Sunday, August 30, 2009

Colleges Going Green - They Need to Do Better

Sunny clear day, with fall clearly in the air.

I had the very mixed emotions of bringing my daughter (my baby) to college on Saturday. Having been raised in a "college town", I love visiting campuses for that academic, young spirited, high energy rush. I also now enjoy visiting colleges with a green eye perspective to see how colleges are going green. At the end of the day, I left with some pleasant surprises and, unfortunately, some disappointments.

Colleges going green get a lot of media attention, especially since there seems to be some competition to be listed in the top what ever for being green. I think it's a good thing to go after such a status; certainly better than the party school category.

The college my daughter is attending is no where to be found on "the list"of green colleges, but their website still boasts a tab for "green living". The initiatives are impressive, with the ever present, well documented, school's "commitment" to going green. Looks great on paper (not literal, it's online) but visiting proved to be another story.

When we first drove up to the dorm entrance I was surprised and pleased that my daughter was handed her room keys along with a stainless steel water bottle. (thank God it wasn't a SIGG) It was a no-name brand but the message was more important than the product - use reusable water bottles. This was a great start.

Once in the room, there was a standard size paper posted on the back of the door with instructions for recycling, but no encouragement to Reduce and Reuse before you Recycle, like using the water bottle they were just given. It was the basic list of items to recycle but what was seriously lacking were containers to put all this. It would have been nice to have 2 waste containers, one clearly labeled for recycling, so student were constantly reminded of what was expected of them. Some schools hand out bags clearly marked so they can easily carry them to where they need to go. It is a waste of a perfectly good bag, but they probably have a much higher participation rate.

My other daughter happens to be doing a semester exchange out in Northern California which she likens to Burlington, Vermont on steroids. In her dorm room there are 2 baskets, one trash and one recycling for students. Each trash can on campus is buddied with a recycling bin. All dumpsters have a big sign on it: "WAIT - Can you recycle it?" Sounds like a pretty easy enough thing to do. Why can't all schools do this? And towns and cities for that matter.

Back to the dorm room. Also on the sheet of paper were reminders to turn off the lights when leaving the room and any other electrical "things" not needed (I suppose that is the "reduce part"). It mentioned using CFLs (compact fluorescent light bulbs) and said to dispose of them properly in a plastic bag and give them to a janitor. I'm not sure how many students will actually do this, I hope all. It very casually mentioned that they contained mercury but I would have liked to see them really push the proper disposal and to not put it in the regular trash. Maybe they didn't want to sound alarming or have some parent freak out about the mercury but I think they could have heightened the instructions a bit.

I did find something quite disturbing and totally unacceptable - the instructions, in the event that a CFL broke, actually said to look it up online as to how to take care of it. ?^$%?? By then it's too late and the likelihood of everyone looking up the directions online seem pretty remote. I would have like to have seen in big print, bigger than everything else, about opening windows and getting out of the room asap, in addition to the "be careful about picking up the glass" etc. This is a very serious over site on the college's part.

There were no other do's or don't like using a smart strip or at the very least turning of the surge protector to power down phantom load.

Once the furniture was rearranged and the bed made, off to the student union we went. They had coffee for the parents (yes I brought my thermos) and, EEK, handed out free water in disposable bottles. Why didn't they have big containers of water like the coffee so students could use those stainless steel bottles they were just given? Doesn't anyone use a water fountain anymore?

There was a table set up by an environmental group showing green cleaning products, reusable water bottles, a Brita filter that did not say BPA-Free and some paper items with recycled content. I asked them if they were encouraging students to hang dry their clothes and they mumbled something about trying to figure out where to hang a line outside. I suggested some racks inside might work too but they thought the lack of "air" might not let the clothes dry. I shared my thoughts about how once the heat comes on, the air is usually pretty dry and the clothes should have no problem drying. My daughter was mortified.

In the afternoon we went to the Welcoming Event by the President and Deans held in their big auditorium. Before it started, one of Deans handed out, EEK, bottled water. This really struck me. How is it that the students were given reusable water bottles but the staff was not setting an example? What's good for the goslings is good for the geese. As I sat and listened, I wondered what would this scene would have been like 30 years ago. They would not have handed out bottled water, people didn't drink water like they do today. If someone needed water,they would have brought their own glass or the school would have provided a pitcher of water and small glass for all. I think that anyone can manage to get through 1 hour without the need to drink water and this obsession with drinking water is, well, an obsession.

Overall the day was lovely, the school is wonderful and my daughter is sure to flourish. But I did leave very surprised at how un-progessive the school was with regard to environmental awareness and behaviors. After reviewing their website, which seems quite thorough, it doesn't seem the school is really walking the walk. There's talk about renewable energy, there are a few solar panels on one building, they do carbon-offsets and have a green building policy. These are all really big wonderful top-down initiatives to be applauded for sure but equally important are the small things, done by each person everyday for the bottom up approach.

Colleges, at least some, should perhaps review their green policies, update them, and put all the do's and don'ts that might be on their website into real action. I think it is wonderful that there is so much emphasis on colleges going green, that institutions have sustainability policies and being environmentally conscious is "in". Colleges have such a precious opportunity to teach young people about our role in the future of the environment, to create lasting habits and to have them appreciate all that surrounds them. I love that colleges are going green - but they need to do better.

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