Connecticut College Magazine · Fall 2007


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Making the Grade: The College´s Green Report Card

Making the Grade: The College´s Green Report Card

Connecticut College is on the cutting edge of environmentalism among its peers,
but are we as green as we can be?

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by Stan Decoster

It´s a long way from a piggery a few miles from Connecticut College to a tree farm in Costa Rica.

But both locations are playing roles, as the College takes steps to be one of the “greenest,” or environmentally friendly, colleges in the nation. There is a call for rising activism on campus, as leaders of the movement realize that while the College is a national leader in the field, much remains to be done.

“We´re far ahead of many schools,” says Amy Cabaniss, the College´s environmental coordinator, a position made full-time in 2005. “We´re not starting at square one.”

“We´ve created the base, and it will be easier for students who follow us to do much more,” says Misha Johnson ´08.

What happens on America´s campuses could have an impact well beyond academia. This is because environmentalists see colleges and universities as laboratories — self-contained by their physical boundaries — that ultimately can show corporate America and government how environmental solutions can make sense from financial and other perspectives.

And it´s clear that all in higher education, from top administrators to the student body, know that many eyes are watching.

Campuses throughout the nation seemingly are engaged in an unofficial competition to see which can become the greenest. And in this arena, the golden pot at the end of an invisible rainbow is something called “carbon neutrality.” To become carbon neutral — something no campus has yet achieved — a college would ensure that it´s responsible for releasing no more greenhouse gases than it´s eliminating as a result of both on- and off-campus initiatives.

This, for instance, is where the tree farm in Costa Rica comes into play. In 1999, Connecticut College became the first college or university in the nation to join a program affiliated with Reforest the Tropics, headquartered in Mystic, Conn., as part of a “carbon offset” project. The goal? To compensate for the 593 tons of carbon dioxide emitted annually by electricity use at the College Center at Crozier-Williams over the next 30 years.

The College is working with a Costa Rican farmer to maintain a sustainable tree farm of 36 acres to sequester carbon. The plot is named after the late William A. Niering, Lucretia Allyn Professor of Botany and research director of the Arboretum.

And that pig farm?

In its continued efforts to expand recycling, the College pays Saccarelli Farms in Waterford, Conn., to accept food wastes from its largest dining hall for the farm piggery. Jeff Nemec ´09, who served as the College´s sustainability intern last summer, found that an average of 13,370 pounds of food waste was generated weekly in the dining halls. About three quarters of that went to the piggery. This year, thanks to a $25,000 donation from an anonymous graduate, the College has purchased two giant compost bins. What it produces will be used on the campus garden and distributed to local farmers.

President Leo I. Higdon demonstrated his support on January 1 when he became one of the original 270 signatories of the American College & University Presidents Climate Commitment. This is the single most significant environmental initiative of the College, says Cabannis.

Higdon and the others pledged that their colleges will work aggressively to reduce the greenhouse emissions that contribute to global warming. At Connecticut College, the Environmental Model Committee (EMC), established as a permanent body in 2003, serves as the institutional environmental organization, guiding discussion, development and implementation of energy initiatives. It is comprised of students, faculty and staff. A subcommittee is charged with setting goals, benchmarks and ways to move toward “climate neutrality.”

Among the goals: reduce the College´s greenhouse emissions by 20 percent by 2010.

Interest among students has increased dramatically over recent years as knowledge about global warming — and its potentially dire consequences — has become widespread.

“Awareness has increased just since I´ve been here,” says Tyler Dunham ´09, president of the Renewable Energy Club. “When I first got here we would get just a handful of students at meetings. The numbers are up dramatically.”

Gerald R. Visgilio, an economics professor who specializes in environmental issues and who heads the EMC, agreed. “Environmental interest has ebbed and surged over the years,” he says. “Today, it is very high.”

The students´ commitment perhaps can best be illustrated in the way they slashed electricity usage in dormitories by 12 percent from November to April of the last school year.

They did it by turning down thermostats and donning sweaters, turning off lights and computers when leaving their rooms and replacing traditional light bulbs with energy-saving compact fluorescent bulbs. Students banked 25 percent of the savings in the Student Activity Fund to sponsor a concert. A similar program, with similar incentives, is underway this year.

A significant initiative has been the purchase of Renewable Energy Certificates, or RECs, that offset the College´s annual electricity purchases and support wind energy, which goes into the national grid. Students made a major contribution to that effort when they agreed to have $25 tacked onto their student comprehensive fee to pay for the added expense of supporting “green” energy. While the College has purchased RECs since 2001, the 2006-2007 academic year was the first where 100 percent of its electricity purchase was offset. For this action, the College received an award from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, College and University Green Power Challenge.

The College offsets 15 million kilowatts of the school´s purchased electricity. This is equivalent to the amount of electricity needed to serve roughly 1,200 typical American homes annually.

