By Nina Angileri ’19
Five weeks in, and I still look forward to my morning commute on Regional Rail. The 15-minute walk from 30th Street Station to City Coho, the space housing the Post-Landfill Action Network (PLAN), is delightful. I love the last few minutes passing over the Schuylkill River Trail, which the building overlooks.
My commute might be typical, but City Coho isn’t. Upon entering, the lack of cubicles is striking. There are two floors of co-working space, each with bookable conference rooms and a kitchenette. Every area pops with natural light, color, or fun decorations. Some organizations do have an “office” here, PLAN included, but everyone is free to move about between the open tables and cozy nooks. My usual day begins with finding a sunny spot to sit down and work at my laptop.
Just five years old, PLAN is a nonprofit that cultivates and inspires the student-led zero-waste movement across college campuses. This summer, I’m one of two Reuse Economy Research Interns, along with my coworker Emily. Together, we’re researching and writing two best practice guides that discuss how college campuses and Goodwills can collaborate on creative reuse projects which build the circular economy.
Most of our research has consisted of phone call or video interviews with students, campus
admins, and Goodwill representatives to learn more about their experiences planning and running their projects. At the outset, the outreach process seemed somewhat nebulous, as Emily and I emailed potential contacts and posted to listservs, waiting for responses. We weren’t sure exactly what to expect, or whether we’d hit our target of 12 interviews. As we now transition into the writing stage, we’re realizing that we’ve learned much more than we could have imagined.
We surpassed our goal and interviewed 18 contacts, from as local as Philadelphia to as far west as Utah, and even Canada! Aside from the geographic diversity, the breadth of different projects also amazed us. We heard from individuals who intentionally procure used supplies for events, like thrifting T-shirts in bulk to screen-print. We’ve talked with “reusable” office supply stores that refurbish and resell old departmental furniture which might otherwise end up in landfills. We learned from a few “fix-it fairs,” one of which provides basic clothing repairs to a campus and the surrounding community. We even interviewed several creative reuse centers, which are similar to makerspaces but unique for collecting all kinds of salvaged materials that anyone on campus can access for crafting and creating.
Now that Emily and I have collected all this knowledge, we’re distilling it into case studies and best practices. Before writing, we’re taking care to determine how each manual should be structured and framed, how the projects can be scaled up or down to meet varying needs and goals, and how leadership and communication strategies should be emphasized.
As engrossing as the research process has been, our work hasn’t been limited to just the office. PLAN incorporates several field trips into the summer internship, and two weeks ago, staff and interns embarked on a weeklong retreat and camping trip in New England. We visited a Goodwill outlet, getting a behind-the-scenes look at how unsold items destined for the wholesale market are packaged into huge bales. We also toured an enormous landfill and met with local community members who have been fighting its expansion for decades. Getting another glimpse of the environmental justice movement on the ground, we had the privilege of speaking with folks from the Penobscot Nation about their work against river pollution in their territory.
Five weeks in, and I cannot imagine interning anywhere else. Five months ago, and I never would have thought I’d find myself at PLAN. How did I, an archaeology major, pursue a direction seemingly unrelated to my field of study?
Last year, an archaeological research fellowship and subsequent conference left me disillusioned with the discipline’s capacity to meaningfully impact society. Wanting to expand my perspective, I took an environmental anthropology course in the fall and discovered a budding passion for climate and sustainability issues. I saw this summer as my last opportunity to explore it before writing my thesis.
Because I had passion but no direct experience, I searched for organizations whose workplace culture and values would be a good fit for me. Archaeological excavations taught me that I work best in dynamic, collaborative environments which involve horizontal leadership and consensus-based decision making. PLAN embodied all of these characteristics, so even though I had no experience with the zero-waste movement, I applied for the research internship specifically, knowing I could utilize the academic skills I built through my major.
I’m beyond glad that I took the risk, and that PLAN took a chance on me. Ultimately, PLAN’s determination to achieve widespread social impact pushed me to definitively articulate the connections between archaeology and sustainability that had subconsciously been forming since my anthropology course. My archaeological perspective has led me to be critical of the Western conception of time as linear, progressive, and teleological. My anthropology course fueled my passion for mindset change: how to inspire people to see that alternatives to the linear consumption economy are both possible and desirable. My internship with PLAN challenges me to consider how archaeologists are actually in a unique position to effect change by showing that alternative modes of being have existed in the past and can exist again in new, future forms.
Ironically, I first saw PLAN as an opportunity to escape what I thought was an increasingly irrelevant discipline. Very satisfyingly, however, the internship has restored my confidence in archaeology in ways I hadn’t even imagined were possible. Everyone at PLAN has been incredibly supportive of my journey and my archaeological perspective on zero-waste, and it’s amazing how enthusiastic both the staff and interns are to learn from each other. With just five more weeks to go, I’m already wishing the summer was longer, but considering I’ve had this revelation only halfway through, I’m more than excited for what the last weeks have in store!