Science & Tech

Class of 1984 takes giant step in reducing carbon footprint

7 min read

For its fifth reunion, the Class of 1984 added community service to the celebration — a novel feature that other reuniting classes have since copied.

Anne S. Holtzworth ’84 remembers the 1989 affair, when one June afternoon she reminisced with old classmates while painting a homeless shelter.

The same activist class, holding its 25th this year, has come up with another innovation: Harvard’s first deliberately “green” reunion.

Over four days, returning graduates from the Class of 1984 will attend lunches, dinners, parties, and outings planned with the environment in mind.

Bottled water will be banned in favor of bulk jugs and reusable containers. Cups, utensils, and plates will get turned into compost — or will be washable china and silverware. And buses for a class trip to the Museum of Fine Arts will be forbidden to idle and will run on biodiesel.

Reunion menus follow a sustainability ethic too. Most food served will come from less than 250 miles away, minimizing the carbon impact of meals.

Saturday (June 6) includes the Class’ traditional community service project. It’s what organizers call a “green-up” cleanup of Charles River shorelines, in cooperation with the Charles River Conservancy.

And after the reunion is over, organizers will add up all the air and road miles the graduates took to get here. They’ll divide it by 800 (the number of registrants), and give everyone a year to offset the carbon costs — by making changes in their private lives.

“We’ve always added our own innovations,” said Holtzworth, a Boston-area political consultant who also helped organize the fifth and 15th reunions.

When planning committees started meeting last fall, the idea of an Earth-friendly gathering “just kind of bubbled up,” she recalled. “So I said: ‘Let’s just do this.’”

Just doing it meant getting the tone of the message right, said Gary Pforzheimer ’84, co-chair of the green reunion subcommittee. That meant not being strident or judgmental. “Ellen and I are not the green police,” he said, referring to co-chair Ellen Schreiber ’84.

The right tone acknowledges “all the trade-offs in our lives,” said Pforzheimer, a fundraising consultant whose office is on the edge of the Harvard campus. “We agreed with the philosophy that not everyone could be green every minute of every day.”

But in sustainability terms, reunion planners went after “every single piece of low-hanging fruit,” he said.

First to go was bottled water. Celebrants (a record-breaking 2,000, if you include families) will get personal water bottles to refill from bulk containers. (Making plastic water bottles — about 40 billion a year in the U.S. market alone — wastes oil and jams landfills.)

At meals, Class of 1984 partiers will sweeten their coffee with sugar from sugar bowls (not single-serving packets) and use real spoons to do it. Flowers on the tables will be potted or — in the case of one meal — rented from a florist shop, then returned for sale.

To save paper and ink, more than 90 percent of reunion publicity and registration was done online. Not incidentally, said Pforzheimer, “it saved us a lot of money.” (Speaking of which: This 25th reunion is twice green. Class members have pledged $30 million for Harvard scholarships.)

To save more resources, programs for the traditional memorial service will be half the size of previous programs. Poetry, prose, and musical lyrics — once printed — will be made available through the reunion Web site,

On the same site, class members are invited to take the sustainability pledge offered to Harvard students, faculty, and staff by the Office for Sustainability ( The pledge was slightly modified to add “alumnus” to the mix of identifiers.

The 25th reunion at Harvard is traditionally a landmark event for mid-life graduates, who with their families move into Harvard Yard dormitories for the week (and enjoy the services of a 200-student day-care staff).

“We basically turn Harvard Yard into a hotel,” said Michele Blanc, senior associate director of the Harvard Alumni Association, who has worked closely with organizers of the greened-up 25th reunion.

The Class of 1984 drew praise for reducing the environmental impact of reunion activities.

“They’re a model for future reunion classes,” said Jaclyn Olsen, assistant director of Harvard’s Office for Sustainability, which provided sustainability guidance and expertise. “And they’re inspiring their classmates to carry environmentally friendly practices into their daily lives.”

Pforzheimer hopes the sustainability idea will live on as a legacy for 25th reunions to come. It’s a way of “adding a dimension,” he said, “to an exciting traditional event.”

That green dimension appears elsewhere in Commencement 2009. The 40th anniversary reunion of Al Gore’s Class of 1969 included events last weekend (May 29-31) designed to minimize trash and maximize recycling and composting.

And the Senior Class Day dinner this week (June 2) — with 5,000 guests expected — will generate “very close to zero waste,” said Robert Gogan, recycling and waste services manager for Harvard’s Facilities Maintenance Operations.

Trash containers (few) will be joined by receptacles for recycling and compostable items (many). A single small truck will bear it all away.

Large events modeled on sustainability practices — reduce, reuse, recycle — are part of Harvard’s recent past.

The Yard Fest in April had an 80 percent recapture rate for recycling. And last October, Harvard held a festival to kick off its pledge to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 30 percent by 2016. It drew a crowd of 15,000 participants, but generated less than one bag of trash.

As for Harvard reunions, the idea of a green template is exciting, said Gogan.

“It’s so visible,” he said, and such a good opportunity to educate organizers, participants, and vendors about events that save energy and waste. “It’s not just a fad. It’s something that people deeply value.”

The heart of sustainable events is humble, said Gogan: composting.

Food waste, paper napkins, and “bioplastic” utensils are shipped to a farm in Hamilton, Mass. They turn into rich soil used throughout southern New England.

“It’s not going to go on a truck to North Carolina,” said Gogan of composted waste. “It greens the locality.”

Normally, as much as 25 percent of edible food ends up in landfills, said Crista Martin, director of marketing and communications at Harvard University Dining Services (HUDS).

She put together a sustainable foods primer for the 1984 reunion organizers — lessons on low-waste ways to provide linens, dishware, water, and food.

Martin drew on events and meals practices already widely used at Harvard. “Virtually all of this is what we execute on a daily basis here,” she said.

Annenberg Hall, the University’s largest dining facility (3,400 meals a day) composts 100 percent of its food waste. Students are encouraged to bring reusable mugs, and to take only what they plan to eat.

For 25th reunion meals, menus are largely local and sustainable, said Martin, including chicken, cheese, fruits, field greens, tomatoes, and bread from regional providers.

Food is a path to community, to celebration — and to education, said Martin.

“It’s a visible link in the sustainability chain,” she said. “We all know that food has to come from somewhere to get on our plates — and then has to go somewhere.”

This year’s 25th reunion will encourage others to plan and deliver sustainable events, said Martin, bringing lessons already embraced at Harvard “into these big forums.”

Sustainability was part of Commencement for the first time in 1993, with the advent of recycling, said Gogan – but the Class of 1984 has organized the first green reunion, and that changes the dynamic.

“This is kind of a breakthrough year,” he said. “This is going down in history as the year we bumped it up a peg.”