Trash Talk: Abby Lewis ’19 Leads Pomona’s Efforts for Zero-Waste Commencement

Abby Lewis, Class of 2019, Zero Waste Commencement

Just before her own senior year arrives, Abby Lewis ’19 is working to send off Pomona’s soon-to-be graduates in the most environmentally-responsible way possible. 

It’s called a zero-waste commencement, designed to make our campus a model for sustainability when thousands visit for the May 13 ceremony celebrating the Class of 2018.

A self-described ‘troublemaker,’ Lewis has always held environmental activism close to her heart. As early as elementary school, she organized a river cleanup to improve the habitat for freshwater mussels in Wisconsin. The budding scientist’s school project even caught the eye of a local newspaper that wrote a story on it. 

“I think I’ve always been interested in doing scientific research that can be applied to help understand and mitigate some type of environmental issue,” says Lewis.

These days you can find the biology major working at Pomona College’s Office of Sustainability researching and collaborating on plans to create a more sustainable campus.

Her latest charge: reducing the amount of waste produced by the College. 

Armed with information from her data work at the sustainability office, she noticed a significant spike in the College’s waste production during the month of May, when thousands come to campus for the annual Commencement ceremony. Working closely with Alexis Reyes, assistant director of sustainability, Lewis started working on a zero-waste event model for the College’s commencement ceremony and reception.

An event is deemed ‘zero-waste’ when organizers plan ahead to reduce solid waste, reuse some event elements in future years and set up compost and recycling stations in order to divert at least 90 percent of waste from landfills. For Pomona’s 2018 Commencement Weekend, Lewis focused on the catered food and products that will be served at the reception on Commencement Day.

All the little details can add up to a big difference. Backed by a President’s Sustainability Fund grant, Lewis worked with Pomona’s catering management on details ranging from the type of wax paper used to wrap food, to proposing utensils that are compostable and the use of reusable sugar containers instead of sugar packets.

Commencement attendees will not find trash bins at the event, instead they will find recycling and composting stations where they can sort their waste. Nearly all food waste generated, such as plates, cups and napkins, will be diverted to either compost or recycling. The disposable products used at Commencement will be made from either corn starch or recycled paper.

Another key partnership Lewis secured with the help of the Office of the President’s Christina Ciambriello and Reyes, was a deal with Burrtec, the College’s disposal contractor. Lewis and her allies were able to convince the company to collect and process ‘industrially-compostable’ items such as specially labeled plates and napkins – something they usually don’t do as part of their current service to the College.

According to Lewis, one of the great opportunities of zero-waste commencement is having students from ReCoop standing by the designated compost and recycling bins to have a conversation with event attendees and encourage them to think about their habits when it comes to trash disposal.

“Commencement is a very visible time – a lot of families come on campus and everyone is paying attention,” says Lewis.  “When we’re trying to reduce waste, it’s going to depend on people’s behavior more than anything. An institutional change won’t be successful unless people are involved in recycling or composting.”

Lewis’ zero-waste efforts build on previous initiatives, such as the bottled-water-free 2014 commencement led by Jennifer Schmidt ’14 and waste analysis audits by Professor of Environmental Analysis Char Miller and Bowen Close ’06, the College’s first director of sustainability in 2007.

Lewis plans to package the zero-waste event model so it can be used and expanded to other high-traffic campus events such as Alumni Weekend and Family Weekend. 

More immediately, Lewis will spend this summer in Iceland working on lake research looking at spikes in the population of midges, small two-winged flies, through an National Science Foundation (NSF)-funded grant. 

After Pomona, Lewis is thinking of pursuing a Ph.D. in ecology. But, the idea of taking a year to do community work is also appealing to her. 

“A lot of recent research and project experiences have guided me to projects that communicate science in general, but I think throughout my life I’ve learned that any meaningful work will involve communities.”