Author: Stephen Nemeth|Delarys Ramos Estrada
The Sierra Club released its list of Top 100 Green Schools Sept. 2, ranking colleges and universities in the United States in terms of sustainability. Across a broad range of topics, the Sierra Club considers sustainability to reflect qualities from energy consumption to food sourcing, waste disposal to water usage practices. This year Occidental College finally broke the top 100, landing at 97.
Often, sustainability is not one of the most visible or publicized aspects of a college — but that is not the case at Occidental this year. As the academic theme for the 2015-16 school year, sustainability is now central to campus dialogue. People on campus, including Associated Students of Occidental College (ASOC) Senate Vice President of Sustainability Sarah Mosley, see this as an opportunity not only to make students more aware of Occidental’s commitment to sustainability, but also to teach students how to take action themselves and be more aware of it in their daily lives.
“The fact that we have these different sustainability-related bodies, but that specialize in different things, kind of creates this really interesting incubator for sustainability,” Mosley said. “We just really need exposure right now because as we get more exposure, people will be more aware of the resources we have and will begin to see that culture change: the culture of an increased awareness for sustainability.”
According to Philosophy Professor Clair Morrissey, it is necessary to look at the college’s theme from the perspective of many fields, as this helps students to build a better understanding of how sustainability fits into the pluralized global community.
“To achieve ‘sustainability,’ we need to know what it means in the first place, why we should care about it and how we should prioritize it with respect to the many other things we (rightly) care about,” Morrissey said via email.
Campus Dining Sustainability Intern and Food, Energy and Sustainability Team (FEAST) President Dylan Bruce (senior) has a similar idea: He wants people to realize that sustainability has more than one application.
In his view, sustainability is often solely interpreted in environmental terms, but sustainability cannot continue to be misunderstood in this way. To him, its popular connotation needs to be reevaluated.
“[Sustainability] really has to do with the longevity of systems,” Bruce said. “This applies to social sustainability, economic sustainability and environmental sustainability … As an institution of higher education that is molding the mindsets of students, we need to emphasize the importance of these issues.”
Mosley, who is a member of the Renewable Energy and Sustainability Fund (RESF), gave a similar analysis of sustainability in that the term does not just relate to the environment. She offered RESF as an ideal example of how sustainability can be considered in a social context.
Last year, RESF helped the Hawaiian club to fund catering at one of their events, using the rationale that it identifies as a cultural club on campus. Mosley sees this as an example of how a social group can be sustained.
“[RESF wants] to encourage the concept [of sustainability] to be applied to cultural clubs as well, because sustaining a culture is really important on campus, and it is something that Oxy is very passionate about and our students are very passionate about,” Mosley said.
Physics Professor Daniel Snowden-Ifft, who took on a central role in bringing the solar array to campus, reflected that people at Occidental have been critical in making his visions a reality at Occidental.
“Sustainability means a lot of different things, and a lot of people are doing some really good work at Oxy,” he said. “I really think that it’s one of our strong suits, and I think it is something where we can make a difference.”
Bruce hopes that this year’s theme will open up many students to the ways in which sustainability can be viewed cohesively, as more than just how people interact with their environment.
“I think Occidental has an important place of leadership in driving that point home,” Bruce said. “We have classes like Sustainable Economics and Sustainability Policy. We have the Urban Environmental Policy department, which is a leader in the issues it works with, nationally. The theme this year of [sustainability] really cements that, or at least I hope it will.”
Those who want to become more involved with sustainability initiatives and projects on campus can first consider Mosley’s suggestion to request funding from Senate and RESF. But they can also take advantage of the opportunity to become involved in groups or positions on campus that address issues of sustainability.
For RESF in particular, Mosley emphasized that there are virtually no restrictions on who can apply for monetary assistance in pursuing sustainable initiatives and programs.
“You can be a student, you can be a faculty member, you can be in the sustainability fund, you can be someone who has never done anything sustainability-related on campus but has managed to tie sustainability into a project you are doing,” Mosley said. “We just want to be a really accessible body for students.”
