Monday, April 27, 2009

Georgetown in The Voice: What it Takes to Paint the Town Green (an article by Anna Cheimets)

Every morning at around nine o'clock, the recycling man sorts through the rows of large blue bins in the Henle courtyard. By the time he leaves, the bins are organized and the waste is ready to be carted away and recycled. Across the street, in the Leavey center, the bright gold trash bins are filling up with plastic bottles and metal cans. This recyclable waste will end up in a landfill.

Georgetown appears to be making strides towards making its campus and policies more sustainable, but which image is more representative of its efforts?

Sustainability has been a buzzword on campus for the last two or three years since the university began the process of "greening" its image. Nowadays, one would be hard-pressed to find a student or administrator who has not at least heard the term, but just a few years ago, this certainly was not the case. Awareness is spreading, not just among Georgetown students, but among the university and student leaders who are spearheading the green initiatives. A problem persists though: How does one compel a group of over-scheduled students with vastly different academic and social interests to start thinking, doing and being green? This is the question that the vanguard of the sustainability charge at Georgetown struggles with. Fortunately, by adapting and reaching out to a broader range of students and groups on campus, Georgetown's green leaders have been able to address this problem with much more success.

A Little Background

In 2007, Mike Durante (MSB '10), Jesse Scharff (COL '09) and Nels Vulin (COL '09) started Campus Climate Challenge (CCC) at Georgetown with the aim of making campus energy use and purchasing policies more sustainable. The group initially had trouble getting a foothold at Georgetown until Alex Johnston (SFS '08), then a senior, started a petition to have the university purchase renewable energy. The added cost would come from a slight increase in tuition. The group collected between 2,000 and 3,000 signatures, and succeeded in gaining the attention of the administration.

While the proposal never actually came to fruition, the students gained a valuable voice to effect change in the university's energy and environmental policies through the formation of the Sustainability Advisory Committee (SAC). A number of administrators, including Karen Frank, Vice President of Facilities and Housing, and Xavier Rivera, Director of Utilities and Energy Programs, sit on the committee along with student representatives from groups such as Eco-Action and Outdoor Education.

University Efforts

The main achievements of the SAC include substantial gains in recycling at Georgetown, LEED certification for the new McDonough School of Business building, Silver LEED certification for the planned science building, and installation of occupancy censors for the lights in buildings on campus.

Some of the most substantial gains have been in recycling. Over the course of two years, the university has increased its average recycling rate from about 12% in 2007 to about 37% in 2009.

In the same vein, Georgetown Dining Services is going green by going "trayless" in the Dining Hall to reduce water and energy usage. Since last year, Leo's has been composting left-over food to be turned into fertilizer for Georgetown's grounds. Additionally, according to Kendra Boyer, the marketing coordinator for Dining Services, solid waste from the Dining Hall goes to the Waste from Energy Plant to power nearby homes and business.

But student willingness to conserve plays a large role in the success of the university's initiatives. Last year, the SAC oversaw the installation of monitors in residence halls that displayed graphs of dorm energy usage. Subsequently, it launched a campus-wide competition between residence halls to use the least energy. Unfortunately, the competition never really caught on among students. Committee members cited the fact that a number of SAC members went abroad at the start of the competition, and also that there was a general lack of confidence and interest in the idea to begin with.

"The dorm competition fell by the wayside," said Durante, who was a member of the SAC last year and an active member of Eco-Action. "I don't think it got any kind of awareness or participation on campus. I don't know if people really had that excitement, at least not among students."

However, Durante said that even though he thinks that the monitors have not been "used to their full potential, it's useful that we are tracking our energy usage."

Student Involvement in Sustainability

There is general agreement among student and faculty sustainability leaders that awareness of green issues has increased among Georgetown students over the last several years. News about "going green," global climate change and environmentalism has pervaded the media, bringing the green image into the mainstream. In a sense, it is now fashionable to be green.

Russ Watts, director of Georgetown Outdoor Education, said that "more freshman know what you are talking about" when someone mentions sustainability.

Durante agreed. "People understand sustainability a lot more now than when we were freshman," he said. "There is definitely more awareness on campus."

Even so, Durante said he notices that this awareness does not always lead to action.
"People seem more apathetic than really interested," he said.

Professor Timothy Beach, who was previously the Director of Georgetown's Center for the Environment, and also Professor of Geography and Geosciences and Cinco Hermanos Chair in Environment and International Affairs, noted that with regard to getting students involved in sustainability initiatives on campus, "you are in competition at Georgetown with so many other things," he said. "Georgetown is not known for drawing environmentally active students."

He added that part of the reason for this is that there is "so much momentum from a history of a place and it is hard to overcome that momentum."

Figuring out what it takes to get Georgetown's general population to be more green is no easy task.

"I don't know what it would take for people to reduce their energy consumptions," said Durante.
Watts said that as a member of the SAC, he looks for student input to gauge the success of sustainability initiatives. "Students need to tell the committee how much things have worked," he said.

However, a number of green groups and organizations on campus are becoming much more effective at reaching out to groups and students who lack the green label.


Last summer, Eco-Action merged with CCC and is now taking on the sustainability policy focus that used to be primarily associated with CCC. Durante said that the change has been a success. He pointed to the well attended and highly publicized Power Shift conference, which took place at the end of February this year, as a good indicator of Eco-Action's impact on campus. About 50 Georgetown students attended the conference.

