Giving it the Ole' College Try
Environmentalism Goes to University
By Kate Slomkowski
College probably hasn't changed very much in the past few decades when it comes to student life. Semesters are measured by how many nights were spent at the library huddling over a large cup of coffee and a History of the Modern World book. You can't call yourself an undergraduate student unless you've attempted to print out a last-minute essay only to discover your printer has run out of black ink. Yes, you do get marked down if you hand in an essay in pink ink. I know I've destroyed at least a small forest in how many copies I've made while conducting research.
The University of Connecticut is a place that's pretty easy to get lost in, or more appropriately, buried in. There's a lot of waste generated by a school of more than 27,000 people. I found myself emptying my room garbage pail twice a week, and even more than that during finals. Being an environmental major, I tend to pay more attention to how long my showers are, how much litter I see people toss, and how many paper cups are used at the café. How such waste is managed is one indicator of how eco-friendly an administration is. I've noticed that when it comes to the environment, UConn has taken great strides in the past couple of years to improve its policies.
Last November, a UConn shuttle bus ran on biodiesel that was created by several students as a summer/fall project. The project was funded by a $15,000 grant from the Provost's office. The fuel was composed of 20 percent biodiesel that was produced using 10 gallons of waste cooking oil from the various dining halls on campus. The biodiesel was combined with 80 percent petroleum diesel to generate a formula that burned cleaner and made good use of the dining hall waste.
In 2004, a student group called EcoHusky was formed with the Office of Environmental Policy at UConn. The EcoHusky group has embarked on several successful campaigns, the most memorable of which has been the EcoHusky mug project. In response to the amount of paper cups the cafés were giving out each week for coffee, the students came up with a refillable mug that was library approved and dishwasher friendly. Besides walking around carrying a cool-looking mug, you get a discount at the café when you buy a refill. A goal was set at selling 100 mugs during EcoHusky's self-proclaimed "Mug Day," but students ended up selling more than 200. Perhaps the best thing about the mug campaign is that it makes students aware of the fact that one person does make a difference when it comes to helping the environment.
EcoHusky also helped organize a campus-wide sneaker drive. The collected sneakers were donated to Nike's Reuse-A-Shoe program, which takes the old shoes and recycles them into playgrounds and playing surfaces. On Earth Day, "Mount Sneaker" was built up outside the infamous Gampel Pavilion, with several star student athletes making an appearance to promote the drive. The EcoHusky group worked with the Department of Athletics and Residential Life in a fine example of campus cooperation.
While EcoHusky is still a pretty new group on campus, others have been around for a long time, since the college first started as an agriculture school in 1881. In the College of Agriculture you'll find the student chapters of the Soil and Water Conservation Society, the Forest and Wildlife Club, and the Wildlife Society. These groups work to maintain the trails around UConn, create wildlife habitats (such as bluebird boxes), bring in influential speakers, and help generate enthusiasm for the environment.
I spent two years as an active member of the Wildlife Society and have been blown away by the dedication shown by wildlife enthusiasts. The club hosted a representative from the raptor rehabilitation center Wind Over Wings, who came to speak with several live birds that have been rehabilitated but cannot return to the wild. Everyone from education to business majors came to the lecture. You don't have to be an agriculture major to be awed by the majesty of a golden eagle named Skywalker.
UConn also has some solid recycling programs in place, courtesy of the Office of Environmental Policy. Every dorm has a room dedicated to recycling with color-coded labels that even the most intoxicated student could figure out.
UConn has done a lot to protect the environment, but it definitely has a lot more to do. I've worked at the UConn COOP for the past year and a half and I've handed out more plastic bags than I can count. Whenever we run low, we have to switch to paper. Paper is definitely the most unpopular bag I hand out: it's not very strong, has no handles, and has an unfortunate half-life when it's raining out. I can't help but notice this needless waste. Perhaps encouraging canvas bags would help. I also have yet to see more UConn buses run on that biofuel. Despite EcoHusky's bike initiative, it's still a hazard to ride through campus during the day. Bikers have to share the sidewalks with pedestrians because the roads were designed with bikes as an afterthought more than a priority.
The University also seems to have a strange stubbornness when it comes to spending money on something other than new athletic facilities or dorms that don't meet fire codes. For example, the Soil and Water Conservation Society proposed a composting facility about ten years ago. A composting facility would serve as an efficient way to get rid of dining hall waste, would serve as a research facility, and would create a product that could be sold to local farmers. The plans have sat around for years with no success. Mark Hood, president of the UConn Soil and Water Conservation Society chapter, has been working on getting the proposal back in the spotlight. During the Earth Day festivities he set up a table outside the outside the library promoting the benefits of composting and collecting signatures for a petition.
The good news is the UConn student body isn't alone in its endeavors to green up campus. Yale University's Student Environmental Coalition is working on setting up a "bike library" so students can borrow a bike when needed, to promote the use of bicycles in New Haven. The student group is also working with Yale administration to reduce on-campus energy consumption. An initiative called The Climate Campaign involves 125 campuses in nine states and will be holding a conference at Harvard this summer. This campaign seeks to reduce the Northeast's contributions to climate change by bringing student organizations together and working with college administrations for change. Some colleges involved include Unity college, Middlebury, Brown, the University of Rhode Island, Penn State, the University of Pittsburgh and Cornell.
I give UConn student groups an A when it comes to effort. With new ambitious environmental groups popping up, students are beginning to see that they have to make change happen. You just can't wait for the university to make eco-friendly decisions, not with basketball season coming up anyway. Students are the ones who need to make the environment a top priority, right next to better dining hall food and more parking spaces.
Kate Slomkowski is an E intern who will be starting her senior year at the University of Connecticut in the fall.