Among the projects that RESF has supported are the Green Bean’s “for-here” mug program and a robot designed by the physics departments to clean off the solar array on Mount Fiji.
Alternatively, students can become involved with organizations like FEAST, an initiative that began when a group of four students petitioned for a garden space on campus in 2008. They built garden beds, installed sheds, sponsored community engagement events and recruited Steele to act as a faculty advisor.
However, once those students left Occidental, the garden fell into disrepair. Pests and invasive species, such as the fox squirrel, ravaged the garden and the the smaller management team spent less time maintaining the space. The collective student enthusiasm and involvement plummeted. For Bruce, the past three years have been primarily about remediating those damages in order to achieve better production.
“When the original students left, the person who took over was a little less motivated, a little less organized and not quite as good with the community outreach component,” Bruce said. “I think we’re still recovering from that period of about three and half years of under-management.”
FEAST is currently implementing a method called agroecology, which encourages individuals maintaining the space to use context- and site-specific techniques when tending to the garden. The goal for the garden at Occidental is to choose gardening practices that reflect the social and ecological constraints of campus.
FEAST Project Manager Skye Harnsberger (junior) said they could always use more help.
“What I have experienced with FEAST … is a lot of students say that they are interested, but students are so busy at Occidental that it is really hard to get people to commit to coming to projects and garden meetings and stuff like that,” Harnsberger said. “We seem to have a lot of interest — our email list is huge — but often we will have just a few volunteers show up.”
FEAST also currently maintains a butterfly and pollinator garden, both established by Harnsberger during her first and second year, respectively, with the help of Biology Professor Gretchen North and Facilities Management.
URBAN ENVIRONMENTAL POLICY DEPARTMENT
The Urban Environmental Policy (UEP) department plays an instrumental role in the sustainability efforts on campus. It is a department that focuses on equipping students with the foundational knowledge necessary to pursue sustainability efforts in a real world setting. Mark Vallianatos, policy director of the Urban and Environmental Policy Institute (UEPI) and an adjunct instructor, currently teaches Transportation and Living Streets (UEP 210), a course that focuses on the streets of Los Angeles and how their design can significantly impact the environment and surrounding communities.
These classes, apart from educating students, are think tanks for different ideas revolving around sustainability initiatives. The Bengal Bike Share, for example, was proposed by a student taking UEP courses, as was the idea for the Green Bean Coffee Lounge.
Additionally, the UEP promotes sustainability in a larger context. For example, directly related to Vallianatos’ course, the UEP worked with communities in Northeast Los Angeles to produce streets that were more walkable and bikeable, narrowing car roads in an effort to reduce air pollution.
CAMPUS DINING SERVICES
The Real Food Challenge (RFC) is a network of institutions committed to providing 20 percent “real food” by 2020. Real food is measured by a variety of metrics, including whether the producer is local and community based; whether the production is ecologically sound (i.e organic, seasonal); whether food producers in developing countries received a fair price for their product; and whether the production of said product was humane. Occidental is one of the schools spearheading the movement, with 15 percent of its food budget going toward real food and a commitment to 30 percent by 2020.
As a sustainability intern for Campus Dining, Harnsberger works on researching the local food sourcers that the Marketplace can partner with and marketing selected foods to students. She points out that this is an important job because it helps students become more aware of the local and organic options available in the Marketplace. According to Harnsberger, if students do not buy a certain type of local food product, then the Marketplace will likely discontinue that product.
However, Campus Dining is fighting an uphill battle to get students interested in buying sustainable products. As a debit dining facility, they are obligated to serve what students choose to eat, according to Bruce, and they can not force sustainable products onto students’ plates.
“[The system] basically is a cycle, because that kind of produce is more expensive, so we need students to purchase it so that the marketplace can get more of that produce,” she said.
Chef Michael “Meesh” Montygierd is attempting to tackle this issue directly. His major goal is to broaden student food palates by introducing new meal options. At times, Meesh even goes as far as putting a sample plate on view. In the Marketplace, foods that are part of the Real Food Challenge are tagged with the message “Oxy’s Own Sustainably Sourced.”
