Laurie Cousart, Business Services Director of Sustainability
As one of the founding members of the Green Campus Partnership, Laurie has gone above and beyond the call of duty to enhance sustainability across the Penn campus. She oversees Penn Business Services' sustainability initiatives and has been involved in establishing local food and farmer’s markets on campus, not to mention helping bring in nationally-renowned Bon Appétit Management Company as the University’s new food service provider.
In 2008, Laurie led the group that organized Penn’s first entry into the national RecycleMania competition, and is currently collaborating with Bon Appétit to launch a food waste composting system in Penn dining halls. In addition to serving as a member of Penn’s Environmental Sustainability Advisory Committee, Laurie is enrolled in Penn’s Master of Environmental Studies program.
On College Green: How long have you worked at Penn and how did you become involved with the University’s Dining Services and local food initiatives?
Laurie Cousart: I've been at Penn since the late 70's—came right after high school when I learned I could get my BA while working (such a good deal!). I finished my BA in American History, then was off to New York City for several years. I came back in the 80's to head up Telecommunications for several years, and then moved into overseeing our food services relationships.
My entree into local food and sustainability issues began when two undergraduates literally knocked on my door in 2004 demanding more local foods in Penn Dining. Those students, Rachel Meyer and Emma Kirwin, really helped open my eyes to these questions and to the fact that I/we at Penn could really do something and make a difference. So I began doing a lot of reading, began working with Professor Mary Summers and her Politics of Food course, and really started connecting the dots between food, climate, and health.
OCG: Judging by your involvement with RecycleMania at Penn and now the establishment of food waste composting at the University, would it be accurate to assume that the aspect of sustainability that most interests you is waste reduction?
LC: No—a "multi-issue nut" is a better way to describe me… My work in bringing attention to recycling and RecycleMania again led me to looking deeper here as well and I'm much more interested in the concept of Zero Waste. Recycling is great, but why create the waste to begin with? It costs money and other resources to create the packaging and other parts of waste to start with and then money and resources to cart it away. Why not reduce it, eliminate it, and when it is needed, be sure that it can be reused in the next production cycle?
The food waste composting project really puts this all together. We will compost not only food scraps but also containers that must be used. By making sure that those things we use for convenience are made of compostable materials, and by setting up the process of collecting them and getting them to an accredited composting center, we are making steps toward Zero Waste. And once we get the kinks worked out, we hope to work with other vendors on campus and in the area to encourage them to look hard at the products they use and hope that they will make similar decisions. The Penn community, students, staff, faculty, can all have a big impact by asking the stores, restaurants, and vendors where they buy food and other products to pay attention to the ways in which we waste resources (and money), and to do something different.
I'm inspired by companies that are examining their product’s entire life cycle and working to change. Companies like Interface Carpet—they are reducing waste, reducing greenhouse gas emissions, reducing costs, and making a great product. We can do that as well in our own operations here on campus.
OCG: During your time as a Master of Environmental Studies (MES) student, do you have a favorite course that you found particularly interesting?
LC: Wow, that is a hard question. There are SO many good courses! I think Professor Andrew Huemmler's course, ENVS 632: Energy and the Environment in the U.S. is a very valuable course for students and for staff- for any voter- who needs to understand how we get our energy and electricity and the issues to consider there. And this semester, I'm taking a readings class on classic environmental thought - ENVS 652 God, Gold & Green: Themes and Classics in American Environmental Thought with Professor James Blaine and really taking some time to think more deeply about why these issues are important.
OCG: We hear you’re an avid movie-goer… Do you have a favorite film that focuses on an environmental issue?
LC: Avatar was the best. Great entertainment and a beautiful allegory of a world where life forms are connected. I want to go back and see again in IMAX!
OCG: How about your favorite environmentally-based book?
LC: Well, there is a huge stack of to-be-read books by the bed. Right now I am reading Eating the Sun: How Plants Power the Planet, by Oliver Morton, which is about the critical importance of photosynthesis. And I also have to recommend Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things by William McDonough and Michael Braungart, which really challenges your thinking about how things are made and how they can be made.
OCG: Can you give us any more information about the new food waste composting initiative in Penn dining halls?
LC: Sure. We are just starting with kitchen waste to get the kinks out of the logistics with loading docks and pickups etc. Starting in mid-February, we'll be asking our customers at dining halls and at Houston Market to be sure to put their food waste and other compostable materials like the clamshell containers in the right containers so we can send it all out to the new Wilmington Organic Recycling Center, where it will be made into compost. Then that compost can be used by local landscapers, including those who keep our campus beautiful, to close the loop.
OCG: Seeing as you spend an awful lot of time working, you must have found an interesting spot to vacation by now…
LC: Ah, sí… Mexico! We have been going for years and really love the interior, small mountain towns like San Miguel de Allende and Patzcuaro. The Oaxaca Valley is just beautiful. And, I've I have become a complete nut about migrating monarch butterflies, which fly over 3000 miles every fall from Canada and the northern U.S. to the high mountains of central Mexico during the winter. I hope to work with others on campus to create monarch habitat here at Penn, perhaps as part of Penn Park.
OCG: In five years, what do you hope will be significantly different at Penn?
LC: We are all very excited about the changes over the last few years, as Penn has really assumed a leadership role in being concerned about sustainability in all its forms. I hope that over the next five years, all of us—students, faculty, staff, and we as citizens—will have taken the opportunity to learn as much as possible so that we can be really have an impact in the interesting times ahead as our society wrestles with the challenges and opportunities of changing climate and energy independence.
OCG: Finally… Being a foodie in addition to a Philadelphia native (also known as a “Phoodie”), what’s your favorite restaurant in the city?
LC: You mean, apart from the great food from Bon Appetit at Penn Dining and at the University Club? I love hot chocolate on a cold morning at Naked Chocolate, and am thrilled that Sang Kee has come to Penn—I’ve been eating with them for years at their other locations. And, of course, all the great stuff at the Reading Terminal Market. Our family has been enjoying Bassett’s Ice Cream for generations. Be sure to check out the Fair Food Farm Stand there as well—all great local food from the farms surrounding Philly.
Each issue, we recognize a member of the Penn community for his or her environmental sustainability efforts on campus. If you know someone at Penn who is "leading the green," let us know at firstname.lastname@example.org.