University’s sustainability plan not good enough

| Forum Editor
[poll id="12"]

I’m relieved to see finally the Wash. U. sustainability plan, but it isn’t good enough. I appreciate the administration’s efforts to adopt broad policies that will help reduce the University’s impact on nature. The fact that our university acknowledges the serious threat climate change poses to the nation’s natural resources (which is probably more than coal and energy executives on its board are willing to admit) is refreshing. But the sustainability plan as it is now is sadly incomplete; it will never achieve its full potential without a serious commitment to educating Wash. U. students, faculty and staff on making responsible choices that will protect our natural surroundings.

The draft plan has numerous positive initiatives. One is single-stream recycling, which I love. Now you can dump anything except food, liquids, Styrofoam and tissues into any Wash. U. recycling bin; recycling on campus is now faster, easier better. The University has held strong in its commitment to eliminate coal as an energy source for steam generation. LEED-certified buildings will help mitigate the effects of the never-ending construction on campus.

Yet as always, beauty is only skin deep. I’m willing to bet that most students don’t know that they can recycle potato chip bags, or wash out and recycle the brown food boxes, which means recyclable waste still ends up in landfills. Ameren UE is still St. Louis’ main electricity provider, and it generates most of its electricity from burning dirty coal. I’m sure Wash. U. participates in Ameren’s PURE (People Using Renewable Energy) Power program, but the St. Louis Post-Dispatch recently reported that less than half of the extra fee for participating goes toward renewable energy credits, which may support out-of-state projects. Most of the fee goes toward marketing costs and profit.

So what can be done to make the sustainability plan better? For the University administration, promise to reduce the amount of new construction and to fight for cleaner energy sources.  I realize Missouri has a pathetic renewable energy infrastructure, but Wash. U. is in a unique position (particularly with an Ameren executive on its board) to demand more. Also, the Tyson Research Center powers itself exclusively through solar power—if solar energy works for the Tyson Center, why not experiment with solar panels on a residential hall or classroom building? Finally, I like my colleague Brent Sherman’s thoughts on building metering. I’d be open to the University reducing room and board costs but then metering and charging rooms and suites individually, incentivizing energy-conscious actions.

For Dining Services, commit to better information on food sources and impacts. Many students may know our bananas are Fair Trade Certified, but do they also know at least some are shipped from Colombia, over 2,000 miles away? Was my lunch grown in the rice fields of Arkansas or Vietnam? A great system would organize menu items into low-carbon (green), medium-carbon (yellow) and high-carbon (red) choices.

And for everyone, focus on a greater awareness of our actions and their impact on our surroundings, so that “I didn’t know” is never an excuse. Probably the best idea I have seen in my year and a half at Wash. U. are the color-coded “Landfill” and “Recycling” stickers on trashcans and recycling bins. They instantly educate you on what effect your throwing away an item has on the world around you. There should be red stickers saying “Coal-powered” above every light switch, or a picture of Hugo Chavez and an oil field next to each television. There should be stickers on washing machines labeling the hot and warm cycles as wasteful. With these and other steps, everyone in the Wash. U. community would be better educated and prepared to make a difference in college and beyond.