The Environmentalists of Manhattan College Discuss Food Waste, Sustainability and Advocating for Change on Campus

by Kyla Guilfoil, Asst. News Editor

Although it is one of Manhattan College’s smaller departments, environmental studies students are passionate about improving sustainability around campus. Through the department, as well as environmentally active students in the different environmental-focused clubs on campus, students have developed new initiatives to improve the environmental impact made at MC.

Mary Stahl, a first-semester senior and environmental studies major, has spent the last three years advocating for sustainability– particularly in regards to food waste. Through her studies, Stahl discovered that she had a passion for food sustainability and accessibility, and decided to take that to action. Stahl played a vital part in beginning the Manhattan College Environmental Newsletter, which published its first issue in October 2019.

Stahl is also an active contributor to the rooftop garden on campus, which is located on the top level of the parking garage across the street from Hayden Hall. At the garden, Stahl explained that there are multiple beds for the vegetable and spice garden, a compost facility and a rainwater capture system that is used to water the garden.

“There is hopefully going to be a green wall, some kind of hydroponic system,” Stahl said. “There was one going up there for a while but then it kind of fizzled out so we’re looking for engineers to kind of take that over.”

Along with a green wall, Stahl thinks that there’s much more that can be done for sustainability on campus.

“I’ve been fighting with [administration] to try and reduce food waste for forever,” Stahl said. “Since Aramark took over, it’s been a lot of logistical issues because they have this sustainability statement on their website, it’s really something that people could so call them out for, but they’re just fine with it. And it’s just complete BS. So you go to Locke’s and it’s like what is this stuff? None of this is sustainable, I’m eating stuff out of a bag.”

One of Stahl’s suggestions was for the college to donate its food scraps to the compost facility. Although the compost facility at the rooftop garden is not designed to handle large amounts of food, Stahl believes that there is plenty of room to expand. She mentioned that it would be especially helpful if there could be a way to take residential waste from the OV kitchens where students are cooking. And, beyond administration, Stahl believes that change is possible. She is happy to see how the program has grown since she first came to MC, and believes the environmental studies majors can enact change.

“I think on campus there’s a lot that students can do,” Stahl said. “I think because we’re such a small campus it’s so easy to become a leader for change. I have seen me and my fellow students, and students before and after me, have been. One advocate can do so much for whatever interests you, and I recommend just reading and looking up different arguments, because there’s so many components to environmental science, so you can pick one and just go down a complete rabbit hole. I think on campus you can just pick anything and I think that more than people think can be done. Just find something you’re passionate about and get involved.”

Stahl knew from a young age that she wanted to be engaged with nature. Growing up on Long Island and coming from a family of environmentalists, it seemed to be second nature for her to choose a focus in environmental studies. Brandon Alvarez, senior civil engineering major with an environmental engineering minor, shares this deep rooted love for the environment. However, Alvarez’s came from within the concrete jungle, as he grew up just a few miles from campus in the Bronx.

While Alvarez did not choose to major in environmental studies as Stahl did, he chose a career path that will en- able him to put the study of the environment into action.

“So for me, the environmental scientists will identify issues and really study it, and an environmental engineer will come along and really help quantify and try and come up for solutions for things, and the real numbers aspect of it rather than the study aspect of it,” Alvarez said. “I actually started school doing preverternary, and I realized it was not for me. I’m a lot more technical of a person, so I chose engineering and I kind of strayed away from it, but then found a way that I could be an engineer, but also help the environment and make life better for the wildlife.”

Alvarez has been commit- ted to staying engaged with the environment while he continues with his engineering degree, citing volunteerism to be one of his top priorities. He has dedicated so much time to Van Cortlandt Park that he is what they consider a “super steward,” meaning that he goes to training on his own time to per- form street care work, forest care work, or work removing invasive species throughout the park.

Alvarez also held a position as an intern at Van Cortlandt Park where he helped park staff remove invasive species from the lake during the summer. Now, Alvarez is taking on a bigger leadership role, and is the publication editor for the New York Water Environment Association on campus.

As part of that role, Alvarez planned an event to perform a street clean up outside of Kelly Commons. The Parks Department came to the event to pro- vide tools to the twenty student participants, and also shared a crash course of city infrastructure with the students. And while Alvarez is deeply committed to serving the community, he emphasizes that each per- son can play a small but important role in being sustainable.

“It doesn’t have to be a 100 percent lifestyle change over- night,” Alvarez said. “Even if you do one thing, like steer away from plastic bottles, or cutting your shower time down, everything you do helps. So start with small things.”

