Partner Profiles

Joe Gaither - Urban Park Supervisor, Facilities & Real Estate Services

December 2, 2014

Joe Gaither knows all about trash and recycling on campus, where it comes from, and where it goes. As a supervisor in Penn’s Facilities & Real Estate Services Urban Parks Department, Joe acknowledges that his may not be the most glamourous job in the world, but it’s certainly important, and waste minimization is not an issue that is going away any time soon. Joe is Co-Chair of Penn’s Environmental Sustainability Advisory Committee (ESAC) Waste Minimization & Recycling Subcommittee. Joe also co-chairs the Solid Waste Working Group which has been charged with piloting new sustainable practices and increasing our diversion rate on campus. In this role Joe works on educational programs for students and staff as well as partnering with dining, housekeeping and building administrators. Joe oversees maintenance and repair of all hard surfaces in Penn’s outdoor spaces, large outdoor events, as well as seasonal projects like snow removal.

Editor's Note: As of 2.23.15, Joe Gaither will be moving to the PENN Housekeeping Team into the newly created Housekeeping Operations Manager position.

Q: Tell us about your job, and how you got involved with the Penn’s Solid Waste Management Working Group.

A: I oversee the team that runs our trash and recycling routes at Penn, and I’m the primary liaison to the outside vendors who handle our trash and recycling – Waste Management, Revolutionary Recovery, and to a lesser extent, E-Force, for e-waste. When I started this job about two and a half years ago, the idea of making a Solid Waste Management Plan was just beginning, having grown out of the university’s Climate Action Plan. A large committee of folks, from all the Schools and Centers, had come together to talk about goals and give their opinions, and find a consultant to help us write the plan. Last summer, the waste plan was introduced, and we’ve got about 30 recommendations that we’d like to implement, eventually.

Q: What is it like rolling out new waste management practices on a large campus?

A: A good thing about Penn is that every year we have a new set of students, and they come in with higher expectations of what we should be doing about trash. Then once here, they have an increased awareness of what we are doing with it. For them, the current system is the only system they know. So a large portion of our population is able to accept, understand, and incorporate change fairly quickly. For many, having composting in some of dining halls is the way it has always been.

Q:  What has buy-in been like from the diverse groups at Penn?

A:  Penn is a lot farther ahead in waste management than it was three years ago. I think our leadership was very invested and wise in setting up a coalition to do this, because it’s not like Facilities is dictating what is going to happen to the Schools and Centers. We’re partnering. We’re asking how can we make this better, and can you partner with us to do it. This relationship makes the process work a lot faster and information flow a lot more freely. The Sustainability Office in FRES has been instrumental in these communications with the Schools and Centers

Q:  Are the new systems and processes catching on?

A:  We are definitely making progress. This time last year, we were trying to plan our first zero-waste event at QuakerFest. We had a lot of meetings leading up to it, and even a lot of concerns on that day. Now, a year later, we’ve had 12 or 13 zero-waste events on campus, from meetings at Wharton to a picnic at the President’s House, and we’ve managed it well.  This year for QuakerFest, we were prepared and modeled off of last year, but then it was cold and rained, and we had to move it inside. But the event was still successful, and we diverted 89% of the waste from landfill. What showed was the level of staff training we had in place to pull it off so well — from the housekeeping side, from the Urban Parks side, from the events staff, and the planners, from the catering — there are five groups right there that are now able to put together a zero-waste event like a well-oiled machine. Twelve months ago, this wasn’t part of our regular process.

Q:  What next steps will keep momentum going?

A:  To keep us moving forward, we could work on increasing compliance, which I think comes from increased awareness and education. Creating a more simplified waste stream is important too.  There are so many different types of containers on campus that it’s difficult for people to know where they are supposed to throw their stuff out.

Our group has been working to identify the types of disposables used on campus and design our signage towards it. We’d like to cut down on the number of different containers on campus. You have certain ones in 1920 Commons. Then you go over to Houston Market, and there are totally different ones. We have watched people try to figure out where to throw things. You have about 10 seconds for people to be able to easily figure out where to dispose of things or you’ve lost them — it’s all going into the nearest bin. So ease of use is huge. That combined with education gets us there.

Q:  What’s the hardest thing to dispose of?

A:  Styrofoam – it’s the stuff that has to go to the landfill because there’s nothing else we can do with it. That’s what hurts us. One of our initiatives is going to be working with our vendors to find them cost-effective alternatives to Styrofoam.

Q:  You’ve been involved with several green projects for kids on campus. Why do you see that as important?

A:  Facilities recently hosted a 4th grade science class from the Lea School, to teach them about land and water management. Members or our Urban Park and Landscape Architecture staff did mini-lessons for them on composting, plant care, beneficial insects, and soil erosion. They were really interested in the water management systems in Shoemaker Green, like the underground cistern and the rain garden.

In April for Take Your Children to Work Day, Facilities does similar demos for Penn kids about compost tea and how good bugs can help our landscapes. These activities are important because if we’re going to change anything, that’s where it’s going to happen, with the kids. And, I really think they “get it.” They understand the difference between using poisons or using good bugs to kill bad bugs. Children are really open to information and change.