Ivy League Material

Features - Sustainability

Harvard Office for Sustainability Director Heather Henriksen puts aggressive ideas into practice at the Ivy League level.

October 8, 2012
Barry Farber

The process of coming up with a great recycling program is not a difficult one. Rather, it’s the follow through and implementation, using effective communication and engagement, and the ability to overcome barriers that make all the difference.

Sometimes we complicate things instead of looking at the basic fundamentals that allow people to achieve their goals. “People don’t seem to care how much you know until they see how much you care about them” is one phrase that comes to mind.

In Part One of this two-part interview with Heather Henriksen, the director of the Office for Sustainability at Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass., she outlines the thinking behind and the steps being taken at universities and companies that are implementing comprehensive recycling and sustainability programs.

For recycling service providers, her comments regarding getting people involved and engaged with a hands-on approach (including her “Six Steps for Recycling Success”) can provide insight into the kinds of programs large organizations are striving to implement.

Barry Farber (BF): What are some of the essential activities you have implemented at Harvard that others can emulate to improve their overall recycling efforts?

Heather Henriksen (HH): The first is, if you actually reduce your waste overall, your solid waste, you’re obviously going to save money and also reduce your environmental impact, so that’s positive.

The other thing we have been able to do here at Harvard is to set up our contracts so that recycling is actually more cost effective for us than trash hauling. It is another positive thing that can be done, and done often.

BF: You said recycling is more cost effective? Can you expand on that?

HH: It’s actually cheaper for us, pound for pound, to recycle things with our contract than it is for waste haulers to bring it to a landfill, which is not the case everywhere to be perfectly honest. It depends on a number of things, including where you sit regionally, purchasing power and things of that nature. Certainly there are many companies who could have these advantages, and [waste and recycling] companies want their business, so I would definitely look into that.

The other piece to that is we’ve become very creative, and I credit Harvard head of recycling Rob Gogan for doing this. We’ve looked at the footprint of the folks who do our recycling and waste hauling. We have them use vegetable or biodiesel trucks when they come to campus. We have also minimized the routes and the number of times they come. I think there’s a holistic way to look at this that has reduced the environmental impact.

Recycling is sort of like food; it’s a gateway issue that affects everyone. What we have done at Harvard, and what we are continuing to strive to do, is organizational change. We’re trying to get people to rethink the way they conduct their work (especially the folks in operations) so they can rethink the way they do things to be even more efficient from a resource perspective and from a monetary perspective. This means they’ll both reduce costs and reduce environmental impact. I think recycling is a great gateway issue that everyone touches at some point. It is a terrific way to engage the community and make very clear the tangible touch points between your behavior and the impact on the environment. And that’s certainly been an efficient way to do it on our campus.

BF: Earlier you said it’s cheaper to recycle then it is to haul the trash away. What are some of the commodities you work with?

HH: Almost three years ago we went from multistream to single-stream recycling. It’s been a lot easier for folks on the front end, the occupants, the faculty, students and staff on campus, to be able to recycle.

BF: It seems like many companies are making an effort to recycle more, but the implementation on the front line sometimes fails because not everyone is on the same page and involved with a hands-on approach. Are there specific steps you take to implement a successful program at Harvard where the communication is effective all around?

HH: Yes. There are what we’ve determined to be six keys to a successful recycling program, though I’m sure there are more. The first two on that list are:

  1. Use clear and effective signage. Signage really makes a big difference. We have experimented with this because people assimilate their information in different ways. We actually have signs that are lists of things and then we have signs that are photos of things so people can see the objects as well as the lists. Very clear and efficient signage is important. There are photos on our website where you can see some of our examples.
  2. Make recycling easy and reduce the barriers to use. All of our occupant engagement or behavioral change programs and organizational change programs are based on social marketing. It’s a pillar of social marketing that you have to identify the barriers and clear them for people. You have to simplify things. Making it easier by reducing barriers to use is huge. That’s why going to single-stream recycling has been much easier for our population, because now they look at the signage and everything that’s recyclable on campus they can put in one bin.
    The other thing we’ve done in multiple locations is actually change the size of the bins. My office trash bin is tiny and sort of hangs off my recycling bin, which is very large. again, you’re giving people visible cues of what the ratio should be.

BF: So the first thing is clear and effective signage, which makes sense. I’ve seen this with many companies, where they change the tops of bins and put up posters to give visible directions. It seems like you have to make it as simple as possible.