"I definitely think we have a strong group right now," said Durante. "We have a pretty clear goal, and a means of doing it through the SAC."

Jonathan Cohn (COL '10), the president of Eco-Action, said that the university, specifically the Office of the Senior Vice-President, has been interested in and receptive to Eco-Action's initiatives. The office co-sponsored the speech by John Fahey, CEO of National Geographic, on April 22, as part of Earth Week.

"Even if the projects don't get the financial allotment we'd like to see, at least the ideas are fomenting in their minds, which is important as well," said Cohn.

Cohn said that Eco-Action approached the planning of Georgetown's Earth Week 2009 in a more effective way than last year.

Eco-Action collaborated with the European Club, Coca-Cola, The Corp, the Georgetown Dems and other social justice organizations to reach out to a broader swath of the student population.

Project Hilltop

Cohn acknowledged that because "everyone at Georgetown is busy" a good way to get students involved in greening the campus is to encourage students to incorporate sustainable practices into their daily lives.

Project Hilltop, which is funded by Residence Life, has been focusing on this goal for the last two years. Jess Belue Buckley, the McCarthy Hall Director, is the advisor to the group, which includes an RA from each residence hall along with two representatives from Interhall.

The committee primarily focuses its efforts on education. As part of its "A Little Something Green" campaign, each month Project Hilltop comes up with a new small way for students to contribute to sustainability in their residence halls. The group posted stickers, labels and magnets in both private and common spaces to encourage students to turn off the lights, conserve water and recycle. As a result, "People actually turn off the light when they pass rooms when no one is there," she said.

Buckley said that the next project is to make recycling easier by supplying each apartment with its own blue bin.

She said that if people see others committed to sustainability, they will be more likely to get on board themselves.

The Corp: A Model for Visibility

As one of the most visible student group on campus, The Corp is in a unique position with respect to the campus green movement. Unlike the other green groups, The Corp has the resources of a multi-million dollar corporation. It also employs a large, organized group of students who are becoming increasingly aware of the importance of going green.
Adam Alfie (MSB '11), the head of The Corp Green Team, said that the green movement is "critically important to our campus and our generation."

"There were three people coming to Corp Green Meetings when I started in Corp Green last year, and already this semester our meeting attendance is consistently five times that," he said.
As a result, The Corp has taken a number of steps to green its business. They offer biodegradable plastic bags and environmentally conscious coffee. They also use eco-friendly appliances in their stores and give discounts to students who reuse their cups.

Even though eco-friendly products and services are more expensive to purchase, The Corp believes it is a part of its "students serving students" mentality to offer them. By advertising its use of green items, The Corp hopes to establish itself as a role model for students and other organizations.

In addition, The Corp is very effective at getting the word out on its green initiatives.
For example, when The Corp switched from fair-trade coffee to rainforest-certified coffee, the marketing department initiated a marketing blitz that included signs and decorations in every Corp store, heavy flyering and a free sampling of coffee on the lawn.
"The Corp just gets stuff done," said Alfie.

Energy and Environment Research

Faculty research in energy and the environment also serves as an indicator of Georgetown's commitment to sustainability. Professor Ed Van Keuren, Associate Professor and Chair of the Physics Department, said that while there are a number of professors in the sciences doing research in these areas, there is no centralized organization for them. However, he indicated that there is talk about creating such an organization in the near future.

Van Keuren, along with Russ Ross, a fifth year graduate student working in his lab, are researching materials that will make solar cells more efficient. So far, Van Keuren and his lab have been able to achieve energy efficiencies that are 25% to 30% better than the those of normal solar cells. In February, they published a paper on their research in Nature Materials, a well-respected science journal.

On the environmental side of things, Professor Edd Barrows, a Professor in the Biology Department and Director of the Georgetown Center for the Environment, studies biodiversity and conservation with a focus on plants and insects. One of his research projects is studying rare plants in the Potomac River Gorge, a "biodiversity hot spot" that runs from the Chain Bridge to Great Falls. He also conducts research at the Dyke Marsh Wildlife Preserve, working to add to the large database of biodiversity in the area.

Both Van Keuren and Beach said that the university encourages research in areas related to sustainability, but Van Keuren added that there are not always the resources to do everything. He said he is hopeful that this will change once the new science center opens.

Looking to the Future

Watts said that compared to four years ago, the university is doing "1000%" better at being green.

However, there is always more to be done to increase sustainability on campus. So far, the university and the student body have made large strides, considering that the concerted green effort began only a few years ago.

Visibility and image appear to play almost as much of a role in becoming more sustainable as the actual initiatives themselves.

On the one hand, a university's green profile is becoming a more important factor in prospective students' decision making processes.

On the other hand, a university is tasked with making its sustainability efforts known to its own student body so that they will join the effort.

"The university needs to be more active in presenting to students what it is doing and that it actually cares about sustainability," said Cohn. "It is easy to ignore something that is completely abstracted if there is not physical or numerical representation of it in your daily life."

Cheimets is News Editor and a Physics junior. Jenna Kelly, Editor in Chief and a Government junior, contributed reporting.

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