash who elected to spend this balmy weekend morning poking at soggy brush with a net and a hoe.

On the slopes above Gogan were dozens of volunteers stooped over trash bags, picking from the grass old cans, bottles, fast-food bags, and Styrofoam cups.

They were among the 3,000 who signed up for the 10th annual Earth Day cleanup sponsored by the Charles River Watershed Association. (Last year’s event snagged and bagged more than 20 tons of trash.)

“The good thing is,” Gogan said of the work, “it connects people to the river.” Earlier that morning, he and Tony Carmoega, a Harvard payroll assistant, had climbed into the 12-foot Walden Spirit, easing into the Charles from Magazine Beach.

Before heading to shore near the Western Avenue Bridge, they watched a few fish jump, saw a gliding heron, and sighted a black-crested cormorant — a sign the alewives are running.

“Years ago they used to feed the Harvard students out of the oyster beds and the fish that came upriver,” said Gogan, in a green ball cap and bulging life vest. “There’s no reason they can’t do that again.”

Meanwhile there was work to do: black bags to fill with cigarette butts, glass, litter, wadded newspapers, and plastic water bottles. “Get it right,” said Gogan, holding up a battered bottle and composing a lesson for water companies. “Make it biodegradable.”

Seven full bags comprised the morning haul for a Harvard team of 17, said Krystal Noiseux, manager of education and outreach for the Office for Sustainability (OFS). She organized a crew from OFS and volunteers from Harvard’s University Operations Services.

Oddities among the litter included specimen jars and a couple of syringes, but the most ubiquitous riverside trash was Styrofoam, said Noiseux — an artifact of modern life with a lifespan of 20,000 years.

A few hundred yards from Gogan’s bobbing kayak, Harvard’s premiere Earth Day event was stirring to life on the MAC Quad. Karen McKinnon ’10 was there in a green T-shirt, with a washable recycling symbol tattoo on her face. She’s chair this year of the Harvard College Environmental Action Committee, the event sponsor.

Tables were set up by a mix of advocates for the environment — people who don’t always gather in one place, said McKinnon, who called the celebration “definitely an umbrella kind of day.” (The week before, other Schools at Harvard offered their own outreach events, workshops, panel discussions, and sustainability displays.)

At the MAC Quad, every table offered a lesson — on bike sharing, seed bombs, the environmental wisdom of a meatless diet, sustainable building materials, flavorful tap water, and eco-friendly dorm rooms.

Zachary Arnold ’10 showed one visitor around the model dorm room set up on a patch of grass. He’s one of three coordinators — “captains” — of the undergraduate resource efficiency program (REP), administered by Brandon Geller ’08 at OFS.

In the idealized room was an Energy Star-rated printer, a computer hooked to a power strip, “Turn Me Off” stickers, compact fluorescent lamp (CFL) bulbs, cloth shopping bags, a bike helmet, a shelf of bring-your-own dishware, and even a wooden drying rack. (One load of wash costs 4 kilowatt hours of energy to dry – enough power to light a CFL bulb for 10 days.)

Having REP agents in every house — and three to cover freshman housing — keeps sustainability awareness high, said Arnold. “We’re very much focused on individual behavior change,” he said — areas of life within the reach of undergraduates, including energy and water usage.

“Please wash responsibly,” reads one of REP’s biweekly campaign posters. The lesson: It only takes two tablespoons of detergent to do a wash.

For good behavior, environmentally, hand it to the 400-plus residents of Adams House, who won this year’s Green Cup. The coveted award — based on sustainability measures and projects — came with a check for $1,040.

Minutes later, Samantha “Sam” Houston ’11 and Rachel Mak ’10 — both of Adams House — outlined some of the why behind the win: a 30 percent increase in recycling rates, food waste reduction, a high number of sustainability pledges (around 70 percent of residents), and 21 individual “ecoprojects.” (The House average is four.)

Projects involved reducing food waste, hosting a vegetarian cooking class, composting at study breaks, a trayless dining initiative (to cut down on uneaten food), and more.

“You can make a difference with your choices,” said Mak.

Environmental action starts with the individual, agreed Houston. The variety of projects, she said, “is a really good testament to the fact that little things really do add up.”

A green tour of Harvard Yard added up some highlights of Harvard sustainability. Leading were Christopher Allison ’12, Alexa Stern ’12, and REP Yard Captain Rebecca Compton ’09.

On the walk over, the tour group glimpsed the new wind turbines on the roof of Holyoke Center. Then came a breezy glimpse at organic landscaping, a solar trash compactor, and a refurbishing project intended to green Thayer Hall.

There was reminiscing too, about a sustainability celebration last Oct. 22 that drew more than 15,000 to see Al Gore speak — and that generated just one bag of trash. (The rest was recycled or composted.)

Back at the MAC Quad, visitors could get their bikes tuned or make stress-reducing eye pillows from buckwheat hulls mixed with lavender and chamomile. Or they could take the “geopardy” quiz offered by the Harvard College Geosociety. One question seemed especially apt even for present-day Planet Earth: “What’s your favorite mass extinction?”

Over at the OFS table, a visitor could heft a low-flow shower head and a tiny faucet aerator — a device that keeps water flowing at only half a gallon a minute — 20 percent of the average flow.

There were samples of green building materials, too, including a porous concrete substitute that allows rain to seep fast back into soils instead of racing to a storm drain. There were handsome little tiles too, pressed from the seed husks of wheat and sunflowers and made without toxic solvents.

One impressive visitor stopped to take a look: Al Gore, conspicuous for being the only one on the MAC Quad in a suit and tie, and the only one wearing a — oh, darn — rubber mask.

Sweltering underneath the false face was Thomas R. Benson ’09, an Earth and planetary sciences concentrator who lives at Cabot House. Turns out, he has channeled Al Gore anyway. Benson’s senior thesis is on the geology of extracting geothermal energy from deep in the earth.

Drill one well 8 kilometers down in the right kind of rock, he said, and you can power a million homes for 30 years. Nationwide, added Benson, there is enough potential energy captive in deep rock to supply current U.S. needs 2,000 times over.

Plainly, Benson is no fool. Further proof: He shed the Gore suit and mask and emerged a celebrant in shorts — ready to toast the rest of Earth Day by tossing a Frisbee.

A snapshot of Harvard sustainability facts:

  • 57 green building projects (17 LEED certified and 40 LEED registered)
  • $3.7 million in energy savings per year from Green Campus Loan Fund projects
  • 15.7 percent electricity from renewable energy sources in 2008 (Cambridge/Allston)
  • 54 percent Cambridge/Allston campus recycling rate
  • 40 percent local produce in dining halls (HUDS)
  • Sustainability “green teams” in all Schools