Alvarez shared that he has a tabletop compost at home, and carries metal straw and utensils with him to the dining hall to cut down on his own waste.

“I always have my metal straws in a little pouch, and I keep a fork and spoon in there too,” Alvarez said. “So when I go eat, I don’t grab plastic utensils, I grab my own and go wash them off real quick. And that’s just one little thing I do to help. I’m not perfect, every once in a while I go grab my Starbucks and my Dunkin, and it comes in a plastic cup, but at least I have my metal straw, that cuts down on a percentage of the waste. So I think in order to make the change at the school, it starts with the individual, too.”

Alvarez shared that since the beginning of the pandemic, environmental organizations on campus were beginning to address waste issues on campus. However, it is a complex issue, and one that has not yet been solved. Alvarez does hope that there can be a decrease in the amount of plastic packaging used on campus.

Nina Bjorkman, a junior environmental studies major, agrees that the amount of plastic packaging on campus is out of bounds.

“I’ve realized that the amount of trash that I generate right now makes me feel bad, it genuinely makes me very concerned because it’s beyond me, I can’t do anything about it [because of COVID], but it’s very frustrating to see because I know that there must be a better solution,” Bjorkman said.

Bjorkman is an international student from Sweden, and is conscious of how much she buys and consumes. However, she still faces difficulties. Bjorkman noted how Dining Services has discouraged the use of reusable water bottles and mugs in the dining hall as part of new COVID guidelines, which has forced her to use paper and plastic cups when she is picking up water or tea from Locke’s.

Bjorkman does think that students can help by getting their own pair of reusable utensils, especially if they’re eating in their room or dorm building.

“I think that the easiest thing you can do is get a spoon, fork and knife that you can use in your room. So you can wash it easily and reuse it. It’s such an easy thing,” Bjorkman said.

Even further, Bjorkman hopes that the school would more effectively address composting and recycling. As Stahl noted earlier, much of the unused food or food scraps at the college is not composted or donated.

“It’s just so difficult because there’s just so many things we need to implement, but it would just be nice to see an initiative for the school to do some more recycling stuff,” Bjorkman said. “Especially now with all of this packaging in Locke’s. I would love to see something like maybe we get a batch of three food boxes that get turned into Locke’s and washed, so that we could at least get like a cycle of less waste.”

Nonetheless, Bjorkman echoed Alavrez in pointing out that it is still important to be mindful of smaller things on an individual level, such as turning off lights, using reusable items and shopping for sustainable or second hand clothing.

Wade Wiedemann, a sophomore environmental studies major, also spoke to The Quadrangle, specifically about cloth- ing waste.

“I’ve been doing a lot of research into fast fashion and textile waste, like how a lot of clothes end up in landfills, so I’ve been trying just to fix up my own clothes or not buy as many new ones,” Wiedemann said.

Wiedemann encourages others to try and fix their old clothes or buy new styles from second stores as well, as it is such an easy and affordable way to be sustainable. He also works to take public transpor- tation as much as possible to avoid driving cars, and helps out in the rooftop garden on campus.Wiedemann added that he helps out at a garden outside of Lee Hall with fellow environmental studies stu- dents, such as Dillon Kadish, a senior environmental studies major. Wiedemann is conscious of increased food waste on cam- pus.

“With Locke’s, the food portioning is crazy,” Wiedemann said. “I feel like there’s so much food waste, because they decide how much they give you, and always give too much. And I feel really wasteful when I’m not going to eat that much. And also with the individual plastic containers.”

Wiedemann admits that they were not always especially environmentally conscious, but that their coursework, as well as their exposure with projects such as the rooftop garden, have helped open their eyes even further.

“I definitely wasn’t always environmentally conscious,” Wiedemann said. “I have a background in science and am really interested in science, and I feel like environmentalism is the practical application of that. And I feel like for me because I know there are a lot of other applications, but I feel like for the world [environmentalism] is how you can really help peo- ple.”

Stahl echoed this sentiment, explaining that being individually sustainable can have an incredible impact on the lo- cal community. Stahl explained that even on campus, if every- one made an effort to reduce their waste, that would mean 4,000 people were lessening the stress on our local Bronx community. By paying more attention to our daily waste, our community has the ability to affect water quality, air quality, waste management and wildlife quality.

“I think that if we think about it more as a closed loop in our heads, what are we interacting with and what do we have control over, you realize it’s greater, and you realize that the impact you have is more than just miniscule, little decisions, it actually does affect a lot of people and the natural environment,” Stahl said. “Any major is completely connected to the environment. Whether or not you believe it, you’re in- teracting with it.”