GREEN YOUR SCHOOL: Project Compost, University of California—Davis

As students start getting ready to go back to school, some of them are also getting ready to embark upon a new year of greening their campuses. Green America editorial fellow Sari Amiel discovered five inspiring examples of how students are making their campuses more socially just and environmentally sustainable. Every Monday and Wednesday from August 14th through August 27th, we’ll post one of Sari’s stories here on our blog.

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The Project Compost student staff members pick up compost from around campus in an electric vehicle known as “Cyclops.”

Passionate students at UC Davis are helping their school meet its ambitious goal of being zero-waste by the year 2020. Project Compost, a student-run group, keeps an average of 2,358 pounds of organic waste—such as fruit and vegetable scraps, coffee grounds, and laboratory plants—out of landfills each week.

In many spots on campus, students sort their organic waste into special bins, and the university sends the compostables to a private industrial composting facility located 40 minutes from campus. But several campus cafes, plant laboratories, and living communities do not benefit from this service, so Project Compost diverts these venues’ organic waste away from landfills. Project Compost’s founders established the group as an official unit of the student government, so it receives funds from the university.

“The composting that we do on campus is very small-scale compared to the amount of industrial-scale composting that the university already organizes…[but] is sort of an educational way for students to see how the process works, and it also [provides mulch], the finished product, at the end,” says Noelle Patterson, the Student Unit Director of Project Compost. “A lot of the places that we divert from would not have composting if it weren’t for our services.”

Both Project Compost and UC Davis keep substantial quantities of organic waste out of landfills each year—the former collects more than a ton of waste, and the latter diverts over 100 tons.

Project Compost’s 25 student volunteers use an electric vehicle—donated by the campus coffeehouse, their largest pickup location—to carry the organic waste to a 60-foot-long compost pile. A tractor turns the entire compost pile, adding oxygen, which the microorganism decomposers need. After four to six months, the finished compost is ready to use as organic fertilizer. Project Compost distributes the compost to community members and uses some in its own vegetable garden, in which interns grow radishes, carrots, melons, and strawberries, among other plants.

This past year, Project Compost also organized 12 workshops to educate students and community members about composting and vermicomposting, which involves the decomposition of organic matter using worms. The group encourages students to try vermicomposting, which can be done in closed containers on a small scale, making it conducive to apartments and dorm rooms.

“I think that our strongest suit is in the education and awareness we bring to students and the community,” says Patterson.

Patterson also has a favorable view of the direction in which her school is headed.

“I see more compost bins popping up around campus, so UC Davis is making a lot of great strides. I think that Project Compost always has potential to expand… I would love to see the group grow.”

Sari Amiel

GREEN YOUR SCHOOL: Cornell University’s Dump and Run program

As students start getting ready to go back to school, some of them are also getting ready to embark upon a new year of greening their campuses. Green America editorial fellow Sari Amiel discovered five inspiring examples of how students are making their campuses more socially just and environmentally sustainable. Every Monday and Wednesday from now through August 27th, we’ll post one of Sari’s stories here on our blog.

Cornell's "Dump and Run" program gets items that students would normally throw away at the end of the school year into the hands of people who can use them.
Cornell’s “Dump and Run” program gets items that students would normally throw away at the end of the school year into the hands of people who can use them.

 

As each year of college draws to a close, students have to face a reality that, for months, they been avoiding—the amount of stuff that has accumulated in their rooms. With time and space in short supply, students will often throw away many still-useful items. That’s why Cornell University gives its students the ability to “Dump and Run.”

Since 2003, Cornell’s Dump and Run program has decreased its move-out waste stream by collecting unwanted items at the end of each school year and re-selling things that are still usable at the start of the next year.

“[This program is] really good in terms of keeping as much as we possibly can out of the landfill,” says Karen Brown, Cornell’s Director of Campus Life Marketing and Communications, who oversees the Dump and Run program. “And I think it’s very effective in terms of our relationship with the Ithaca community.”

Before Cornell’s residence halls close for the summer, the Campus Life office reminds students to place their unwanted items in collection boxes, which are situated in several residence halls, sororities, and fraternities around campus.  In the late spring and summer, those living in off-campus residences and homes in the community can also call Brown’s office to request pickups of their donations.

