A green wave is flooding college campuses, engulfing residence halls, classrooms and cafeterias, and leaving in its wake scenes of immense progress and healthier futures. Across the United States, students and faculty are getting creative during the sustainability revolution to reverse their school's negative influence on the Earth.
Most of the push for sustainability at the university level comes in the form of alternative energy choices, budget cuts and efficient building planning on behalf of administration, but student action is equally important. Minor lifestyle changes can have a huge impact on a daily and long-term basis.
In honor of Energy Action Month, we're showcasing some of the impressive work being done by volunteer groups and sustainability councils at universities around the nation. The initiatives we highlight are mostly low-budget, highly effective and easy to implement anywhere in the country.
So if you're looking for ways to make a difference at your school or in your neighborhood, follow the lead of these environmental innovators.
Courtesy of: Paul Davis/ American University
American University tip: Create a campus sustainability tour
We head first to the heart of Washington, D.C. With its sustainability tour and downloadable map, the Eagles' Office of Sustainability allows students and visitors alike to discover all that makes American University a green campus.
Either with a group or self-guided, you'll learn about AU's seven green roofs, community garden, bioretention ponds, rain gardens, solar photovoltaic panels, recycling and compost collection centers and the wildlife that makes the school a certified Tree Campus USA. You'll also find several bike lending stations that are part of Capital Bikeshare, the nation's largest bike sharing system.
On getting students involved, Sustainability Coordinator Joshua Kaplan says the minimal-cost tour can be used to, "show them first-hand how they can act as a steward of sustainability on campus, tell them about upcoming initiatives and programs, and directly answer their questions and dispel myths about sustainability."
Colby College tip: Make dorm room materials last
On Mayflower Hill in Waterville, Maine, organizers of the RESCUE (Recycle Everything, Save Colby's Usable Excess) program at Colby College are able to save roughly 550 cubic yards of usable goods from being sent to landfills each spring. Clothing and furniture are donated to local nonprofits and shelters, while other items like dorm room appliances are cleaned and resold the following fall semester.
Dale DeBlois, manager of the school's environmental programs, attributes the idea to staff members and students looking for "a productive way to collect and reuse the goods left behind at the end of the academic year." This smart initiative, founded in 2001, is inexpensive and translatable to any campus. All profits from the fall sale are put toward funding next year's collection.
As a mark of the program's success, DeBlois says organizers see some items for numerous years, recycled by several consecutive classes of students.
Dartmouth College tip: Hit the road to learn from others
Originally devised in 2005 as a means for an intramural ultimate Frisbee team to travel from the campus in Hannover, New Hampshire to faraway tournaments on a limited budget, The Big Green Bus has become a staple of the Dartmouth College campaign for sustainability.
At one time the bus ran on waste vegetable oil and toured the country teaching communities about the benefits of making everyday changes for a greener tomorrow, but over the years the program has shifted from a teaching tool to one geared more toward learning about how others are being more green.
In 2013, the Big Green Bus visited communities in 20 states to discover how people in different regions of the United States are living for the future. In 2015, the group plans to ditch the biodiesel-powered bus for public transportation, which will allow for an even smaller budget and further chances to learn and share stories from the road!
Dana Wieland, a recent addition to the BGB crew, says about the program, "One of the most amazing things about the Big Green Bus is the fact that it was entirely student conceived … and remains entirely organized and run by students."
Earlham College tip: Reuse, again and again
Similar to Colby's RESCUE program, Earlham College in Richmond, Indiana, uses its student-run Free Store to advocate donation and reuse in order to minimize the amount of waste that gets trucked to the dump at the end of each semester.
The Free Store, which opened Jan. 17 of this year, is a campus thrift store where usable items and wearable clothing are cleaned, displayed and freely exchanged throughout the school year. Students are encouraged to donate and take whatever they need, so long as they're maximizing the potential of the things they use each day.
Faye Christoforo, a recent graduate of Earlham and a volunteer at the store, thinks it helps the school's community provide for itself in a valuable way. "Ideally, at the end of the semester, people will donate things to the Free Store that students need, and when students return the following semester they won't have to go to Wal-Mart." If it can be reused, it'll find a new home with the Free Store.
Florida State tip: Forget fuel, bike to class
Along with dominating the gridiron every Saturday, the Noles are doing their part in Florida to lead the green movement. One way they've done so is by creating an alternative transportation promotion week called Strive Not to Drive.
