The group’s ultimate vision is carbon neutrality and zero waste

Reunions is a magical time when classmates reunite at Princeton, but by the end of the weekend, any stragglers still walking the grounds will also see piles of trash and debris left behind. The Greening Reunions Alumni Working Group (GRAWG) has been working to make the event more sustainable.

In the past, Reunions sustainability efforts by alumni have been largely ad hoc, with major classes for any given year determining their own initiatives, if any. But in 2020 GRAWG was formed by the University and alumni. The group’s ultimate vision is carbon neutrality and zero waste.

“We just really want to make a change,” says Thara Srinivasan ’95, GRAWG co-chair.

Last year — the first time Reunions was held in person since the COVID-19 pandemic — GRAWG raised $7,800 to purchase carbon offsets, which, using post-Reunions survey data, the group estimated covered about 5% of travel emissions. GRAWG says the total carbon footprint of 2022 Reunions travel amounted to about 7,900 tons of carbon dioxide, roughly equivalent to the electricity consumption of 1,500 homes for an entire year.

This year, GRAWG is again encouraging classmates to contribute to carbon offsets — as of mid-March, nearly $28,000 had been pledged. They’ve also been working with Campus Dining to offer a vegetarian dinner on Thursday night, as well as other beef-free options and fewer meat-heavy menus, as studies have shown that greenhouse gas emissions are greater for animal-based foods than plant-based.

GRAWG has also reached out to classes to encourage them to rent dishware, glassware, linens, silverware, and furniture, rather than buying these items or using disposable alternatives, and to choose higher-quality, durable swag items rather than cheap plastic.

But the thing that everyone seems to be most excited about is cups.

“There are hundreds of thousands of plastic cups used over the weekend of Reunions, and the vast majority of them are not recyclable,” says Shana Weber, GRAWG co-chair and director of the University’s Office of Sustainability.

“The cost of a plastic cup might be about a dime, but the true ecological cost, when it’s incinerated or buried in a landfill, is much higher,” says Srinivasan.

For the second consecutive year, the University is piloting Earth Brands compostable cups, even though, according to Weber, “the collection effort did not work
last year” due to low collection rates, meaning not many cups were actually composted. This year, student crews will be trained to help direct cups into the proper bins.

Meanwhile, the Class of 1998, which is celebrating its 25th, is piloting a reusable plastic cup program in partnership with the company TURN, using funding from the University. Reuners can get refills with their cups at the 25th tent, and then, once disposed of in the proper bins, the cups will be reused up to 120 times at future events, according to TURN.

“By having this pilot with the Office of Sustainability, we are able to save about 40,000 cups from going to the landfill,” says Noelani Lee ’98, 25th reunion co-chair. “And our hope is that … in subsequent years, it will prove itself as a model.”

Lee and her classmates also included a budget for sustainability efforts in their planning, which they believe is a first, and, hopefully, the start of a new tradition.

Both the University and alumni hope to encourage the implementation of lasting solutions.

“It really requires a partnership between alumni and the University to figure out … what solution is actually scalable,” says Weber. “And this is where we get creative.”