Creating a sustainable community at the George Washington University means juggling a series of moving parts, from streamlining recycling to reducing carbon emissions and managing waste.
But rising senior Molly Seltzer said that the easiest way to explain the process of turning sustainable policies into action is to imagine a plastic Starbucks cup.
“Sometimes you have to break things down and say, ‘Let me deconstruct this for you,’” Ms. Seltzer said. “While the plastic cup itself can be recycled, first, you need to remove the lid and the straw because GW’s single stream processing system cannot recover them, so they should be thrown away separately.”
“You have to be clear so that people can understand the process,” she said.
As a Division of Operations intern, Ms. Seltzer has gotten a behind-the-scenes look at how the university is working to educate the community about sustainability and create an accessible recycling system in support of its long-term goal to become a zero-waste campus.
GW has committed to diverting 50 percent of campus waste by 2017.
“I think it’s easy sometimes to overlook what the university is doing to go green, not just in words but in action,” Ms. Seltzer said. “GW does recycle. GW does care.”
Ms. Seltzer splits her time as an intern between the Zero Waste team and the Environmental and Energy Management Office (EEMO), two units of the Division of Operations, which manage critical duties, including all of the moving, digging, coordinating, permits and other logistics that keep the university running smoothly.
Each day Ms. Seltzer tackles hands-on tasks such as placing rain bonnets over waste receptacles to deflect rain, which can weigh down waste and raise the cost of transporting it, and updating signs in residence halls that inform students about the single stream recycling system adopted by the university during fall 2013.
Ms. Seltzer has also gotten involved with the furniture reuse program, which redistributes used furniture to GW departments and schools and outside organizations. She is also working on the campaign to engage students in the annual Eco-Challenge.
“I actually found out about this internship because I saw two guys digging recyclables out of the trash, and I thought, ‘That’s something I would do!’” she said, laughing. “It turned out to be Kris Ferguson, the university’s recycling coordinator and Andres Harris, assistant director of zero waste and logistics.”
Mr. Ferguson and Mr. Harris joined the university in November 2013 to connect the practical management of waste conducted by Facilities Services with the goals outlined by the Office of Sustainability.
Their work directly supports the Ecosystems Enhancement Strategy, a comprehensive plan announced in fall 2010 that encourages the campus community to be better stewards of the local environment. The strategy also complements other campus-wide sustainability initiatives, such as the climate action plan launched in 2010 and the GWater plan announced in 2011.
“Investment in green support staff and green technology is good for GW on so many levels, and it’s refreshing to see so many great people working on these issues at the university,” Ms. Seltzer said. “This internship has allowed me to see how intricate the process is.”
Ms. Seltzer said that though environmental advocacy wasn’t a focus when she was growing up in New Jersey, her parents instilled the value of conserving energy and recycling in her at a young age.
“I think there is this perception of how people become involved with sustainability, and it typically involves a radical lifestyle, but for me it was as simple as my dad telling me to turn out the lights when I left a room,” she said. “I didn’t really notice how conscientious I was until I came to college and realized that many people don’t think about it at all.”
Ms. Seltzer began her college career studying international affairs in the Elliott School of International Affairs, despite a natural inclination toward sustainability.
“I don’t know why I fought it,” she said.
As a freshman, she joined the staff of the “The Globe,” the undergraduate publication of the Elliott School and the International Affairs Society, where she will serve as editor-in-chief during the upcoming academic year.
She said that declaring a major in international environmental studies and minors in sustainability and Spanish allowed her to combine her passions and take advantage of the interdisciplinary nature of the programs.
Ms. Seltzer has put her academic coursework to good use through multiple research opportunities, investigating government spending on climate change compared with military spending for the Institute for Policy Studies and exploring D.C.’s policy solutions for water pollution through the Trachtenberg School of Public Policy and Public Administration.
She is also a 2013 Undergraduate Research Award winner.
“Part of my research showed how environmental problems and policy should be viewed through multiple lenses,” Ms. Seltzer said. “You can’t just say environmentalism is an economic issue or a political issue because it’s linked to historical precedence, past policy, city development and population growth.”
Ms. Seltzer said that analyzing how policy is implemented by the local and federal government and working with the GW operations team to be a part of the university’s process has helped her understand that building a more sustainable world is dependent on the everyday decisions of all organizations, from nonprofits to universities and governments.
“In the future, everyone is going to be dealing with the cost associated with energy—the pure cost of energy and the environmental cost of energy,” Ms. Seltzer said. “This internship has taught me, as a future policymaker, all of the steps that make progress toward a more sustainable future possible.”
The Summer Intern Spotlight will run on George Washington Today over the course of several weeks to highlight the internship experiences of GW students as they pursue their academic passions through experiential learning.