Editor’s Note: This story originally appeared in AlumnInsider, the Penn State Alumni Association's monthly member e-newsletter, and is the third story in a four-part series on sustainability at Penn State.
Brad Fey, Class of 1994, looked at the situation and realized he couldn’t do everything himself. Instead of getting discouraged, he galvanized town-gown relations to help Central Pennsylvania Festival of the Arts reduce its annual carbon footprint on Happy Valley.
Fey, a local resident who volunteered for the trash crew the last few years, noticed something as he looked inside trash bags that were placed around State College during Arts Fest: they didn’t always contain only trash. Plenty of recyclable items were also visible, so Fey turned into a rogue environmentalist.
He’d oftentimes find a few dozen plastic bottles — by his count, sometimes 40 or 50 — in a trash bag. So he removed all the recyclable items from the trash and placed them in the recycling bin. Not that he minded the work, but by his count, he was one guy and there were way more trash bags. His next thought: There had to be a better way of capturing whatever waste was created during Arts Fest.
There was, and is, a better option, and Fey helped make that happen by connecting University and community organizations in an effort that resulted in Arts Fest capturing compostable items for the first time this year during the annual downtown event that brings in thousands of visitors.
“The borough and the county do a great job, residentially; they take all of my compost and all of my recycling," said Fey. "I just had this grand idea, ‘Wow, I wonder if we can do those same things in this humongous event.’”
“The borough and the county do a great job, residentially; they take all of my compost and all of my recycling. I just had this grand idea, ‘Wow, I wonder if we can do those same things in this humongous event.’”
-- Brad Fey, Arts Fest volunteer
The plan moved quickly, with Fey and event planners initially meeting in March to discuss how they could incorporate some of Fey’s ideas into this summer’s celebration. For the first time, compost bins were made available, with the number of recycling containers also increasing; for the first time, Arts Fest made more plastic recycling bags available than trash bags.
“This year, every trash can that I look into that had a recycling bin next to it, it's pretty much free of plastic, so that's already huge,” Fey said. “It's been great.”
Each compost and trash bin included information on what was and wasn’t compostable or recyclable, and the changes made a difference. Instead of cross-contamination between recyclable and non-recyclable items, bottles, cans and trash were going in the appropriate places.
Along with other volunteers — including Rob Andrejewski, who earned a graduate degree from Penn State in 2011, and Joanne Shafer — Fey helped manage an information tent during Arts Fest to educate visitors and raise awareness of the effort. Andrejewski and Shafer were among the first people Fey contacted; Shafer is the deputy executive director and recycling coordinator for the Centre County Recycling and Refuse Authority, while Andrejewski works at The Sustainability Institute at Penn State.
Fey, who also reached out to Mark Whitfield, a 1977 and 1995 Penn State graduate, and public works director for State College Borough, has a background in sales, and jokingly said he “resists rejection.” When he and Andrejewski met for lunch to discuss what was possible, Andrejewski told Fey it’d take years and a lot of volunteers.
"He was able to change systems,” Andrejewski said. “He was able to connect with people. He got the borough, he got Centre County Recycling and Refuse, he worked with the campus, he worked with the Office of Physical Plant, The Sustainability Institute and got us all in a room, talking and brainstorming, and had us own the process. After that first meeting, I was like, 'Oh, this is actually going to happen.'"
Noteworthy for both Fey and Shafer is the new motto that their plan gave birth to. Instead of volunteers wearing shirts that read, “The Few, The Proud, The Trash Crew,” volunteers sported shirts that ended with, “The Green Crew.” This distinction is important, Shafer said, because it helps not only change behavior, but begins to impact the thought process behind people’s actions.
Education plays a big role in this transformation. Shafer said many local residents already know about composting and recycling since it’s available to them on a residential basis, but just as important is passing along the information to visitors.
During Arts Fest, Shafer talked to two women who don’t live in the county, and each wondered if it’d be possible to incorporate a similar composting program in their hometowns. All of this takes time — motivating behavior and instilling a new sense of environmental awareness — but Fey is confident they’ll get there.
"It'll take a couple years for them to learn and get into the groove of what the changes are, but education has been really important," he said.
By 2016, organizers are hoping to reach an 87-percent diversion rate — the percentage of potential trash that is saved from the landfill and recycled or composted instead — and Fey and Shafer sounded optimistic about reaching that goal.
“Everybody was excited and on board with this idea, so we took off and ran with it,” Baney said. “It was fairly easy to start initiating things because it was already in place here.”
They’re building on what’s already in place in the borough, said Carol Baney, Class of 2011 and director of operations for Arts Fest. She and other Arts Fest representatives began attending the committee meetings that Fey had organized with University and community leaders, and she saw the value in what Fey was trying to do since this is a concept the area has already taken to.
Baney expects this idea to grow in the future. They started small this year, putting out only six organic bins so to not overwhelm attendees, but Baney said more bins should be available next year. Organizers will also have data to pore over, though they’re waiting on the official numbers to see how much of a tangible impact the changes made.
Because of the late start in the planning for this year, Fey and the others weren’t able to contact vendors ahead of time. For next year, though, they’re hopeful they’ll convince vendors to bring only recyclable food containers to Arts Fest to help cut down on the potential waste stream.
They’re able to think long-term because of the support they’ve received, both externally from visitors and attendees who gathered in State College who took advantage of the new options, but also internally, from Arts Fest board members.
"That's key, that support from the Central Pennsylvania Festival of the Arts board has been absolutely key because we wouldn't be able to be standing here if they hadn't embraced this whole concept,” Shafer said. “So I'm really grateful for that."
"That's key, that support from the Central Pennsylvania Festival of the Arts board has been absolutely key because we wouldn't be able to be standing here if they hadn't embraced this whole concept. So I'm really grateful for that."
-- Joanne Shafer, Arts Fest volunteer
In talking of having a local resident approach town and gown administrators with an inspired plan, Andrejewski smiled and said, “It’s the dream.”
At The Sustainability Institute, Andrejewski facilitates sustainability planning, coordinates student programs and develops curricula to engage the campus community on sustainability-related topics. His initial reaction to Fey’s ideas was that Arts Fest should incorporate these changes, but whether or not it could get done wasn’t known at the time.
"I work at The Sustainability Institute and one thing we have as a concern is we don't want people to think this is where sustainability happens,” Andrejewski said. “We see our job as resourcing efforts going on across campus and in the community for other people so that they know where they can come for ideas and resources like Brad did. We call it ‘link, leverage and elevate,’ so we can make sure things happen that are other people's ideas. But it takes a driver, it takes somebody to have the passion."
Coming up with an idea is one thing, implementing it is another. This time, everything worked out. The biggest reason, Andrejewski hinted at, was having a lynchpin to propel the plan forward.
The first story in our four-part series on sustainability focused on Penn State’s annual move-out sale, Trash to Treasure, the second part profiled the University’s MorningStar solar house and the last story will focus on how Penn State incorporates sustainability practices into athletic events throughout the sports year.