Photograph showing a hill of trash from a dump.

Putting Theory into Practice

When Jaya Alagar ’22 arrived at Williams last fall, she planned to study chemistry and art history. On a whim she applied for an internship at the Zilkha Center for Environmental Initiatives and was placed on a project about construction materials to be used in a new residence hall. “Like most people, I didn’t know anything about what goes into building materials,” she says. “But I was interested in learning more, because it involved chemistry, and I love chemistry.”

After just one semester working on the project—and learning about sustainability and construction companies’ decisions about the materials they use—Alagar signed up for the course Environmental Justice, taught by environmental studies professor Laura Martin. As it turned out, Alagar had the perfect skill set for a local service project.

“There’s a landfill in Rensselaer, N.Y., located adjacent to a school, that is specifically used for construction waste,” says Alagar, who will continue studying chemistry and art history. “I jumped at the chance to learn more about how the landfill is affecting the community.”

She and two other students—Megan Powell ’20 and Hallie Whitmore ’20 —conducted research on the landfill and the community that surrounds it. They learned that the Dunn Landfill opened in 2015 and that construction waste is trucked there from all over New England. It sits directly behind the Rensselaer Junior/Senior High School, where 73 percent of students are on the free or reduced-price lunch programs, which Martin says is unsurprising: “Decades of scholarship shows that waste facilities are often sited in poor communities or communities of color.”

“The people in the neighborhood report an awful rotten egg smell coming from the landfill—the result of hydrogen sulfide emissions—and dust so thick that the school keeps its windows closed all the time and children don’t play outside,” says Powell, a biology and environmental studies major who has a specific interest in public health. “They also report a rise in levels of asthma, anxiety and cognitive disorders that they associate with the landfill.”

The three students met with activists working to close the landfill, asked how they could help and then each student conducted research into a specific area. Powell studied health effects associated with other landfills around the country, in order to inform the community of what they might expect and to strengthen their argument that the landfill should be closed. Whitmore researched the most effective strategies for closing landfills, and says that “a focus on citizen science helps show the community that people with little funding and no background in formal science can collect data and make a big difference.”

And Alagar conducted research into what, exactly, is being dumped in this landfill—an important detail that the activists haven’t been able to find out on their own. Alagar discovered that most of the waste is leachate, or liquid waste that has passed through solid matter. “I wasn’t able to figure out which solids are involved, however, and that’s a crucial detail,” she says. Despite that, she hopes the information she has uncovered will help communicate to a wider audience why the landfill should be closed.

“Such projects are an amazing opportunity for students to put theory into practice and for the college to begin to collaborate meaningfully with its neighbors,” Martin says. “We hope this work will continue in future semesters, and that it will be joined by others.”

-Julia Munemo