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Sustainability Takes Center Stage at Harvard Business School Commencement

Leah Ricci (left) and Allison Webster (right) stand ready to help HBS Commencement attendees dispose of materials properly
Leah Ricci (left) and Allison Webster (right) stand ready to help HBS Commencement attendees dispose of materials properly

Forget crimson. The stoles and tassels worn by Harvard Business School (HBS) graduates today may have been deep red, but the school was going for green in its commencement exercises this year. As part of the day’s events—as well as those of Class Day yesterday and Reunion tomorrow—HBS graduates, alumni and guests will take part in a coordinated composting effort unlike any in the school’s history.

For the first time ever, the back-to-back celebrations this week at HBS will feature completely compostable lunch containers and utensils, which attendees will sort into designated bins for recycling, composting and trash. And because it can sometimes be hard to determine which items go into which bins—especially for novice environmentalists—HBS Green Team volunteers will staff each of the 20 sorting stations to help people know what’s what.

The environmentally-conscious measures culminate five months of hard work and logistical scheming by the HBS Sustainability Team, led by Allison Webster and Leah Ricci. “The advanced planning we put in place has helped us get well ahead of the game,” says Webster, who works for Harvard’s Office for Sustainability (OFS) as the HBS sustainability program manager.

Since joining HBS in November 2013, Webster has been helping reduce the school’s impact on the environment through a range of sustainability efforts. She also oversees the MBA Student Sustainability Associates (SSA) program, which this year hired 10 first-year HBS students to contribute to ongoing initiatives, complete sustainability-focused independent projects and help educate fellow classmates on how to get involved in efforts to make the school greener.

Ricci, assistant director of sustainability and energy management, joined the HBS Sustainability Team in September 2014. Reporting to the school’s facilities director, she leads and administers the HBS Sustainability Program, with a focus on conserving energy, reducing waste, instituting best practices and educating the community on behavioral changes that can positively impact the environment.

Since January, the two have been leading the charge toward making this week’s events more sustainable, coordinating not only with the student SSAs, but also with the employee-based Green Team, HBS Operations staff, Restaurant Associates, and the MBA and Alumni & External Relations offices. Thirty-two Green Team members volunteered their time to serve as guides at each of the waste sorting stations, covering 46 shifts throughout the day.

“There are a lot of logistics behind the scenes that go into this,” Ricci explains in an interview with Clear Admit. Indeed, it has involved everything from coordinating with Restaurant Associates, the group that caters HBS events, to source compostable containers and utensils to gaining buy-in from the custodial team, which will need to collect an additional set of bins as a result of the sorting efforts. “Everyone has been really willing to work together to make this happen,” Webster adds.

Learning and Educating Along the Way
The week’s successes are also the result of learning from prior events at HBS, as well as recognizing and incorporating best practices from other schools within the university and organizations outside of it. Ricci snaps pictures of effective composting signage wherever she goes. “I’m always sending pictures to Allison saying, ‘Look at this cool sign I saw.’” Most recently, she spotted inspiration at a local hospital when visiting a friend.

The duo also takes notes from other Harvard schools that have implemented composting practices. They learned from the Harvard Divinity School, for example, that there are advantages to lining up the bins in order of importance from left to right: compost, recycle, trash.

hbs green 2Looking back at last year’s Commencement exercises, they also realized that the successful introduction of composting this year hinged on having as many compostable containers and other materials as possible. “Last year, there were too many elements that were too confusing,” Ricci says. So she and Restaurant Associates worked together to track down compostable options, even managing to find ones that didn’t drive up the cost. “We worried there would be a big price increase, but at the end of the day it was a wash,” Ricci says.

Water bottles were the only thing they weren’t able to source in compostable form this year, in part because of supply chain issues. Ricci devoted countless calls to trying to track down a solution. Just in the past couple of weeks, they have identified a water-filtration system that could be attached to a water source, enabling people to fill compostable cups from a fountain. Unfortunately, that discovery came too late to be implemented this year.

“That’s our dream for next year,” says Webster. Although she has even higher hopes for the future. “If we could totally eliminate trash bins one day, that would be amazing,” she says. “To just have a compost bin and a recycling bin would be great.”

Small Changes Contribute to Big-Picture Goals
“When you look at it holistically, this is not just about us adding compost on Commencement,” Ricci says. “It really all ties back into a larger effort.”

Indeed, Harvard University has set a goal of reducing waste per capita by 50 percent by 2020 (from a 2006 baseline). Already, through a focus on operating healthier, more energy-efficient buildings, HBS has reduced emissions on its campus by 45 percent and cut energy use by 21 percent. It has also implemented single-stream recycling, composting in dining halls, reuse collection stations during move out and donation of leftover food to local shelters and food banks.

These initiatives, together with increased awareness through peer-to-peer education programs, such as those led by the SSAs, have helped HBS achieved a 67 percent recycling rate, up from 65 percent last year and significantly exceeding the university-wide rate of 51 percent.

The Sustainability Team will continue to learn from its successes and refine its efforts. Webster and Ricci hope to expand the use of sorting stations to other large-scale events on campus and to introduce more composting in dining halls and dorms, among other goals.

The team also collaborates regularly with the HBS Business & Environment Initiative (BEI), a faculty and research division devoted to deepening business leaders’ understanding of sustainability challenges and solutions through research, curriculum innovation, conferences, seminars and outreach.

“We take the sustainability challenge put forth by the university very seriously and are excited to continue initiatives like this to help us meet those goals,” Webster says.

Learn more about the HBS Sustainability Program here.