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Waste not, want not. Sustainable living practices take root and flourish on campus

Words by Megan Haley, Pictures by Roxanne Cooke '07

Dave Kohler has an audacious challenge for staff and faculty at PLU: Get rid of your garbage can.

Student Rogelio Guzman loads flattened cardboard into the baling machine.

The environmentally minded facilities director will lay down the gauntlet this fall in a campus-wide campaign to boost recycling rates to new, astronomical levels.

The “Can the Can” idea, as the campaign is called, has been with Kohler for quite some time. He doesn’t have a trash can in his office, and doesn’t see why anyone else needs one, either.

“I came from a place where we were (recycling) 25 percent and I thought it was just the greatest thing,” Kohler said of his previous job as facilities director at the University of Redlands in California. “When I got here and it was 60-plus percent it kind of burst my bubble.”

An important annual event put on by Environmental Services Coordinator Barb McConathy made Kohler realize the potential to take the recycling rate at PLU higher still.

“Barb does this ‘trash bash’ where they take a couple of trash bins from Rieke and see what percentage of trash in the bins could have been recycled,” Kohler said. “They were getting 80, 85 percent so I’m saying, okay, if everybody recycled what they could recycle, nobody needs a trash can.”

Kohler leads by example. A small, one-liter black can sits unobtrusively on the corner of his desk. In it go apple cores and other organic material awaiting deposit in the compost bin down the hall from his office. He drops other recyclables in the nearest bin on his way in and out of the office during the day. What little PLU can’t recycle – candy bar wrappers, for instance, which he sheepishly admits to generating too many of – can easily be taken to the nearest trash can.

“Can the Can” could have sweeping effects. Faculty and staff will have the opportunity to follow Kohler’s example by handing over their trash cans, and from then on, forgo trash pick-up service in favor of recycling. Increasing the recycling rate will not only reduce the university’s environmental impact, it will also save money: PLU currently pays by the container for garbage removal. And it will demonstrate PLU’s continued commitment to “care for the earth.” The environmental ethos on campus has a widespread impact on the social, economic and environmental systems at PLU, and sustainable decisions take into account the connections between these three systems.

“It’s all related. Instead of marginalizing the environment, I think we have to see that issues of the environment become the organizing principle within our social landscape,” said Terry Tempest Williams, a well-known author and environmental advocate who spoke at PLU during Earth Week 2006.

Roots in the Northwest

The term “sustainability” has become a buzzword over the past five years. But moving towards a more sustainable society is more than a trend, it’s necessary to combat global warming and the extinction of species, said Chuck Bergman, professor of English and a founder of PLU’s Sustainability Committee.

“It’s just sensible to start paying attention and stop running the risks blindly that we’ve been running,” he said. “It’s a quality of life issue … When is it that you’re willing to say it doesn’t really cost that much more to have a cleaner life, and isn’t that what I would really like to leave for my children?”

Bergman’s rhetorical question is at the core of what is know as “intergenerational morality,” with each generation responsible for the future impact of their actions, said Denis Hayes, a prominent local environmentalist who organized the first Earth Day back in 1970. Hayes believes that if a generation depletes a resource, like oil, they must replace it with an equal alternative, like energy-efficient solar power.

“Each generation should pass onto the next generation at least what they inherited,” Hayes said.

The intergenerational morality idea formed at the 1972 United Nations Conference on the Human Environment, where the sustainability idea took root. The conference was the first modern international gathering that identified the relationship between economic progress and environmental stewardship.

The UN conference spurred the creation of national commissions worldwide focused on sustainability, which in turn brought the issue to the attention of corporations. A number of businesses, particularly in the Northwest, saw the value of incorporating sustainability into their businesses and began to do it, Hayes said.

“It’s more than an initiative, it’s a good business practice,” said Chuck Clarke ’71, ’82, director of Seattle Public Utilities. He received his bachelor’s degree in biology and his MBA from PLU.

The best business decisions look past the strictly economic cost-benefit analysis. Sustainable corporations now look at the long-term costs of a project or deal, including potential environmental remediation, social impacts and other costs not traditionally considered part of a project’s budget, Clarke said.

For instance, Seattle Public Utilities decided over a year ago to begin burying its drinking water reservoirs when it recognized that open space was at a premium in the city, he said. Reservoirs throughout the city are now being enclosed by concrete lids, which are then covered with grass to create more open space for parks.

The initiative doesn’t “cost out” by traditional measures, Clarke explained. But over the next 10 years, it will create about 75 acres of additional open space.

“You have to think more holistically and see the consequences of your actions,” Clarke said.

So what about the Pacific Northwest makes it such a fertile ground for the sustainability movement?

The people who live here tend to spend more time outdoors, and therefore, they have a direct interest in nature, Bergman said.

“(Sustainability) has gathered enormous momentum in the Pacific Northwest, and I think PLU can claim a certain kind of leadership,” he said.

The most visible, but certainly not the first, sign of PLU’s leadership came when President Loren Anderson signed the Talloires Declaration on Earth Day 2004. With the stroke of a pen, PLU became the first Pacific Northwest university to commit to incorporating sustainability and environmental literacy into all aspects of the university. Composed in 1990 in Talloires, France, the 10-point action plan has been signed by over 300 universities in 40 countries.

“The sustainability movement had been gaining ground at PLU for years, and it was time we committed to promoting sustainability on campus,” Anderson said. “We were already doing much of what it called for, such as integrating the concepts into the curriculum, making connections with the community and conserving our resources.”

