Question Of The Week: Campus Sustainability Initiatives

Go beyond bottle and paper recycling with these seven creative campus sustainability programs.

By Bobby Farris

Colleges and universities have long been the launching pad for American activism. From scientific to political, social to environmental; the concentration of youth, inquiry, and scholarly research has energized many causes. In recent decades, the environment has been a hot button for many campuses. The microcosm of society, compressed into the footprint of the campus has fostered a heightened awareness of campus sustainability efforts, especially by students, of the effects of man on the environment.

It is no surprise that in this hyper-interpersonal space, the concept of operating green and sustainably has become so important. In fact, Colgate University research tells us that a college or university’s “commitment to sustainability” actually can influence whether or not students apply to that school. And once on campus, student-community environmental programming is perceived to improve the quality of life at a school.

UCLA surveyed 240,580 first-year, full-time students at 340 four-year institutions in 2008 and found that nearly half of them considered “adopting ‘green’ practices to protect the environment” is “essential” or “very important”, and according to the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE), two-thirds of the Princeton Review’s sample population consider campus green initiatives when applying to colleges.

campus sustainabliity

Virtually every college campus has instituted a recycling program for bottles and cans, and papers and projects have moved to electronic submission systems. The grounds and facilities teams have probably assigned a “sustainability officer” and the procurement office has put limits on paper usage, too. So, what are some creative ways that your campus can improve your sustainability profile?

1. Create a student advisory committee. The addition of a student advisory committee on green initiatives to the student life department gives campus administrators a direct understanding of what the students are most interested in seeing change on their campus.

2. Institute a “ride-share” program. The University of Oklahoma introduced a bike share program called “Crimson Cruisers” in 2017. With 75 free bicycles spread out across 10 hubs around campus, students and staff are encouraged to use healthy alternatives to the campus shuttle system. And though OU’s program invested in new bicycles and a smartphone app to facilitate reservations and fines for misuse, a ride share program could be as simple as repurposing bicycles surrendered or commandeered on campus.

3. Use bulb compacting systems for fluorescent bulb waste. Every campus in America uses fluorescent lighting to some degree. Fluorescent lighting is efficient and inexpensive, but disposal can be a hassle. All fluorescent lamps have mercury contained inside and are considered “universal waste” by the U.S. EPA. Del Mar College in Corpus Christi, TX, a school with an enrollment of about 12,000, goes through 4,000 or more fluorescent bulbs a year. They use a BulbEater machine to crush their spent bulbs and make storage and transport more efficient. The machine catches the mercury for recycling and compacts the glass and phosphor so it can also be reused. By compacting the bulbs, Del Mar College reduces the amount of storage space they require for used lamps from 36 square feet to 12 square, freeing up valuable space for other facility equipment.

4. Organize campus swap meets. Every end of the semester campuses put out extra dumpsters to collect the tremendous amount of housewares and furniture being tossed by on-campus, residential students. According to waste handlers in the Pacific Northwest, at the University of Washington, e-waste is the problem as students dispose of their computers before returning home. Swap meets and campus flea markets encourage students to reuse rather than dispose of items with plenty of usable life left in them.

5.Build town-college relationships for waste. When items have outlasted their practical usefulness, encourage students to utilize local programs for difficult to recycle items, rather than toss them in the dumpster. According to Joe Dunlap, Waste Reduction Administrator at the Athens-Clarke County Solid Waste Department, University of Georgia students are encouraged to bring their e-waste and other items to the county’s CHaRM locations.

6. Create campus “Community Days” when students and faculty can be involved in campus improvements and beautification. An example of a community project is creating planters or landscaping around campus or even a community garden. The University of South Carolina developed a volunteer “permaculture” community garden that helps provide organic fruits, vegetables, and herbs to area food banks, while teaching community members about urban gardening and responsible horticulture practices. The garden is open to all community members and the University has even hired a dedicated garden manager.

7. Expand recycling programs beyond the usual. Recycling cans, bottles, and paper is always a good idea, but companies like TerraCycle offer specialized recycling programs that can also be a big success on campus. Coffee pods, printer cartridges, snack wrappers, and even med waste like sharps and syringes can be collected in a Zero Waste Box program and sent back to TerraCycle for recycling.

Every college wants to attract great students and make their experience a rewarding one. By taking some inexpensive steps, a campus can increase their environmental stewardship and connect to their community. The size of the school does not matter, but the actions can have a lasting impact on the students, staff and environment.

Farris is general manager of TerraCycle Regulated Waste, a leader in the collection and recycling of waste streams traditionally considered not recyclable. He has spent his 20-year career providing executive management and strategic direction for companies in the recycling industry. Formed from the acquisition of Air Cycle Corporation in 2017, TerraCycle Regulated Waste is also the manufacturer of the Bulb Eater® drum-top fluorescent lamp machine which crushes spent fluorescent lamps.

Which of these seven sustainability initiatives are in action at your campus? Which have been most successful? Share your thoughts, experiences, or questions in the Comments section below.


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