This academic year, Minerva created the college’s first official Sustainability Team. The group, led by work-study student Kate Gilbert (M’20) and Natural Sciences professor Andy Dosmann, is working to assess and minimize Minerva’s negative environmental impact.  

The creation of the team reflects a growing awareness of environmental issues at Minerva as more students and staff have discussions about green ways to travel and live on rotation. Dosmann told the Quest that, while he thought M’19 alum Louis Brickman’s capstone on Minerva’s sustainability was an added impetus, the team ultimately aligns with Minerva’s mission.

“In all areas Minerva aims to iterate and improve,” Dosmann said. “So I think once we had graduates who had been through every step of the process, that led to some reflection that sustainability is an area worth some more focus.”

The Sustainability Team’s first priority, according to Gilbert, is cutting down on waste created in student residences. During the Fall 2019 semester, they surveyed the student body about their purchasing behaviors during move-in and how well they understood recycling and eco-friendly shopping in each location. 

Gilbert shared a report of the results with the student body. Overall, 192 students filled out the survey, and Gilbert noted that a large majority of the respondents were female. One interesting finding was that only 52 percent of M’21 students in Berlin responded that they understood local recycling guidelines, compared to 90 percent of M’22 students in Seoul, a city with strict recycling policies. This suggests an information gap that revised Elevation programming might alleviate. The results also indicated that many students in Seoul and San Francisco purchase supplies from the same stores (Daiso and Target, respectively), creating an opportunity for store-specific guidelines on environmentally-conscious shopping.

Percentage of each class that reported buying cooking supplies, cleaning supplies, and/or personal room items during the Fall 2019 semester. Each black circle represents 10 percent of the survey respondents who reported buying items. Data from the Minerva Sustainability Team’s survey, courtesy of Kate Gilbert.

Gilbert used the results to help make the class of 2020’s move from London to Taipei greener. In London, she helped streamline donations of items students were leaving behind and organized clothing swaps to dissuade individuals from simply throwing things away. In Taipei, she helped teach students about the strict recycling guidelines and worked on ideating ways that supplies students bought this semester might be passed down to future classes. 

Similar initiatives have been organized informally by students and staff, such as circular economy-informed clothes swaps in Berlin and a zero-waste week challenge in Hyderabad. With the creation of a sustainability work-study position, however, these waste-reducing programs are becoming a consistent part of the global rotation routine. 

The Sustainability Team is currently planning several potential future projects to minimize Minerva’s negative impact on the environment, including conducting an environmental audit of the school. Dosmann said that the team is focusing on collecting information and developing systems for assessing Minerva’s environmental footprint more generally, which will guide further efforts to reduce waste and emit less carbon. 

Gilbert is hopeful that, in the next several years, students will see a significant increase in environmentally conscious programming, perhaps including first-year lessons on climate change and understanding one’s personal footprint. In the meantime, she emphasized that students can share ideas with her team via the Minerva sustainability email as they strive to lay the foundation for this future work.

At the end of the year, Minerva will review the results of the Sustainability Team and work-study position pilot. Dosmann told the Quest that it’s likely that the position will continue next year and continue to address the areas of improvement that their data collection identifies. He has high hopes for how Minerva could eventually set high standards for higher education sustainability. 

“Our sustainability challenges are not unique when you consider things like traditional study-abroad programs,” he said. “There are active organizations focused on tackling the sustainability challenges of higher education, which are resources for us to draw from. I hope that going forward Minerva can be an innovative contributor.”

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