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Seniors Present Research in Environmental Sustainability

Three seniors recently completed year-long studies of Loomis Chaffee's plastics use and recycling, food waste, and drinking water as the inaugural Guided Research Projects in Environmental Sustainability, a hands-on learning approach to environmental stewardship using the school's campus as a location of study and action.

As part of the course, the seniors, Adam Guillemette, Julianna Lee, and Drive Rojrachsombat, each investigated an on-campus environmental concern and then created and carried out an action plan to address the concern. Jeff Dyreson, science teacher and associate director of the Alvord Center for Global & Environmental Studies, guided them through their independent investigations. The students presented their findings on Monday, May 20, in Gilchrist Auditorium.

Adam's project measured amounts of plastic that the school community throws away and suggested ways of reducing Loomis' contribution to the increasing global problem of pollution from plastic waste. With help from the Physical Plant staff and fellow student environmental proctors, Adam conducted a five-week trash audit on campus that included academic buildings, the Scanlan Campus Center, and two dormitories. Interpreting the data he collected, Adam determined that 21 percent of the school's trash is plastic — and the majority of that plastic waste is from food containers and disposable water bottles.

"Loomis Chaffee's plastic waste percentage is higher than the national average," compared to similarly-sized educational facilities, Adam said. "We should hold ourselves accountable."

Adam noted that the trash placed in Loomis recycling bins is often "contaminated" by the inclusion of plastic bags. Recycling facilities cannot recycle contaminated trash, or must add a step to the process.

Efforts to reduce plastic waste output, Adam suggested, could include communicating the importance of plastic waste reduction to the community, and collecting empty plastic containers to process in the Pearse Hub for Innovation (PHI) plastics shredder instead of putting them in the trash. Shredded plastic can be melted and used to make other things, such as signs warning people not to put plastic bags in the recycling bins, he said.

Julianna's project aimed to curtail the amount of post-consumer food waste at Loomis. She set up bins outside the dining hall during meal times for two weeks to collect and measure by weight the community's food waste. Math Department Head Joe Cleary helped Julianna analyze the data from the food waste audit to estimate the school's actual output.

"Based on what we calculated, Loomis puts about 200,000 to 250,000 pounds of food waste in a 35-week school year into the trash, which seems kind of wasteful," Julianna said, adding that she estimates that around 25 percent of Loomis waste is food.

Drive's project sought to compare consumption of bottled water and tap water on campus to determine why people choose to drink bottled water instead of water from the tap or from filtrated water systems.

Through a lab analysis of water samples, Drive determined that there is no significant difference in the biological and chemical make-up of tap water or the two brands of bottled water (Fiji and Dasani) that he tested. All were safe to drink, according to Drive's findings. In a double-blind taste test, Drive found that the majority of the 50 community members tested could not tell the difference between tap and bottled water.

Since filtered tap water is free in locations across campus, is safe to drink, and tastes as good as bottled water, Drive said, "Why not drink tap water instead of bottled water?" Drinking tap water circumvents the need for plastic bottles and, thus, reduces waste, he added.

Drive proposed additional ways to reduce the number of plastic water bottles thrown away on campus. His suggestions included communicating his findings to the Loomis Chaffee community, the use of environmentally-friendly individually-sized "boxed" water for functions when containers of water are necessary, "dorm spirit" challenges, subsidies for free or reduced-cost reusable bottles at the Alexander Bookstore, and providing branded water (such as Vitamin Water) on tap in the dining hall available to fill reusable bottles. Drive added that a school policy change banning plastic water bottles could be effective in limiting their use, but he thought it would not favored by the school community.

All three of the projects intersected and focused on the common thread of waste, Jeff noted after the presentations. He said the guided environmental research explorations showed how science could be applied to improve everyday life.

More information about Julianna's project is available on the Loomis Chaffee news webpage.

Connect to the Science Department webpage to learn more about the guided research projects and other Loomis Chaffee science programs, and the Alvord Center for Global & Environmental Studies page to learn about sustainability programs on the Island.