HH: You really do. Also part of this are annual assessments of your signage, your bin placement and what’s working and what’s not working. Like anything, people don’t always keep this going the way it needs to be on a regular basis, so tweaks may be necessary. I went to the Harvard Kennedy School and we actually worked with the administration to move the bins and change what they look like. Just those changes had a phenomenal impact on recycling, because the bins were placed right where the students were looking for them and they were clearly labeled.

3. Occupant engagement and education are critical. Annual renewal with students and having clear instructions for new and existing staff are critical, as are periodic reminders and keeping resources up to date. For example, if the types of plastic you collect change, make sure your signage reflects that. In any case, refresh your signs from time to time so people don’t get so used to them they stop reading them.

As far as educating people, you have to have a multipronged strategy, at least that’s what we have done here. You get the students when they come in as freshmen. You get new staff in orientation. Our green teams play a critical role in reinforcing things and creating a social norm in the community. Targeting your education toward the audience also is important. I believe that different audiences will assimilate information differently, and on a college campus you’ve got faculty, students and staff. Some of them are living on campus and some of them are just working here. You need to tailor your messages to the audience.

BF: Can you tell me more about targeting it more specifically to them?


The list of items accepted for recycling (www.uos.harvard.edu/fmo/recycling/guidelines.shtml) on the campus of Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass., would take up considerable space when presented on the printed page. Bins and containers placed as part of the university’s single-stream program can accept a wide variety of materials, including:

  • A staggering array of paper grades, including office paper, newspapers and magazines, “junk mail,” catalogs, phone books, paperback and hardback books, pizza boxes, paper cups, plates, bowls and clamshells, single-layer paperboard and multilayered corrugated cardboard;
  • Glass bottles and jars;
  • Aluminum and steel cans;
  • Plastic bottles, including laundry detergent jugs;
  • Clean aluminum foil;
  • Juice boxes, milk cartons and aseptic packaging; and
  • Polystyrene deli containers and clamshells, plus plastic plates and cups.

Other collection points on campus allow students, faculty and staff to recycle computers and electronics, clothing, furniture, cosmetics, books, nonperishable food, office supplies, towels and linens for reuse.

– Barry Farber

HH: For students I will give you two examples of what we do. One is we have a resource efficiency program where we actually hire students in the college, business school and the law school. These students do pure peer education. So rather than the adults telling the students, “Here’s what you need to do to be more resource efficient and environmentally sound,” we go to the students and say, “Let’s collectively work on goals and objectives to reduce resources across the board and operate in a more sustainable manner.” We also indicate that we’re going to have them do the outreach and education amongst their peers, because they’ll know what the most effective tools and techniques are. I would’ve never thought of a “brain break,” but students have these breaks at their houses and that’s part of their culture. They have ice-cream socials and people stop by the table and you can educate them about what you want them to know as they get ice cream. And this works very well—listening to and developing a message for the audience.

BF: They say it, they own it. That makes a lot of sense. By giving them the control they own the process and are more committed to the overall results.

HH: Yes. And the other piece is Harvard participates in RecycleMania (www.recyclemaniacs.org). We participate in the Ivy League competition. There are a lot of things we participate in amongst Harvard’s college dorms and houses or amongst the grad schools, for instance. One of the things we do on an annual basis and have done for years—and we’ve done it recently at the business school, law school and medical school—is called Mount Trashmore. We take a pile of one day’s worth of trash from the student dorms or anywhere the students are inhabiting and we put it in a very visible location. For the college we put it right outside the Science Center, which is just outside Harvard Yard. This is sort of the main artery that students walk through all day going to classes. It’s really startling to see and makes an impact of, “Oh my gosh! That’s what I’m doing!” You also can see the recyclables mixed in there in many cases. It’s really a shame, because we have a 55-percent overall recycling rate that has been built up over time and through a great program with the students and our waste and recycling group run by Rob Gogan. It is the highest recycling rate in the Ivy League. Even so, you still see the commingled recyclables in the trash. So it sends multiple messages.

BF: I can imagine how powerful that is. Is the waste collected from all parts of Harvard’s campus?

HH: We do it by school, and it is startling. It is a massive amount of trash. What we find in outreach and engagement opportunities, and why I think point three (occupant engagement and education) is critical, is that even those students and staff who believe in climate change or believe that sustainability and being pragmatic and reducing resource usage makes sense, they don’t always connect the dots between personal behavior and impact. Mount Trashmore is a very visceral way to do that.

The November issue of Recycling Today will include the second part of Barry Farber’s interview with Heather Henriksen. She’ll discuss the remaining keys to recycling success as it has occurred on the Harvard University campus. Barry Farber is president of Farber Training Systems, Livingston, N.J., and the author of 12 books. He can be contacted at barry@barryfarber.com.