A report exposing lead contamination in a Chinese village caught Yale’s attention last year because it indicated that used American electronics parts — from places like the University — were to blame for the environmental hazard.
Immediately after that report was issued last spring, Yale began taking a closer look at how it recycles its computers and other used electronic equipment and has since negotiated an alternative means of disposing of those goods, Recycling Coordinator C.J. May said.
The reform effort is associated with a broader ongoing examination of how the University handles the material it discards and other major environmental issues. For two years, deputy provost Pierre Hohenberg has headed a committee that discusses how Yale’s activities affect the environment and presents ideas to improve the University’s environmental performance.
“The group is interested in looking at Yale as an operation as opposed to the very important research and education institution that it is,” Hohenberg said. “It’s a place where people live and work that consumes materials and has an environmental footprint.”
With seven regular members, the committee has representation from faculty, the Provost’s Office, facilities and university planning. The group discusses a wide range of topics including recycling, energy use, building renovations, purchasing practices, health and safety, and chemical, radioactive, and biological waste.
In recent years, the University has improved significantly in the amount of reusable material it recycles. In 2000, Yale recycled 19 percent of office paper, newspaper, cardboard, cans and bottles, compared with just 2 percent of the same materials in 1988. Unfortunately, the increase is starting to level off, May said. Administrators see plenty of room for improvement in recycling and other areas.
“We’ve been doing a lot but it’s less coherent that we think it can be,” said Provost Alison Richard, Yale’s chief academic and financial officer. “We need to more systemically set goals and see whether we meet those goals.”
While the Environmental Focus Group helps the University plan its environmental policies and practices to foster sustainability, Hohenberg said it is not necessarily trying to initiate new programs and is not an official standing committee.
But the lack of formality has not stopped undergraduates interested in having student representation on the committee from lobbying for a more active role.
“Various students have talked about forming an environmental stewardship with the University,” former Yale Student Environmental Coalition co-chair Ian Cheney ’02 said.
Cheney said that Hohenberg has agreed to work informally with students from undergraduate environmental groups. Further talks are ongoing.
Meanwhile, instead of shipping its computer parts abroad, Yale is now keeping them within the U.S. The University still uses its North Branford-based recycling company, Computer Recycling and Refining, but has negotiated to have an Environmental Protection Agency-certified processor accept the spare parts from that company, May said.
“It wouldn’t make sense for us to wash our hands of used electronic equipment, feel happy it’s getting recycled and find out someone overseas is suffering ill effects,” May said.
With Yale examining all facets of its environmental impact, administrators say there is more to University environmental policy than meets the eye.
“There’s a lot of environmental policy that goes on that doesn’t call itself environmental policy,” Hohenberg said. “We have to figure out how all these various things come together and coordinate them.”