PLU’s quiet march toward a more sustainable campus began long before Anderson signed the Talloires Agreement. Clarke first noticed a shift in thinking when he returned to PLU for his MBA in the late 1970s. The fundamentals of sustainability were integrated into the curriculum, teaching students to look at both the short- and long-term costs, he said.

Indeed, the concepts behind sustainable living began to take root on campus over 20 years ago but were focused mainly on the recycling program and environmental education in the curriculum, said Sheri Tonn, PLU’s vice president for finance and operations. Today the interest in environmental issues has evolved beyond the curriculum and is integrated into campus operations, influencing the campus master plan and even the hiring process, she said.

Among the campus departments taking action are University Printing and Publications and Cleaning Services. The printing office prints most jobs on paper made with 30 percent post-consumer waste; admission recruiting publications are done on paper with 100 percent recycled content. Meanwhile, Cleaning Services uses only “green” cleaning products. And if faculty and staff embrace “Can the Can,” the university will dramatically decrease its use of plastic trash can liners, saving both money and resources.

Environmental Health and Safety offers a transit pass benefit to encourage employees and students to use mass transit, like the bus or train, instead of driving their own car. Benefits are also available to those who carpool, ride a bike or simply arrange to work from home periodically – anything that will reduce the number of cars on the road.

And since the completion of the Morken Center for Learning and Technology, PLU’s most earth-friendly building, there is a growing consensus on campus that all future construction projects should integrate the principles of sustainable building. The building is the first one at a Washington state independent college to attain gold-level certification by the U.S. Green Building Council. (See page 6.)

“PLU is very much a place that ‘does’ – where actions happen, where it goes beyond the classroom,” Tonn said. “And that’s been very much the case with regard to sustainability.”

A formal recycling system was established when the Environmental Services Coordinator position was created in 1995. McConathy, the current coordinator, “has really taken it on as a holy mission,” Tonn said. By making it easy to recycle – placing recycling containers all over campus, accepting a variety of items and hiring a crew of students to sort the materials – the university’s recycling rate is one of the highest in the region, McConathy said.

While McConathy would like to see a zero percent waste rate at PLU, she acknowledges that is not realistic. She is always looking for ways to reuse items, even something as simple as plants. Most of the plants lining her office windows were rescued from dumpsters. She said she looks for ways to make it easy for the campus community to follow suit.

For example, this spring PLU joined with Interface Carpet to recycle 3.75 tons of carpet and area rugs from the residence halls. For the first time, a specific dumpster for these items was available during spring move-out.

That’s not all McConathy collects at move-out: computers, bedding, clothing, unopened food and personal products like shampoo are donated to local charities or sold to the PLU community in monthly sales.

“We try to do the right thing for the whole environment,” McConathy explained.

Nourishing the movement

The efforts to promote sustainability on campus coalesced in the spring of 2002 with the formation of the Sustainability Committee. The committee’s strength and influence lie in its membership, which represents students, faculty and staff.

The Pacific Northwest is defined by water, so the committee decided to concentrate on improving PLU’s water conservation, Bergman said. With a grant from the Russell Family Foundation, the committee developed a comprehensive plan for water conservation on campus and integrated education about water with campus operations.

The committee worked with the campus community to develop courses and practical projects during weeklong workshops held in 2003, 2004 and 2005. Among other things, low-flow toilets were installed in residence halls and more native plants are used in campus landscaping to reduce water usage.

The committee established Sustainability Fellowships in 2003, funding two students each summer to research ways to improve sustainability on campus. Rachel Esbjornsen, a 2006 fellowship recipient, researched food sustainability. She investigated how to bring more organic and locally grown foods to Dining Services and created an educational outreach program to increase awareness among students.

“It’s not sustainable just eating organic or vegetarian,” Esbjornsen said. Agricultural practices often waste water and use harmful pesticides, and transporting the products requires fossil fuels that harm the environment. True sustainable eating is looking at how that item got to your table, she explained.

“Ideally, food should be both local and organic,” she said. “But sometimes local is better than organic because of the resources saved.”

Universal impact

In communicating the ideals of sustainability to students, PLU transmits these notions to an entire generation. It is a distinct opportunity – and responsibility.

“Where better to try and create a sustainable community than on a university campus?” Tonn said. “Universities exist in perpetuity, and they are pretty much closed communities that people come into and then go out of. So if you can instill the concepts of sustainability while on campus, those people are going to go and be leaders for the rest of society.”

The leadership in the sustainability movement is coming from – and will continue to come from – students, Hayes agreed. For students living and working in “green” spaces, the increased natural light, clean air and better climate control becomes the norm. They carry that expectation with them throughout their lives, and it influences their future decisions, he said.

So maybe getting rid of a garbage can doesn’t seem like that big of a deal. But if it makes members of the community go one step farther for the earth, it will be worth it. PLU has been quietly setting an example for sustainable living for some time – a fact not lost on Tempest Williams.

That sunny April morning before her evening speech on campus, Tempest Williams met with about 50 students in the Morken public events room. Dressed all in black with brown cowboy boots, her gray hair swept up in a chignon, Tempest Williams described a recent visit to Drury University in Springfield, Mo.

She said she listened to a Drury student present her thesis about the environmental history of her university. During the presentation, the student cited PLU as a model of sustainability in higher education, which signified the reach of PLU’s example, Tempest Williams said.

“I think you are being watched. The leadership is having an effect,” she said. “You know, I think I love knowing that PLU is right on the edge of the continent and it’s sweeping all the way across through your example.”

PHOTO: Dave Kohler, director of facilities management, Barb McConathy, environmental services coordinator and Lori Prall, cleaning services manager.



© Scene 2006  •  Pacific Lutheran University  •  Fall 2006

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