Putting Students in the Driver’s Seat for Sustainability with Penn Athletics EcoReps’ Sara Allan
September 28, 2015
ohn Shegerian: Welcome to another edition of Green Is Good. This is the Green Sports Alliance edition of Green Is Good in beautiful downtown Chicago and we have got Sara Allen with us today. Welcome to Green Is Good. Sara Allen: Thank you. John Shegerian: Sara, you are a recent graduate of UPenn and you were a gymnast there, you were an eco-rep there and you are going to be speaking here at the GSA. Before we get going and start talking about UPenn and what you are speaking about, tell our audience a little bit the Sara Allen journey. Were your mom and dad really into green or was it something you learned along the way in school? What happened and how did you become so green? Sara Allen: Well, my parents aren’t that interested in sustainability. I grew up in New York City in the heart of the city. John Shegerian: Really? Sara Allen: But I grew up watching a lot of PBS and nature shows and I just was really passionate about science, and as soon as I started learning about sustainability and climate change, it just sort of spiraled out of control and my parents were like, “Oh my gosh, what is this new passion you have? We don’t really understand it,” and I started educating them as well. But it ended up turning out pretty good. And I did sustainability in high school, and then as soon as I got to college, I dived right into the sustainability activities. John Shegerian: Where did you go to high school? Sara Allen: I went to a school called “Nightingale” in New York City. John Shegerian: I know it well. I’ve got you. So OK, got it. So you went to Nightingale. And were they open to you working in sustainability and stuff in there? Sara Allen: Yeah. It was great. We had an Earth Club when I started, and we brought it on as part of the student government while I was there. John Shegerian: Cool. Sara Allen: And I worked with our facilities manager to try and improve the sustainability of our school. It was a pretty small school. Then I worked with the Green Schools Alliance, which is focused on K-through-12 sustainability. So that was an early opportunity for leadership, and it was amazing. I got to work with the founder of Green Schools Alliance and helped organize some conferences and then that sort of led into how I’m now working and speaking at the Green Sports Alliance. John Shegerian: And at UPenn you were a gymnast. Sara Allen: Yeah. John Shegerian: And you were also an eco-rep. What does that mean at Penn? Sara Allen: So eco-reps is our administratively run student leadership environmental program. So we have sort of two different camps of student environmental groups. We have just the ones that students start on their own. A lot of them are really specific. We have almost 20 student groups at Penn that are focused on sustainability, which is kind of crazy. John Shegerian: Right. Sara Allen: And then we have our group that is run out of our sustainability department – our administrative group – and that is called “eco-reps.” So it’s a leadership program. We have eco-reps in college houses, which are our dorms, athletics and then our Greek chapters, and so they are really liaisons into their communities and we think that peer-to-peer engagement is the way to go as far as getting other students engaged and involved and excited about sustainability. John Shegerian: Were you an eco-rep from your freshman year on? Sara Allen: Yeah. So freshman year, I applied for eco-reps in my freshman dorm and then sophomore year, I applied for an internship in the sustainability department and became the student coordinator of eco-reps and helped start our athletics eco-reps program with a few other people. And that was really one of the first programs like that in the country to use student athletes as the catalyst for sustainability improvements in the athletics department. John Shegerian: Talk a little bit about the zero-waste program at Palestra. What is that about? Sara Allen: Yeah, so the Palestra is our basketball stadium. It’s pretty well-known as far as Philadelphia basketball goes. It’s a really old stadium and really well-known and there are fans who just bring their kids to that area, to the stadium to enjoy it, and so we’ve been working for the past couple of years to make it a zero-waste location, which has obviously a lot of challenges involved. So it’s been a student-led initiative but with a lot of administrative support, of course. So we started out by just having a zero-waste game, where we would just raise awareness and that was a big deal because just trying to even convince administration that we could do this for one game during the season was a big deal. And we had student volunteers stand by all of the bins, make sure that things were being sorted correctly. We had to make sure that back of house things were being sorted correctly. And then all the way to last year we had almost all of our games. We were collecting compost. We’re not quite at zero waste yet – we’ve had some setbacks – but we are definitely getting much farther. John Shegerian: Well, talk about the four years you were there. From what percentage was going to a landfill to when you graduated from UPenn; how much did that needle move in four years? It’s always interesting to track that. Sara Allen: Yeah. So I guess it’s a little bit difficult because – the overall campus versus just athletics. John Shegerian: Right. Sara Allen: But we weren’t collecting any compost when I first got there. John Shegerian: Really? Sara Allen: In our athletics facilities. We were only doing that in the dining halls. John Shegerian: Wow. Sara Allen: So we weren’t doing any of that. We were doing recycling but no compost. So that has increased a lot. The setback that we had was