February 22, 2012

Student views on sustainable efforts vary

When she was applying to colleges, junior Gretta Reed put sustainability among her top priorities. After applying to several schools where environmental studies was a core component of the curriculum, she found Knox “by accident.”

“What changed things for me was that [Knox] had a lot of potential,” she said. “Instead of being with people who already cared about environmental things, I could actually make a big change on this campus.”

Almost three years later, Reed finds herself unsatisfied, despite her involvement in both academic and extracurricular sustainability efforts.

“I have been disappointed that [sustainability] hasn’t been made more of a priority,” she said. “I think that everyone has the best of intentions, but I don’t think the Environmental Studies Department gets the support it deserves.”

From the installation of a composting system to an increased focus on the community garden, student initiative has been behind most of Knox’s sustainability efforts. Now, with the expansion of the Sustainability Task Force to include more students and the creation of a Sustainability Coordinator position, some are pleased to see the attention sustainability is now getting from the college.

“[Sustainability] is one of the most important things and will only get more important as the years go on,” sophomore and Student Senate Sustainability Chair Max Potthoff said. “It won’t become so much a choice as a necessity.”

Others, however, feel that different motivations should be driving Knox’s move towards sustainability.

“I think that Knox should be spending more,” sophomore Marcus McGee said. “But more effectively and with multiple goals in aim, not just sustainability for sustainability’s sake.”

Introducing a new position

In the fall of 2011, President Teresa Amott declared sustainability efforts as one of her top priorities, a move met with excitement by many.

“I know she has a lot on her plate financially speaking … but she does seem really dedicated to getting a Sustainability Coordinator position, which I think is a huge step for the campus,” senior Annika Paulsen said.

The new position, which will serve as a hub and an incubator for sustainability projects, will attempt to provide continuity from year to year.

“Students who are particularly zealous about a certain thing … will spearhead those projects, and then once they leave, the problem is getting students to carry on that charge,” Potthoff said.

Other projects, such as the campus bike rental program revived last year, have fallen to the wayside due to disorganization and insufficient planning, according to Associate Professor of Environmental Studies Peter Schwartzman.

“Without identifying individuals, there were some major misdirections, and there are things you can’t anticipate,” he said. “This is something that the Sustainability [Coordinator] might lend a hand in, so that they can hand off the baton from year to year.”

It is estimated that the Sustainability Coordinator position will cost around $70,000 per year, with much of the money initially coming from the Green Fee and Student Senate’s restricted fund. Although Schwartzman hopes the position will eventually fund itself through savings incurred through projects that the coordinator pursues, junior Tanvi Madhusudanan expressed concern.

“I don’t know if we need someone like that since we have a sustainability committee in Senate,” she said. “Lots of students on campus already know about sustainability enough to make sure we’re channeling our money towards that kind of thing properly.”

In Potthoff’s view, however, the coordinator is crucial if Knox wants to move forward with sustainability.

“That is what Knox needed as a next step in terms of progressing,” he said. “It’s just one of those essential keystone positions that you look over when you’re viewing a campus that is successful in its sustainability efforts.”

Making Knox greener

What might be a better investment, according to McGee, is something that will both make Knox greener, provide a beneficial service and be attractive to prospective students. One such idea is a “biodome,” or a dome-shaped greenhouse in which food can be grown all year.

“The grow dome … is a good fiscal investment and is a great marketing point to future generations attending Knox,” McGee said.

Sophomore Danika Hill also expressed support for the idea of a biodome, citing it as a place where students could work.

A proposal for a biodome behind the Human Rights Center is being submitted to the Special Meeting on the Use of the Restricted Fund (SMURF), which has about $80,000 to spend this year. For student-initiated projects, the primary other source of funding is the Green Fee, which until early February had not received a single proposal this academic year.

“The Green Fee is really under-utilized,” Paulsen said. “I’m not sure why we don’t see more Green Fee proposals — if people don’t know about it or if they think the process is intimidating.”

Between May 2009 and April 2011, the Green Fee funded 31 projects, ranging from $68.99 for bicycle baskets to $15,000 for a composting system — the largest Green Fee project to date. In both the 2009-2010 and 2010-2011 school years, the entire Green Fee allocation for that year was spent.

To give the Green Fee a sense of financial in addition to environmental sustainability, it was decided last year that five percent of the approximately $30,000 fund would be saved each year in the hopes of contributing to a larger project down the road. Further, any money not spent rolls over.

Although Potthoff acknowledges the positive aspects of having a larger fund in the future, he is confident that more of the Green Fee will be spent before the year is over.

“I set up a board outside the mail room and put a big stack of applications, and they’re all gone,” Potthoff said. “I have a feeling … that we’re going to see more applications coming in winter and spring.”

Although the Green Fee has traditionally been relied upon as the primary source of funding for sustainability projects, Hill believes that the college could allocate more money from other sources.

“I really don’t know where a lot of our money goes,” she said. “I’m assuming a lot of it probably goes to academics and financial aid, which are very important. But they could probably budget things better.”

Still, the most effective projects do not always require a large budget, according to Reed.

“The solutions that you hear the most about are alternative energies or things like that, whereas in reality, there’s so many easy, smart things that get lost in the shuffle,” she said, citing the example of eliminating trays in the Hard Knox Café and Oak Room.

Hill mentioned the possibility of providing more recycling bags in suites in order to encourage more students to use the recycling bins that are provided in their rooms.

“I feel like it’s not that hard to put just one box in each common room. There’s a ton in those boxes; they would probably last all year,” she said. “I feel like a lot more people would recycle.”

Finding common ground

One thing most students agreed on was the need to keep the college’s focus on sustainability strong in some way, both for making the campus greener and attracting the progressive, environmentally minded student to Knox.

“I think that students in this generation as a whole is caring more about sustainability,” Reed said. “It’s something that certain sectors of students, and students that I think Knox should be wanting to get here, want.”

“Knox was founded on such radical ideas … so I feel like we should be on the cutting edge of environmentalism too,” Hill said.

Even students who were not involved in environmental projects on campus agreed that the focus on sustainability needed to remain high.

“I think we spend a lot of money … but I don’t think it’s too much because sustainability is very important,” Madhusudanan said.

One potential area of concern is education, as there is no mandatory component of the curriculum right now that includes a sustainability component.

“Ideally, what I would love to see happen is have every freshman … have to take ENVS 101. But I understand that that’s not realistic,” Reed said.

Instead, the integration of sustainability into more aspects of college life, from the classroom to the cafeteria, would be both doable and desirable, Reed believes.

“I don’t think that sustainability is necessarily something that has to fall somewhere on the ladder of projects,” she said. “I think that it can be incorporated into the priorities of Knox in any range.”

Anna Meier

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