With Strive Not to Drive, volunteers hope to teach students and members of the Tallahassee community the benefits of swapping car keys for a bike lock or a bus pass, such as conserving fuel, reducing roadway and parking congestion, saving money and creating a healthier environment for all.
Organizers of the program have made it easy to get involved and start making a difference, with a full schedule of events including a sustainable transportation day, bicycle safety class, leisurely group bike ride to the local farmers market, and a bike-in movie at the university's Student Life Cinema.
Green Mountain College tip: Know what you're throwing away
In perhaps the most noticeable initiative we've come across, Green Mountain College in Poultney, Vermont, asks students to wear their waste on their waists during Trek Ur Trash Week.
Earlier this year, more than 50 volunteers opted to tie a clear plastic bag to their belts, where they put all of the non-compostable, non-recyclable trash they produced over the course of five days. At the end of the week, participants weighed their bags and determined how they could make changes to lessen the load.
"It's a visible way of showcasing waste creation and making people think about what they are purchasing and what they are throwing away," says Aaron Witham, the school's director of sustainability. "The embarrassing nature of it causes you to think about the decisions you are making."
You can find a video diary about the week's events and interviews with the participants here.
Loyola University of Chicago tip: Get out and get your hands dirty
Although definitively an urban campus, faculty and members of the sustainability program at Loyola University of Chicago have gone to great lengths to give students the opportunity to get outside the city and influence Mother Earth in a positive way with its recent addition of Loyola University Chicago's Retreat and Ecology Campus (LUREC).
In 2010, the university purchased 100 acres of prairies, woodlands and ponds south of Chicago in an effort to teach students about the importance of conservation, ecological sustainability and intellectual growth. The LUREC area hosts monthly restoration work days where students and alumni can help cut back overgrown shrubs and trees, collect native seed on the prairie and even participate in a prescribed forest burn.
While the land came at a decent price, Robert Lammer, director at LUREC, says the inexpensive education and volunteer work being done at LUREC can be instituted at any school with a nearby rural environment. "Our budget is not large…. Similar kinds of work could be done for agencies, institutions, and homeowners in areas surrounding large cities."
North Carolina State University tip: Organize a more sustainable event
Events at large universities often require a great deal of funding, material and manpower, which is why members of the Wolfpack developed the Sustainable Event Certification program. With this program, students can register the campus events they host in Raleigh to be certified and recognized for sustainable planning.
"There is a huge opportunity for special events on campus to lessen their environmental impact, strengthen their community impact, save money and resources and, most importantly, educate in the process," says Lindsay Batchelor, program development specialist for the school's sustainability council.
Using an expansive checklist, organizers can earn points for meeting a range of criteria, including buying products from local, socially responsible companies, purchasing organic foods and recycling as much as possible. With more points, the event achieves a better title, which progresses from Contributor to Steward to Champion of Sustainability. This certification can be used to promote the event by proudly displaying the title and including it in press releases.
Purdue University tip: Make small changes for a big difference
In West Lafayette, Indiana, the chemistry department at Purdue is proving that minor changes in decision making can have a huge effect on the environment. Starting this fall, the university's science labs are being stocked with 100% recyclable rubber gloves.
According to school officials, roughly 360,000 gloves across campus are thrown away each year, leading to nearly 3.5 tons of waste being shipped off to the dump. Not only are these new gloves recyclable, but they're also manufactured in a zero-waste process that sends absolutely nothing to the landfill.
Suzy Gustafson, manager of the Chemistry Procurement Center and Store, says that while they are proud chemistry is the first department to make this change on campus, the goal is to get everyone on board to divert that entire figure of 3.5 tons away from the landfill.
Texas A&M tip: Join together to give back
We'll head to College Station to finish up with Texas A&M's The Big Event, a day of service that takes place every spring on campus and in the surrounding communities of Bryan and College Station as a way to give thanks to the residents for putting up with them for another year.
Next March, more than 20,000 students will visit homes in Bryan and College Station to complete 2,500 jobs around town, from interior painting and street cleanups to yard work and window washing. Residents can fill out a job request form on The Big Event website.
Along with keeping their community in tiptop shape, the primary goal of this day of service is to say "thank you" to the people who support the university, regardless of a resident's socioeconomic status. The Sixth Annual Gala and Silent Auction fundraiser for next year's event takes place Oct.25.