Working towards a sustainable future

By: Alex Slaymaker

I spent part of my summer working as Georgetown University’s research fellow in the 2013 Ivy Plus Sustainability Research Collaborative.  There were multiple areas of concentration within the Collaborative framework to choose from; however, an exploratory conversation with my supervisor at Georgetown illuminated shared interests. Georgetown is very much interested in exploring organic waste diversion methods utilized in higher education, and I am very passionate about waste minimization and diversion.

Although everyone may not celebrate when they receive news they will be spending the majority of their summer researching organic waste, I was elated. Organic waste intrigues me because it is a comparatively easy problem to solve with known and economically feasible solutions. As with many simple and complex problems, the largest barrier is behavior change.

My first step was to conduct a comprehensive literature review and annotated bibliography on the subject of front-end post-consumer organic source separation. This jargon-dense phrase refers to a type of waste diversion that requires the waste generator to separate organic waste, recyclables and trash into different bins. This research illuminated a gap in the literature, which led to formation of the following research question: What are the most significant enabling factors associated with the successful implementation of front-end post-consumer organics source separation programs on college campuses?

After discussing possible methods of answering this question, my supervisor and I decided an online survey proved the most logical method to gather quantitative and qualitative data from a large number of universities across the nation. I identified the survey population based on specific characteristics such as waste diversion method, length of program, and availability of data. After finalizing the survey based on feedback from a trial, I was confident the content and methods would provide quality data. Unfortunately, my contract ended in August and I had to pass the survey distribution and analysis portion of this research to a group of Georgetown students. At the end of the program, I was able to show my work to my fellow Ivy-Plus researchers through a cyberconference. I was honored to present my work among such talented individuals, but was disappointed I couldn’t see the project to completion.

This summer was very challenging and required me to learn how to do many new tasks without showing my inexperience. My experience allowed me to live with my brother on Andrews Air Force Base and explore Washington, D.C., a city I have grown very fond of. Working in areas related to sustainability can sometimes be disheartening and overwhelming. This summer proved to me that brilliant people are not only identifying problems, but also finding and implementing solutions.  Freshly inspired, I returned to Ohio University excited for my final year and determined to help build a better, cleaner, healthier future.

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