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A Penn alumna partners with local businesses in the race toward zero waste

MES in the Community, Helena Rudoff

“Having a role in public service and helping the public have a voice in impacting the environment is really important to me,” reflects Helena Rudoff (Master of Environmental Studies `19). When she graduated college with an environmental economics degree, she had found her passion but not her career path until she visited Penn’s Earth and Environmental Science department. “I just walked in!” she laughs. “I had never met anyone at Penn before, but the director sat down with me and talked through the Master of Environmental Studies (MES) program.” Helena adds, “The personalization of the program and the time that all the administrators are willing to take with each student—whether or not they’re already enrolled in the program—is really valuable.”

As she completed the MES degree, Helena complemented her studies with courses on geographic information systems and electives in the School of Social Policy and Practice. “Be brave and broad in your course selection,” she advises. “That’s a valuable piece of the program. The different perspectives forced me to think differently about the work I was doing in environmental policy, and it’s very helpful for me to have knowledge of how we think about cities and areas spatially, how environmental investigators work in the field, and how to engage with the public around social policy issues.”

During the program, Helena began working with the City of Philadelphia as a summer intern tasked with helping the City redevelop its commercial waste reporting system to improve compliance. Helena helped to create a new web-accessible reporting form and accompanying guide. Around the same time, the City was preparing to launch a new program to help local businesses work toward reducing and diverting their waste. “Then I just kept being asked to stay on longer and longer to administer each of the programs,” she recalls. “I guess that’s the ideal situation.”

Now that Helena has settled into her expanded role as the Data Coordinator for the Office of Transportation, Infrastructure, and Sustainability and as manager of the Zero Waste Partnership Program, she has the opportunity to watch her programs take root and flourish. “The Partnership Program especially is just growing so quickly, and it’s exciting,” she says. “When I moved to Philadelphia for school, I never thought I’d be in the position to meet all of these well-known business owners and change-makers in the city.” For example, the Zero Waste and Litter Cabinet recently partnered with an iconic family-owned bakery that has been purveying coffee and sweets in the 9th Street Italian Market for 25 years. “One of the key aspects for them is waste reduction,” explains Helena. “Obviously, we want our partners to recycle and compost, but getting to zero waste means that you use more durable items and not as many single-use products. Anthony’s Italian Coffee is a good example: they’ve stopped selling products in single bags, they don’t use plastic straws, they no longer use Styrofoam.” She adds, “It’s really exciting to highlight a partner who is so well-known. It makes the idea of zero waste seem all the more achievable.”

But, Helena emphasizes, any business located in Philadelphia County can join the Zero Waste Partnership program. “Ultimately, the goal is to see the entire city operating at zero waste, so we help businesses no matter where they’re starting,” she explains. “We’re Philadelphians too. We see how trash and litter impact our community and our neighbors, and we really care about achieving these goals.”