University Looks to Students in Effort To Drive Down Waste

Total University Trash Output

Although members of the Undergraduate Resource Efficiency Program might be completely unknown to the incoming freshmen who first see them at study breaks during Opening Days, the REPs are hard at work. Equipped with reusable plastic mugs, smoothies, and stickers, the student activists educate freshmen, playing a small part in a decades-long struggle for sustainability.

Efforts by students and staff over the past 25 years have drastically cut the amount of trash each person at Harvard outputs annually, but administrators and undergraduates alike agree that more can be done.

In 1989, the average person attending or working at Harvard outputted over 770 pounds of trash annually. Despite a population increase of over 30 percent at Harvard and large real estate expansions in intervening years, by 2013 that number was cut by more than half, with yearly trash output per capita falling to 365 pounds.

Yet, while trash tonnage has plummeted and recycling rates have bolstered, the story is not that simple. In the past five years, the average trash per capita has fluctuated in both directions, with the lowest number being posted in 2011. Harvard, it seems, has hit a efficiency barrier tough to move beyond.


With difficulties stemming from organization, implementation, and communication, those striving to push green efforts at Harvard are working to find new methods that can make the University more waste-efficient and inspire students to serve as means to this end.


In the 1980s, Robert M. Gogan Jr. was completing a graduate program at the School of Education when he decided to direct his attention to addressing waste reduction and recycling at Harvard.

“I thought Harvard was doing a lousy job back in 1986,” Gogan, who now serves as the associate manager of recycling and waste management for Facilities Maintenance Operations, candidly admitted more than two decades later.

On an otherwise uneventful December day, Gogan spoke about various partnerships and policies that have contributed to reducing trash output.

“Our first goal, of course, is to reduce waste,” he said.

While single stream recycling, which Harvard switched to in 2006, made it much easier for students to recycle, according to Gogan, collaboration has also been crucial in reducing waste

He mentioned one such partnership with a company that collected items from the University for use in Haiti, Uganda, and Michigan.

In addition to negotiating zero-waste contracts with distributors, Gogan said partnering with student groups has contributed to the increase in recycling efforts.