For the seventh time in four years, the federal Environmental Protection Agency has honored the University of Southern Maine's efforts to reduce and reuse waste at its campuses in Portland, Gorham and Lewiston.
USM was the only Maine university to earn regional recognition for its overall recycling — awarded with a WasteWise Achievement Certificate — and the only public school in Maine to earn a Food Recovery Challenge Award for efforts to reduce and reuse food waste.
Other New England honorees included Gillette Stadium, Northeastern University and the Raytheon Company. In Maine, only USM and Hannaford earned both awards.
"The awards are important because they recognize the effort and hard work of so many people," said Aaron Witham, USM’s assistant director for sustainable programs. Since 2011, USM’s recycling rate has risen from the national average of 34 percent to 58 percent. In the second half of 2017, USM recycled 57 tons of waste. Such efforts help USM serve as a good neighbor within the communities of Portland, Gorham and Lewiston, Witham said. But the work is bigger than that. "We do it to be a responsible, global citizen," he said. In fact, USM aims to be a carbon neutral university by 2040.
An increasingly active group of student eco-reps are working to educate each other and the USM community on conservation and reuse efforts.
“When people begin looking at helping the environment, they tend to think about solar,” said eco-rep Abram Marr, a biology student from Portland. “Waste aversion and recovery is just as important.”
During its Fifth Annual Community Electronic Waste Day, held in April 2017,USM collected more than 60,000 pounds of obsolete and unwanted electronics from the Portland area.
Meanwhile, reducing and collecting food waste is an ongoing effort. Portland’s weekly collection of food waste has gone from 300 to 400 pounds, to 800 pounds. In Gorham, it’s risen from 3,000, to roughly 4,000 to 5,000 per week, according to Steve Sweeney, USM’s resource recovery supervisor. The food waste is collected by the Portland firm, Agri-Cycle, which turns the food into biogas.
“We are doing very well with a 58 percent recycling rate,” Sweeney said. “However, we could do a lot better. As an educational institution I feel that we should be up around 75 percent. If everyone made the conscious choice to recycle, our numbers would reflect that, and we hope to do more to encourage people to help us achieve that goal."