FACILITIES MANAGEMENT DEPARTMENT
Despite losing a Campus Sustainability Coordinator and Energy Manager in the 2014-15 year, the staff on campus remain committed to the promotion of sustainability. Facilities Management is responsible for coordinating space and infrastructure on campus, so it is directly involved in pursuing certain environmental goals. These goals include the reduction of water usage, gas usage, electricity usage and waste management.
In 2014, statistics indicated that approximately two-thirds of Occidental’s water was used for irrigation. In response to this, Cleaning Services Manager Ruben Campos and Board of Trustees Chairman Chris Calkins are currently working on a comprehensive landscape plan which they hope will reduce water use significantly. The new plan calls for more native and drought-resistant plants around campus and improvements in capturing and reusing water that is used.
Steele spoke about how around campus there is a growing percentage of distressed land, or land that has been affected as a result of water restrictions. State drought measures mandated the reduction of irrigation systems in California, which Steele says has inspired the new landscaping choices on campus. The establishment of more environmentally-friendly plants, such as succulents and cacti, help mitigate these reductions.
Inside buildings at Occidental, Facilities Management aims to install low-flow shower heads, automatic sensor faucets and waterless urinals. Many buildings already have automatically flushing toilets.
California, as a whole, uses 20 percent of its electrical power for water-related uses, according to Steele. The reduction of hot shower times, for example, helps reduce natural gas and power consumption. Natural gasses are used to heat water, while power (electricity) is used to get water into our taps. This means that water use around campus is tightly knit to the reduction of other resources.
Facilities Management is also working toward regulating the use of heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) systems. This includes purchasing equipment that can save energy, setting fixed timers for HVAC use, and establishing white reflective roofing, which is designed to reduce air conditioning needs within the building by maintaining lower roof temperature, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.
Occidental is aiming to make buildings on campus more efficient. All future buildings and remodels are expected to earn a Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Silver status or higher. LEED is a certification issued by the U.S. Green Building Council that helps establish standards for ensuring environmentally sound buildings through a rating system. The highest level of certification is LEED Platinum, followed by Gold, Silver and Certified, depending on the quantity and quality of sustainability measures adopted. Swan Hall, after being renovated in 2011-12, earned Leed Gold status. Johnson Hall and the Academic Commons, following its expected renovation, are also being considered as future candidates for certification.
In years past, Occidental students, staff and faculty have faced obstacles to achieving greater sustainability on campus; many are hopeful, however, that the academic theme will encourage students to begin changing their habits.
One of the easiest ways for individuals to support sustainability is by amending daily routines to be more mindful of their environmental impact, according to Environmental Health and Safety Manager Bruce Steele. Steele emphasized that individuals can make a difference in the campus’ overall water use by minimizing the time they spend showering, brushing their teeth, and shaving.
Associate Vice President for Hospitality Services Amy Munoz suggested another simple way students can be more environmentally aware in their post-consumption actions: by properly sorting their trash into the appropriate compost, recycle and waste bins.
In the Marketplace, the staff in the dish room are trained to sort through the trash that students place on the conveyor belt, efficiently ensuring that waste is either sorted into landfill, compost or recycling bins. Elsewhere on campus, members of the college and visitors must self-sort their waste, which can lead to issues of contamination when students are miseducated about where certain items should be placed. Munoz explained that whole loads of compost can be rejected if they are contaminated by non-compostable items. When these loads of compost are rejected, they instead go to the landfill.
Another program Munoz encouraged students to take advantage of is the Eco-Clamshell program. Eco-Clamshells are reusable take-out containers for food purchased in the Marketplace. Currently most students, instead of signing up for the Eco-Clamshell program, opt for using disposable, clear take-out containers which must be go in the landfill bin unless they are completely rinsed.
Through RESF, Campus Dining recently purchased an additional 200 eco-clamshell tokens that interns will be giving out for free in the quad periodically.
“I think if you are using a take-out container and you live in the residence halls, for instance, you should be using an eco-clamshell instead,” Munoz said. “I think those disposable take-out containers really are for visitors. The Eco-Clamshell is perfect for a student that lives in a residence hall. And there really isn’t any reason not to use it.”
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