How green is my campus? Colleges woo students with environmental activities

Nick Perry

By Nick Perry

The Seattle Times


SEATTLE — Need to get to Seattle University? There’s a green transit pass for that. Need to meet somebody when you’re there? Try the new eco-friendly gathering space.

Eating in the cafeteria? The disposable forks are biodegradable, made from corn. Leftovers? There’s composting, both off-site and on. Trouble getting home? Try car-pooling, van-sharing or something called maxi pool.

Seattle U. is typical of many universities across the country that are trying to win the hearts and minds — and tuition checks — of students by becoming greener than their peers.

Perhaps nowhere is the trend more apparent than in the Pacific Northwest, with its reputation for environmental awareness.

The move toward greener campuses is driven as much by the concerns of a new generation of students as it is by university leaders. And it reaches beyond the cafes and dorms into the lecture halls. At the University of Washington, for instance, one of the few departments expanding during a time of budget cuts is the fledgling College of the Environment.

Local universities have been quick to crow about their green successes. Just consider some recent news releases: “Western Washington University Students Sweep Awards at Environmental Competition,” reads one. “Princeton Review Chooses The Evergreen State College for Its ‘Green Rating Honor Roll,'” reads another. “Seattle University is the greenest green campus in Washington state,” trumpets a third.

Beyond the hype, the universities are laying down serious plans for reducing carbon emissions. The University of Washington, in particular, has been lauded by a number of national organizations for its sustainability efforts and the extensive detail contained in its 73-page Climate Action Plan.

In the plan, the school sets ambitious targets: a 15 percent reduction in greenhouse-gas emission over the next decade, and the elimination of all net emissions by 2050.

The university says it expects technological improvements to account for some 60 percent of its energy-reduction goals. Suggested improvements range from the mundane, such as reducing steam leakage from the pipes in its heating plant, to the fanciful, such as pumping cold water from the depths of Lake Washington to cool campus buildings.

The school hopes behavioral changes, prompted by education and financial incentives, will account for another 20 percent of its goals. Carbon offsets — planting trees, for example — would take care of the remainder.

While some initiatives like the Climate Action Plan are coming from administrators, others are bubbling up from students like Krysta Yousoufian. The University of Washington computer-science junior is one of 20 students who sometimes stand next to trash bins in the dining halls to remind staff and students that almost all their leftovers are compostable and should be placed in the green-waste bins.

“We don’t mean to be chastising students at all, and we try to be as friendly as we can,” says Yousoufian, the associate-director of Students Expressing Environmental Dedication (SEED). “We understand it’s confusing, and we are here to help, not to make people feel stupid.”

Yousoufian says students are generally supportive, although there have been some awkward moments. To avoid those in the future, she says, SEED members plan to start wearing T-shirts or pins, and perhaps playing music, to make their mission clearer.

“The UW is a pretty sustainable campus,” she says. “I think students come in and have the culture of green thrown at them.”

Micheal Meyering, who oversees waste management and composting for the campus’s Housing and Food Services, says his goal is to enable the 30,000 daily customers to simply dump everything in a compost bin after eating a meal by making every cup, plate, knife and fork compostable.

That should become reality by mid-March, he says, by which time compostable lids for coffee cups and soup bowls will have been introduced.

“If you go back about three years, we had the classic waste model. Everything on the customer side was garbage,” he said.

Back then, the university sent 120 tons of green waste annually to Cedar Grove Composting, according to Meyering. That’s now grown to 540 tons per year.

Seattle U. has gone one step further by composting some of its food scraps on campus. Tyler Dierks, Seattle U.’s recycling coordinator, says he composts about 1 cubic yard of kitchen leftovers each week, which becomes mulch for the campus flower beds. Sometimes, he says, a tomato or squash plant will grow from the mulch, a reminder of how it was created.

Seattle U. has a long-standing commitment to such practices. It stopped using pesticides back when Ciscoe Morris, now a gardening celebrity, was the campus groundskeeper some 30 years ago.

Students at a number of other local campuses have taken to growing their own food in small garden plots. Evergreen even boasts its own organic farm, which serves as an outdoor classroom. And students at both Western and Evergreen have voted in favor of paying a fee to ensure their power comes from green sources such as wind and solar.

New buildings on most campuses — including a new business school at the University of Washington — are being built to environmental construction standards.

At Seattle U., staff recently celebrated the opening of the new Admissions and Alumni building, which features floor-to-ceiling windows and a roof that collects and filters rainwater. Designed as a gathering spot for students and the community, the building is expected to get a prestigious gold rating through the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) rating system.

Some students seem apathetic about the greening of their campuses, but if there’s any push back — a feeling that it’s overkill or too entwined with a particular political viewpoint — it’s not immediately apparent. Most seem to embrace the idea of creating a cleaner, greener place to study.

The fact that publications like The Princeton Review, which aims to help students choose a college, have recently added “green” ratings to their college guides indicates that students are increasingly weighing environmental policies when deciding what university to attend.

“There’s a lot of student activism on campus, and students are used to people talking to them about social or environmental issues,” says Katie Boehnlein, a Seattle U. senior involved in environmental advocacy. “I hope that when they leave, students will take away some knowledge about their local environment and think more about the decisions they make every day.”

(c) 2010, The Seattle Times.

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