that with the bioplastics we switched a lot of our items over to bioplastic and then our compost facilities said that they actually weren’t interested in taking bioplastic, so we had to sort of reassess our program. But I think that a lot of the students who were involved in the project – we had about eight student athletic eager-ups and they learned a lot about facilities management and how all the stuff goes. I mean, it’s not perfect, but that’s how it’s going to be when you’re actually working, too. John Shegerian: It’s real. It’s a journey. Sara Allen: Yeah. That’s how it works. John Shegerian: For our listeners out there who just joined us, we’ve got Sara Allen. She just graduated from U-Penn and she is here talking about sustainability on campus and student engagement. To learn more about what is going on in green at the University of Pennsylvania, please go to www.UPenn.edu/sustainability. To learn more about the Green Sports Alliance, please go to www.GreenSportsAlliance.org. Sara, you are here at the GSA. When did you learn about the Green Sports Alliance? Sara Allen: I think it was probably my sophomore year – so about three years ago. When we were starting up our athletic eco-reps program, we were trying to see what other programs were like it in the country and we found that there weren’t that many, but the Green Sports Alliance was helping other sports programs go green and so we really have used them as a resource to build our program. John Shegerian: Is this your first conference that you have come to for GSA? Sara Allen: I went to one day of one in Brooklyn a couple of years ago. John Shegerian: OK. Couple years ago. Sara Allen: But this is the first time I’ve been to the full conference. John Shegerian: And you’re speaking here. Sara Allen: Yeah. John Shegerian: Share with our audience what you’re speaking about here at the GSA conference. Sara Allen: I was speaking today on a student engagement panel and I am focused on using students, actually, in the drivers’ seats. Students are great as volunteers. They want to get involved. They are really excited about participating and recycling and composting. Not only that, but students can also be the ones coming up with the projects, running them, collecting data, using the skills that they’re learning in class and learning even more by being part of these projects. John Shegerian: Great. That’s so important. When you got to UPenn and you were a freshman, was there a large portion of your freshman class excited about sustainability and green? Sara Allen: I would say – so Penn has about 10,000 undergrads, and Penn students tend to be extremely ambitious. A lot of Penn students have their own passion. So, as I mentioned, we have about 20 student groups that are based on sustainability, so there are a fair number, but it’s also a challenge to get those who aren’t focused on sustainability. You’re not always going to get everyone really excited about sustainability, but just to get them conscious of it and changing their everyday actions is important. John Shegerian: Brilliant. I love it. Speaking of that, by the time you matriculated from UPenn, did you find that more and more students were getting more excited about it? Is this a growing trend among millennials and America’s youth, is really what I’m looking for? Sara Allen: I think so. I think people are seeing that this can be applied to any job, and a lot of employers are really looking to see how people are going to fit sustainability into their jobs. So pretty much anything – if you’re looking at operations or facilities management or things like that, people need to have some sort of knowledge of sustainability. But I think it’s slow to get going. John Shegerian: Yeah. Sara Allen: But hopefully – I mean, it’s necessary. John Shegerian: So with your fellow eco-reps that are graduating now how many of you are going into sustainability practices or fields or professions? Sara Allen: I don’t have an exact number. John Shegerian: Of course. Sara Allen: But I know a bunch of people have gone either into consulting or something waste-related. John Shegerian: How about yourself? Let’s talk about Sara Allen. Sara Allen: So I am joining Northstar Recycling, which is a small company based in western Massachusetts. John Shegerian: It’s a little shout-out for Northstar. Sara Allen: Yes. John Shegerian: OK. I got it. Good promotion. Sara Allen: So I joined them in August so I haven’t started yet, but they work with manufacturing companies to help them improve their recycling and landfill diversion. So I’m really excited to be able to use the things that I’ve learned at Penn. John Shegerian: And apply them. Why did you choose Northstar? I mean, you’re a very bright young lady. I’m sure that you had a lot of opportunities. Why was that the choice that you made? Sara Allen: Well, I really love the small company atmosphere. John Shegerian: OK. Sara Allen: They have really high values, and even though they are looking at the profit incentives – because every type of sustainability initiative really needs to have a good bottom line under it – they really have strong values of why they’re doing this and everyone is really passionate about what they are doing, and for me, I personally need to feel really passionate about what I’m going to work every day doing. John Shegerian: That’s an important point. You are speaking on student engagement today. In terms of students matriculating and getting employed even now – and now you’re going from a student to a professional – is this something also that is a growing trend? It’s not all about how much salary or money you can make. It’s a lot about the mission of the greater good that you’re going to do and the company that you’re joining and what their values and ethics and mission is? Sara Allen: Yeah. Definitely. I think there was a report done – I think it was maybe done by McKinsey, I’m not quite sure – that’s shown that millennials are much more interested in joining a company that they really believe in, and I think it makes for a much better workplace as well. You feel a sense of purpose. You’re excited to go to work every day. John Shegerian: That’s interesting. Going back to you were a gymnast at UPenn. What did you guys do with regards to the Penn relay, track and field team and everything else with regards to the sports program? What other things in sustainability were you working on besides the great work you did at the Palestra? Sara Allen: So we do some sort of the low-hanging fruit, and then we also have some big projects. So the low-hanging fruit is like shoe recycling, which is pretty easy. We use ShoeBox Recycling, so they send us boxes and we place them in the locker rooms, and then people can just throw their old shoes in there, and we ship them off to ShoeBox, and they repurpose them. John Shegerian: Wow. Sara Allen: So that is one of the easier things. We also do just pure outreach and education so have eco-reps talk to their teammates about different things that they can do – water conservation, energy conservation, things like that – but then we have our Palestra project and we also have the Penn Relays Project, which is one of the biggest track meets in the world. It’s enormous. So we have a bunch of different initiatives we’ve done there for the past three years. They used to give out a bottle of water to every finisher of the track meet. So they would cross the finish line and you’d hand them a bottle of water, but of course that is incredible wasteful. Nobody is going to chug an entire bottle of water right after they have run a couple of laps. John Shegerian: Right. Sara Allen: And so instead now we have volunteers stand there and hand out cups of tap water. And the athletes are just as happy. It’s water just the same and we’ve saved thousands of water bottles each year. We also have an outreach and engagement tent where we have games and prizes for all of the attendees and we have really clear signage on the recycling and trash bins because we have a lot of international attendees who are coming from all over the place and recycling is different in different parts of the world. John Shegerian: That’s awesome. Have you done a lot of public speaking like you’re doing today at the GSA conference on student engagement and sustainability? Sara Allen: I’ve done some, but I would say more of it is informal. It just comes from getting up in front of a big group of peers and talking to them at an event or something like that. John Shegerian: Sustainability seems to be a DNA and cultural issue at UPenn. Obviously, we both have a common friend in Joanne Spigonardo, who is the executive director over at the IGEL program. How much do the students interrelate with the IGEL program? Did you take any courses over there and were you involved at all over at IGEL? Sara Allen: I was an Environmental Studies major. John Shegerian: Right. Sara Allen: Which is actually in the College of Arts and Sciences. Then, IGEL is part of our business school – part of Wharton – so it’s a little bit separate. John Shegerian: Right. Got you. Sara Allen: But I definitely did take courses in Wharton that mentioned sustainability, and I think that has to do with the fact that they have IGEL there. And I took a course with Eric Orts, who is working closely on that, and with Gary Survis as well. But IGEL also puts on these great events that are open to students, and I think that is a great opportunity. John Shegerian: Who are some of your role models in sustainability that you enjoy following and that inspire you on a regular basis? Sara Allen: That’s a good one. I haven’t thought of that that much. I guess there are just so many. I try to take something from pretty much everyone I see. John Shegerian: That’s so nice. Sara Allen: Whether I am at a conference or watching a documentary. I know it sounds really nerdy, but I have definitely learned a lot from the Sustainable Brands team. John Shegerian: Really? Sara Allen: I worked for them briefly. So Koann and a bunch of the people over there. John Shegerian: Right. Great people. Sara Allen: They also run sustainability conferences, and they have such a broad knowledge of what is going on in corporate sustainability. John Shegerian: Right. Well, don’t worry about being a nerd. Embrace your nerd, because I think nerds are now running the world basically. Sara Allen: Yeah. I love it. John Shegerian: That’s the way I look at it. So, Sara, any final thoughts before we sign off for today? Sara Allen: I mean, I would just say that I think sustainability – there are so many opportunities for college students or even high school students to get involved. And if they have an idea for a project, put together the case, use the lessons that you’ve learned in your courses and submit it and present it and push for it to happen. I did that a couple of times at Penn and the administration was thinking “who is this girl here who wants to do this big facilities project” or “who really wants to make an impact,” but if you have a strong case you can learn a lot and you can get some really cool things done. John Shegerian: I love it. And you’re getting a lot of cool things done, Sara. For our listeners and viewers out there, you have been listening to the Green Is Good Green Sports Alliance edition here in beautiful downtown Chicago. To learn more about the Green Sports Alliance, go to www.GreenSportsAlliance.org. To learn more about all the green things going on at the University of Pennsylvania, go to www.UPenn.edu/sustainability. Sara Allen, you are making the world a better place and truly living proof that Green Is Good.