“The goal is to eventually become carbon neutral,” says Nemec, who also is active in SPROUT, another environmental group on campus. “And we´re on the right path because we´re offsetting 100 percent of our electricity by supporting wind energy that doesn´t emit any carbon. We´re on track; we´re well on our way.”

The College has done many other things, large and small, that reinforce its commitment to the environment. They include:

Purchasing as much food as possible grown or produced close to the campus, thereby reducing emissions associated with carrying produce across the country by truck or rail.

Institutionalizing environmental reform by creating in 1993 the Goodwin-Niering Center for Conservation Biology and Environmental Studies. The creation of Cabaniss´ full-time environmental coordinator position and the Environmental Model Committee also established a sense of permanency.

Creating an organic garden in 2005. Produce, which includes tomatoes, Swiss chard and radishes, is served in some campus dining halls.

Having environmental representatives who promote environmental sustainability, serving as resources and change agents in each dormitory and non-residential building on campus.

Not every “green” idea has come to fruition, however. Perhaps the biggest disappointment was learning, after much investigation, that placing a wind turbine on campus to produce energy wouldn´t be viable. Space is limited, and even though the College sits atop a hill overlooking the Thames River and Long Island Sound, there just isn´t enough steady wind.

Another target for the immediate future is solar power. Presently, there is one solar array on campus, atop the Park dormitory.

Officials note that many old buildings, with sharply slanted, slate roofs, aren´t conducive for solar paneling.

But, as Tyler Dunham points out, “there are plenty of flat buildings” on campus. He would like to see a quadrupling or quintupling of solar power over the next five years. It´s possible, he says, that with new building construction, there eventually could be 10 solar installations. In 2005, the College´s administration adopted a “green building” policy, a commitment to incorporate sound environmental practices into all design, construction, maintenance and renovation decisions.
Historically, Connecticut College has been at the forefront of the environmental movement. The Connecticut College Arboretum was established in 1931 and, in 1969, the College became one of the first undergraduate schools in the country to create a human ecology major, now called environmental studies. The late biology professors, William Niering and Richard Goodwin, accomplished much of the heavy lifting during succeeding decades and established national reputations in the field.
Visgilio says the College´s rich tradition has placed it in an excellent position in respect to what is being done at other colleges.

“I´d say we´re in the upper echelon and have been in the forefront for some time,” he says.
He calls carbon neutrality an admirable goal, but stresses whether an institution achieves it depends largely upon how the term is defined. The strictest definitions include automobile emissions from faculty and staff commuting to and from work, and air travel taken by employees as polluting factors that have to be offset.

“Conceptually,” he says, “we can be carbon neutral by 2020. But practically, I don´t know.”
Some students already are stepping off campus to make a contribution. Cara Donovan ´08, who was active in SPROUT, traveled to Costa Rica last summer to take part in a forest restoration project. And she took the fall semester off to be part of a sustainable agriculture project, also in South America.
“People are waking up to what´s at stake,” she says. “For me, this is the issue of our time.”
At Connecticut College, which produces an estimated 750 tons of trash annually, recycling has been a part of campus culture since 1970.

Indeed, the College became one of the first institutions of higher learning in the nation to establish a campus-wide recycling program. It began by recycling old newspapers and expanded in 1984 to include glass bottles and aluminum cans. In 1989, it began recycling office paper, plastic and other metal cans.

James Luce, supervisor of grounds, says the late Professor Niering played a lead role in the efforts. “He started it back before it became mandatory in Connecticut,” he says.
Today, the College recycles between 30 – 37 percent of its trash, according to Luce. And he says that percentage could grow as more food wastes from dining halls are recycled through the new compost bins and distributed to local farmers.

He says that students today are especially environmentally conscious, having learned about the importance of recycling at an early age.

“It used to be you saw a lot more bottles and cans by the side of the road,” he says. “We´re seeing a new generation of kids who were brought up to recycle.”

Then there is “RecycleMania.” Last year, the College community — students, faculty and staff — participated in the intercollegiate competition to reduce waste and increase awareness through recycling. The cumulative weight of recyclables collected per person on the New London campus was 39.5 pounds. Of 201 colleges and universities competing, the College finished 24th. In 2006, it finished fifth of 87 enrolled colleges.

In the end, though, it really isn´t about competition — activists say all environmental initiatives really are about helping save the planet from humanity´s polluting habits. In a perfect world, all colleges, homes, businesses and governments would be “carbon neutral.”

Environmentalists at Connecticut College say competition is a good way to increase awareness and get a broad cross section of the community involved. But, in the end, they stress that the best outcome would be for everyone to become part of the solution.

Even seemingly small initiatives count. Visiglio places in this category, “seeing-eye” vending machines on campus today that “power down” when no one is in the room. Or tentative plans to have streetlights on campus be powered by the sun. Or purchasing electric cars for campus use, including for security.

Cabaniss says that even if we achieve carbon neutrality, as elusive a goal as it may be, “there will be more things to do” for the environment.

Connecticut College Magazine

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