February 15, 2012

Considering sustainable efforts on campus

President Teresa Amott sits at her computer and frowns. On the screen is a Google search: “cost difference between Styrofoam and compostable plates.” On her mind is the continued presence of Styrofoam in the Gizmo, a thorn in the side of Knox’s progress on environmental sustainability.

“Ten years ago … if you had compostable cups and plates, they were prohibitively expensive,” Amott said. “But the price is dropping.”

At an institution still working its way towards “financial impregnability,” environmental sustainability may seem an option that the college cannot afford. Still, the types of projects that may be the most impactful may also put the least strain on the college’s wallet.

“It’s easy to jump on projects that are sexy and have a big price tag,” sophomore and Chair of the Student Senate Sustainability Committee Max Potthoff said. “But there’s other things … that are not nearly as expensive and just as, if not more, effective.”

As both monetary and natural resources remain scarce, college administrators and senior staff have attempted to balance financial and environmental sustainability.

Although opinions differ on what tradeoffs are acceptable, the general consensus seems to be that these issues will only become more important as time goes on.

“If you isolate those two kinds of sustainability, you’re going to fail,” Vice President for Finance Tom Axtell said. “I think the principles are embedded and becoming more and more so all the time.”

Not all that glitters is green

When thinking about sustainability projects, large initiatives such as wind turbines and solar panels often come to mind. What is the most environmentally beneficial, however, is often either less expensive or brings savings over a longer period of time.

In 2008, Student Senate passed a unanimous resolution to eliminate trays from campus dining facilities. Costing nothing to implement, the initiative decreased food waste by 30 percent and water usage by 9,240 gallons per year, according to the Knox website.

“Some of the things we would like to do are much more costly,” Amott said. “We could dig up the entire campus and turn it into a geothermal unit, but then we would be in chaos for two years. That would be too costly.”

For sustainability projects that are not student-initiated, two primary coffers are available: the operating budget, which covers day-to-day needs of the college, and the capital projects fund, which deals with building renovations and the like.

Sometimes, these funds are only necessary to cover start-up costs. When students wanted more recycled paper to be available in campus printers, the college decided to make students pay for any pages printed over a 300-page limit and use that money to pay for paper, thereby nearly eliminating ongoing costs.

In other cases, projects that cost more will be chosen over cheaper, less sustainable ones. Knox’s electricity, for example, comes from 20 percent renewable energy sources; this was not, however, the most inexpensive option available.

“One of the bids when [Maust] went out to bid actually came in lower, but they didn’t have 20 percent from renewable resources,” Axtell said. “So we opted to pay a little bit more.”

Strictly speaking, there is no prohibitive cost level for sustainability projects. Three primary considerations go into determining whether the cost of a project is prohibitive: what benefits will accrue to both the college and the environment, if the project will pay for itself over some period of time and whether costs will drop in a year or two.

In order to help coordinate all of these priorities, Knox has begun accepting applications for a new Sustainability Coordinator, who will begin this summer. The coordinator will serve as a focal point for environmental initiatives on campus, stay on top of trends in green technology and provide continuity from year to year.

“[The Sustainability Coordinator] … can kind of hand off the baton each year,” Associate Professor of Environmental Studies Peter Schwartzman said. “The [coordinator] is really a big move for us.”

Even within the creation of the Sustainability Coordinator position, there has been an attempt at balancing environmental and financial concerns. Although the initial cost of a budget and salary for the position will be around $70,000, Schwartzman hopes that the position will eventually pay for itself.

“The hope is that … over two years through cost savings on [the coordinator’s] behalf, those savings can be used to sustain the cost of the position,” Schwartzman said.

For Schwartzman, the Sustainability Coordinator will also help cut through a problem potentially more inhibiting than a lack of financial resources: red tape.

“I’m not critical of Knox specifically, but there’s huge bureaucracies to do anything,” he said. “I think we need to streamline some of those things so we can get things done.”

Visibility vs. functionality

One priority on Knox’s sustainability to-do list is increasing knowledge of the college’s sustainability efforts, as thrown into sharp focus by a visit from the parent of a prospective student.

Earlier this term, Amott was surprised to receive an email from the parent linking to a blog post, in which the disgruntled mother explained her disappointment that there were no sustainability efforts at Knox.

“It struck us that here’s a sophisticated parent, who’s clearly very interested in sustainability, who somehow did not see what we’ve done,” Amott said. “It occurred to me that maybe she didn’t see it because we don’t tell the story anywhere on campus.”

In response, Amott and Web Editor Natalie Clark reworked the sustainability page of the Knox website. Now, visitors see a bulleted list of projects undertaken by the college across ten different areas, from water to technology and paper.

