Student campaign bans pesticides at Drexel | The Triangle

Student campaign bans pesticides at Drexel

Photo by Evie Touring | The Triangle

After two years of advocacy, a pilot project and engaging multiple stakeholders, a group of Drexel University students have successfully lobbied Drexel Real Estate & Facilities to switch to a new program of organic land management across campus on all its lawn spaces. 

Until this spring, Drexel Grounds employed synthetic herbicides on campus grass to keep turf healthy and eliminate stubborn weeds. 

However, it has long been alleged that synthetic pesticides and herbicides have health concerns, with some being classified as probable carcinogens. In the Philadelphia area, chemical giant Monsanto has faced a lawsuit alleging that its herbicide product Roundup is responsible for causing cancer, a battle which has been ongoing since 2022.

This was the impetus for Kacy Gao, ‘25, to reach out to Toxic Free Philly, an organization she came across while in her CIVC 101 class. Toxic Free Philly has played a profound role in synthetic pesticide and herbicide policy in the Philly area before. In 2021, after advocacy by the group, Philadelphia City Council voted to restrict the use of synthetic pesticides on municipal grounds, including parks. Reportedly, the Kenney administration did not enforce this, prompting City Council to consider suing to compel enforcement of the measure. It is unclear whether the law is currently being enforced under the Parker administration.

Seeing TFP’s success, Gao had the idea “of working with Drexel to go organic, as Drexel has such a large presence in the city,” and reached out to form Toxic Free Philly Drexel in March 2022, beginning to engage with others soon after.

 Sean Vanson, ‘25, a TFP Drexel member, said “I initially heard about the issue of synthetic pesticide use on campus from Kacy… [W]e discovered that Drexel sprayed herbicides on our campus called Roundup [containing glyphosate], and Trimec-1000 [containing 2,4-D]… which were possible or probable carcinogens. Fearing these risks for ourselves and our fellow students, we became determined to look for other options on campus. Through our research, we found that the use of herbicides could be avoided by using organic techniques. Wanting to make a positive difference in our community, we pursued this transition to organic land care.”

To build a case for making the switch, TFP connected them with Re:wild Your Campus, a national organization advocating for sustainable campus practices, and Dr. Anneclaire De Roos, a Drexel environmental epidemiologist involved in research on greenspace access and urban health. Furthermore, they connected with PJC Organic, an organic land management consultant. Together, they created a research proposal and presented it to Drexel Grounds later in the spring of 2022.

“Tony [Gale, Assistant Director of Grounds] and I were both skeptical, as we both come from industries that generally do not tolerate turf weeds (golf course management and commercial landscape),” acknowledged Scott Dunham, Director of Grounds Maintenance. An inherent necessity of organic land management is learning to coexist with at least a few weeds. Beyond this, significant barriers in the implementation of even a pilot-sized project remained: neither money nor labor were abundantly available. 

However, with the help of Re:wild Your Campus, “We wrote for grants… and we eventually secured a small grant from the Foundation for Sustainability and Innovation to launch an organic pilot at Drexel Park,” Gao said. Drexel Park was ideal as a testing ground because of the harsh use case its grass faces: well-loved by students and the community, it also receives full sun and high foot traffic. 

In 2023, the pilot project began, as did research. TFP Drexel took responsibility for the hands-on aspect, monitoring grass coverage and density, soil pH levels, weed coverage and bare soil coverage. Using Lancaster Walk as a control, the results soon proved promising.  

“The project was supposed to last for 3-4 years… After only a year of the pilot project, the Grounds team felt that the grass on Drexel Park proved to be healthier and more durable, which led to savings in water costs and less manual labor needed to maintain it. These results led them to the decision to transition the entire campus [starting in spring 2024],” Vanson said.

“Grounds had mentioned they felt that the turf was looking greener, lusher, and the diversity of weeds had decreased overall, and they felt confident in their ability to expand an organic turf schedule to the rest of campus with the budget they were working with,” Gao added.

The official transition was announced on April 18 at Drexel EarthFest. When the news was revealed to TFP Drexel ahead of time, Vanson recounts, “[W]e were all ecstatic, as we knew that all of the hard work that we had put in finally paid off. That feeling of making a difference in our local community was fulfilling for all of us in the group.”

The suspicious-looking plugs of dirt noticeable on campus lawns this past week are evidence of the new organic approach in action; produced by a core aerating machine, the small holes left behind break up the soil, allowing water and nutrients to better permeate. Per Drexel Grounds, the next step will be applying an organic fertilizer, made from poultry by-products, sometime in May.

“I am open to [the change] and excited to see how it goes. It’s been a big change to move away from a conventional turf program and to ignore what years and years of experience have taught us, i.e. [to] eliminate or prevent turf weeds, in favor of a new approach. Our hope is that more frequent aeration and seeding plus longer but less frequent irrigation schedules will promote healthier turf that will out-compete most common turf weeds,” Dunham said. The department is also tracking the costs, and expects to come in under the same budget. While organic products have generally proven more expensive upfront, labor is saved by not manually applying the synthetic herbicides.

While this achievement might seem like a capstone for TFP Drexel, Gao says the group has no plans of stopping their advocacy:

“What’s next is focusing on our research, which has implications for future decisions about the organic program at Drexel and for organic land management transitions on campuses everywhere; community engagement; and working with Toxic Free Philly Drexel to advocate for the enforcement of the Healthy Outdoor Public Spaces law. We’d also love to talk to other campuses in Philadelphia about going organic!”