ALBANY — In dozens of upstate communities, colleges are not only among the largest local employers, but they are also prolific generators of waste and powerhouses in the consumption of energy.

Lawmakers are now embarking on a push to help both public and private colleges across the state to develop strategies for shrinking their large environmental footprints.

If the waste stream coming from campuses is reduced, local governments will benefit by having to deal with less garbage being processed at landfills, Assemblyman Steve Englebright, D-Nassau County, told CNHI.

Englebright is the influential chairman of the Assembly Environmental Committee. The panel is slated to convene in Albany Nov. 13 to get testimony on the state of college conservation efforts, with a view towards charting a path leading to less waste and improved environmental quality for the campuses.

“This is an important area because food scraps and materials represent almost 20% of the total waste stream,” Engelbright said.

The conversations expected to take place could result in enhancing “town-gown” bonds by earmarking surplus foods at the campuses as contributions to nonprofit organizations dedicated to feeding the hungry in communities surrounding the schools, he said.

There will also be opportunities for colleges to enhance existing programs in sustainability studies by engaging students in the waste-reduction efforts, Englebright said.

“This is a very useful and engaging topic for young people to get involved with while they are students,” the veteran lawmaker said. “I can see this spreading, missionary-like, beyond the campuses. It shouldn’t be limited to campuses but they are a great place to start.”

New York lawmakers are hoping to make a dent in the state’s waste stream through the enactment this year of a ban on single-use plastic shopping bags. That law takes effect in March.

Among topics to be discussed by the Assembly Environmental Committee next month will be the use on campuses of disposable plastic cutlery and plates. France, in 2016, became the first nation in the world to clamp a ban on plastic utensils.

The manufacturers of such products argue bans on carryout plastic knives, spoons and forks are burdensome on consumers and result in other environmental problems.

But Liz Moran, environmental policy director of the New York Public Interest Research Group, a nonprofit advocacy group, said she plans to recommend at Englebright’s hearing that New York colleges prohibit the distribution of plastic utensils at dining halls and cafeterias.

Since public colleges in New York — both the State University and City University systems — are state entities, she said, using them as catalysts to bring about green environmental objectives “makes tremendous sense.”

“As we fight the plastic pollution crisis, the colleges and universities are an area that often gets overlooked even though their footprint is quite large,” Moran said.

SUNY’s portfolio of institutions includes its college campuses in Plattsburgh, Buffalo, Oneonta, Delhi and Cobleskill, with dozens of other locations.

Karren Bee-Donovan, SUNY’s associate vice chancellor at the Office for Capital Facilities, said the university welcomes the deep dive to be undertaken by lawmakers seeking improvements in campus recycling and energy efficiency efforts.

According to SUNY’s own data, 459,031 tons of refuse — nearly half of the university system’s non-office waste — was recycled in the 2017-18 academic year. Statistics for the following year are not yet available.

Bee-Donovan said students have shown strong concern for the environmental footprint of their respective campuses and are generally supportive of efforts to cut food waste.

One SUNY campus, Geneseo, found that eliminating trays at a dining hall led to a substantial reduction in food waste.

“A lot of them have started composting right on the campuses, and where they don’t have the space available for any kind of massive amounts of composting, they are looking to organic recyclers,” she said.

Englebright said it is premature to say if the upcoming forum on campus recycling will result in proposed legislation, but noted such forums often do lead to new laws and regulation.

Joe Mahoney covers the New York Statehouse for CNHI’s newspapers and websites. Reach him at jmahoney@cnhi.com

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