Perhaps the most visible sustainability project on the college’s to-do list right now is obtaining Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification for Alumni Hall. Internationally recognized, the LEED system indicates buildings that have been constructed using sustainable materials and practices.

Knox had previously considered seeking LEED certification for the E. & L. Andrew Fitness Center, completed in 2006 but ultimately decided against it due to the (at the time) prohibitive cost of obtaining it. On top of building costs, registering for an inspection for LEED certification costs upwards of $1,000.

“What we decided … was to do all that we could to make [the Fitness Center] LEED-certified without getting the certification,” Axtell said.

Cost estimates for making Alumni Hall LEED certified, on the other hand, are around $50,000 for the 30,000 square foot space. The fact that Alumni Hall will be a renovated building, whereas the Fitness Center was brand new, contributes largely to the relatively low cost for certification in relation to the overall cost of the renovation (around $10 million).

“It’s easier to communicate the commitment to sustainability if you just get the certification, which is why I think [with] Alumni Hall — such a big, visible project — you’re going to want to say it,” Axtell said.

Less visible projects, however, are often no less important. In 1999, Knox began a series of environmentally friendly building upgrades following an energy audit, including installing building control systems, recommissioning air handlers and repairing heat traps. Overall, such initiatives have saved around $530,000 so far, with upfront costs being around $2.5 million.

“We always try to balance. We would never have a list of capital projects none of which you can see,” Axtell said. “On the other hand, there’s a lot of [work] behind the walls and on the roof and underground.”

Another less visible project has been the replacement of 100-watt bulbs in outdoor lighting around campus with 26-watt LED bulbs, which involve higher sunk costs but have financial payoffs in the long term.

“You’re going from a bulb that’s 1,000 hours to one that’s 35,000-50,000 hours, so there’s a lot of savings there,” Director of Facilities Services Scott Maust said.

Knox’s efforts have been substantial enough to earn the college a spot on the Sierra Club’s 2011 “Coolest Schools” list as well as a 2011 Golden Beet Award for local food use. Awards, much like LEED certification, do mean visibility, but it is the impact, not the recognition, that matters most to many college administrators.

“To me, the benefit is very hard to quantify because [it’s] that we are teaching Knox students to go out into the world and be environmentally responsible,” Amott said.

Cultivating a culture of sustainability

No matter what sorts of initiatives are implemented at Knox, the best goal the college can pursue is to turn students into change agents, Amott said.

“My goal would be that when you graduate from here, if you move into a community that doesn’t recycle six different kinds of plastics, you would say, ‘My college recycled these plastics. Why don’t we?’” she said.

The environmental studies curriculum has expanded considerably in the past several years, with the number of full-time environmental studies faculty increasing from one in early 2005 to three in 2008 and more hands-on coursework being offered by the department, including the popular “Alternatives to Consumerism,” which introduces students to sustainable lifestyles and behaviors.

“The institution can do certain things in terms of making purchases and trying to set up operations … but the most long-lasting effect that we could have is if, when students graduate, they become ambassadors for a more green lifestyle,” Axtell said.

Creating a campus-wide culture of sustainability will require more than simply administrative initiatives or student projects. Schwartzman even suggested focusing on sustainability in hiring decisions.

“So we’re gonna hire a faculty member in some field that apparently has no relation to sustainability,” Schwartzman said. “Should that person have any interest in sustainability? If we’re trying to build a sustainable community, we need people who are at least open-minded to the concept.”

Amott hopes to begin holding more campus-wide programming that would focus on educating the campus community further on sustainability issues. Possible ideas include a light bulb swap, where students would exchange old light bulbs for compact fluorescent bulbs, or a recycling competition between different areas of campus.

For Schwartzman, the focus on sustainability, while currently among the college’s top priorities, still has a ways to go, especially in terms of pushing projects that do not have an extravagant price tag.

“We need to build bike lanes,” he said. “For every lot we don’t have to make a parking lot, we can make a garden. A garden is cheaper than a parking lot, but we seem to be able to build parking lots.”

Still, it seems that a culture of sustainability has begun to take root at Knox, with administrators and senior staff agreeing that more needs to be done, and moreover, that more can be done with the resources available.

“I think almost anything we do on campus has to incorporate sustainability to a degree,” Maust said. “Sustainability should not fall solely on one or two or three departments. It should be everybody, everyday.”

Editor’s note: This is the first of a two-part series on sustainability at Knox. Next week’s issue of TKS will feature student viewpoints on Knox’s environmental sustainability efforts.

Anna Meier

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