History Department
History Department

History Collective leads the way for greener practices in Garrison Hall

Thu, November 21, 2019
History Collective leads the way for greener practices in Garrison Hall
Photo Credit Below.

This semester the History department has made great strides toward making Garrison Hall a leader in university-wide sustainability efforts. Professors Tracie Matysik and Joan Neuberger, along with a collective of History faculty, graduate students, and staff, have led the way, with the result that our building is becoming a model of what other units on campus can and should do to recycle, compost, enhance energy efficiency, and eliminate waste. Below is a brief summary of of what has been accomplished thus far. — Professor Jacqueline Jones, Chair, Department of History

“As historians, we are keenly aware that big changes often start with informal conversations and small-scale grass-roots movements. In Garrison, we are starting to see the fruits of one such conversation, hoping that a larger movement is taking hold. We are talking here about a ‘Sustainability Collective’ that we founded last spring and its aspirations to set a model for UT as a whole.

The Sustainability Collective was born out of a casual conversation between a small group of faculty as we were reflecting on ways to customize the building in which we spend so much time to accommodate the values and practices we endorse. The department had just opted to convert some of its bathrooms to gender-inclusive facilities, and it seemed we could do something on the sustainability front, too. We formed a committee of volunteers, and soon the project was underway.

We wanted to start with waste. Here we were thinking first about the problem of landfills, which not only are significant sources of greenhouse gases but also tend to be located in underprivileged neighborhoods (true at both the local and global levels). Second, we wanted to eliminate unnecessary plastics that are polluting our water ways and poisoning wildlife.

Since April, we have instituted a host of related changes. We swapped out the plastic Keurig coffee pods for all-compostable pods, making sure our staff and faculty still get their daily caffeine fix but without the deleterious climate effects.

We have also eliminated bottled water in our department, while installing filtered bottle-filling stations on two of our five floors. By using filtered water that comes to us through the city’s pipes, we aim not only to end our dependence on plastic bottles but also to cut the pollution involved in transporting bottled water. This happens to be a cost-saving measure for the department, too, as we no longer pay a for-profit company for water. As of this writing, the bottle-filling stations have eliminated the equivalent waste of over 4,700 disposable plastic bottles. We are on track to exceed 5,000 by the end of the first semester of usage this Fall.

We have worked with UT Resource Recovery's Zero-Waste Program to optimize common space bins, reducing extraneous heavy-duty plastic bin liners and clarifying single-stream recycling. In coming weeks, our offices will work together to host a “mini-bin” exchange program, in which deskside trash bins will be switched out for mini-bins in office spaces. Mini-bins reduce the use of heavy-duty plastic bags and have been shown to increase recycling rates, while creating awareness of over-dependence on landfill usage.

We have also instituted a host of composting initiatives. Our bathrooms now have bins only for paper-towel composting. Paper towels are a significant part of UT Austin’s waste stream. On an annual basis, our campus generates more than 100 tons of paper towel waste in restrooms alone. This material, while not recyclable, is a valuable source of carbon in composting.

We now have composting of all of our daily coffee and tea materials. When we hold events – from composting food and supplies at our regular Monday lunchtime seminars, to composting cups at major events such as the annual tailgate homecoming event – we work with companies that use all-compostable products, making these once landfill-happy occasions just another opportunity to add nutrients for the production of soil. We are also piloting a “zero-waste zone” on Garrison’s 4th floor, home of the Institute for Historical Studies, which hosts an average of 50+ events during the regular academic year.

While we are ecstatic to have instituted these changes and to see our daily waste production drop precipitously, it may be that the most important dimension of this project is the way it has increased our awareness of how we live and work in Garrison. First, as we become aware of the steps we can take to make our workplace more sustainable, we have all become better educated about steps we can take outside of Garrison, too. Further, this has been a tremendously cooperative project, with contributions from staff, graduate students, and faculty alike. We have received invaluable guidance and support from the university's innovative Zero-Waste Program, as well, a two-person office that has been a crucial resource, offering expertise and training. UT wants to be a more sustainable institution, and it technically has a goal of being Zero-Waste by 2030, but it is difficult to turn a big ship quickly. Our hope is that the History Department can serve as a model for other departments and centers on campus.”

—Tracie Matysik and Joan Neuberger, History Sustainability Collective

Photo courtesy of Lindsey Hutchison, Senior Zero Waste Coordinator.

History Sustainability Collective, left to right: Erika M. Bsumek, Tiana Wilson (Ph.D. Student), Tracie Matysik, Megan Raby, Judy Coffin, Charters Wynn, Sumit Guha, Adam Clulow, Leone Musgrave, and Matthew Butler. With Resource Recovery Student Interns Marco Viteri, Lauren Lamb, and Allison Morreale. Not pictured: Indrani Chatterjee, Alison Frazier, Seth Garfield, Madeline Y. Hsu, Courtney Meador, and Joan Neuberger.

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