Dump and Run commonly receives refrigerators, clothing, lamps, and storage containers. Many of the donated items still contain tags, says Brown. In the past few years, she has seen a life-size inflatable palm tree, Halloween costumes, aquariums, Christmas trees, and a $700 pair of Jimmy Choo shoes.

Volunteers from local nonprofits, along with a few student volunteers, spend the summer in a 3,500-square-foot storage unit, sorting through the collection of college artifacts to separate still-usable items from things that are clearly at the end of their lives and need to be disposed of.

“We try to recycle everything that we can,” says Brown. “I’m pleasantly surprised [by] how little ends up in the landfill.”

The vast majority of the items are sold at the campus Dump and Run sale on the Saturday after freshmen move-in day. This sale is open to Cornell students and staff, as well as the general public. It’s so popular that, although the sale starts at 8:30 a.m., townspeople start arriving at 5:30 a.m. By the time the doors open, there are usually about 100 people lined up outside.

“I think this program has done a lot to help with our relationship with our surrounding town…because they really appreciate it,” says Brown. “It’s a great way to convince people to clean out their basements and garages.”

After the sale, Brown says the program distributes leftover items to nearby nonprofits that might be able to use them. Dump and Run volunteers give leftover clothes to a local women’s center, send blankets and towels to animal shelters, and donate nonperishable food to food pantries.

However, Cornell does manage to sell most of the donations it receives. It gives almost 100 percent of the proceeds from the sale to the local nonprofits that send volunteers to help with the Dump and Run program. The fraction of the sales revenue that each nonprofit receives is proportional to the number of hours that its volunteers spent working with Dump and Run. Cops, Kids & Toys, the group that helps Dump and Run the most, volunteered more than 3,000 hours last year.

One of these nonprofit groups is a student-run organization. According to former co-Chair Christina Roberti, Cornell’s Student United Way chapter uses its share of the sale revenue to fund its Summers of Service program. Summers of Service provides financially constrained high school students with a stipend so that they can afford to accept unpaid summer internships at nonprofits.

Cornell’s Campus Life office presently stores items in facilities donated by the Cornell Veterinary School. However, a lack of storage space is the largest constraint that Dump and Run faces, so students still end up throwing some still-usable items out at the end of the year.

“When we see things end up in the dumpsters and we know we can’t go get it, it’s disheartening,” says Brown. “I think if we had twice the warehouse space, we would fill it.”

From a student perspective, Roberti really appreciates the Dump and Run program.

“From my point of view, it saves a lot of waste,” says Roberti. “I just moved out of a 14-person house… Anything that wasn’t trash we donated to Dump and Run, but we probably would have thrown it out had it not been for the sale.”

—Sari Amiel

GREEN YOUR SCHOOL: The Oberlin College Ecolympics

Oberlin students take "shots" of a locally grown salad at a 2014 Ecolympics event.
Oberlin students take “shots” of a locally grown salad at a 2014 Ecolympics event.

As students get ready to go back to school, some of them are also getting ready to embark upon a new year of greening their campuses. Green America editorial fellow Sari Amiel discovered five inspiring examples of how students are making their campuses more socially just and environmentally sustainable. Every Monday and Wednesday from now through August 27th, we’ll post one of Sari’s stories here on our blog.

At Oberlin College, April brings warm breezes, vibrant flowers, and golden sunlight—as well as a spirited contest that pits one dorm against another to see which can use the fewest resources.  The Oberlin Ecolympics compares dorm-wide reductions in electricity and water use, with the most eco-savvy dorms winning prizes that include ice cream socials and infrastructure improvements, such as the installation of water refill stations.

“Ultimately, becoming sustainable will involve significant lifestyle changes on behalf of pretty much everyone,” says Oberlin Ecolympics Intern Abraham Rowe. “It’s important to have people actually attempt to make some sort of changes to their lifestyle, and then [see] what it feels like to live like that.”

Started in 2002, when several Oberlin students invented a building “dashboard” to monitor their energy and water use, the campus-wide contest takes place over three weeks. The contest is still guided by an online dashboard similar to the 2002 prototype, which monitors buildings and informs residents about their resource use. The contests also uses physical displays to keep the spirit of competition high.

Oberlin’s Office of Environmental Sustainability advertises, plans, and oversees the coordination, planning, and marketing of the campus’s Ecolympics efforts, which also involve educational events. In 2014, Oberlin’s 36 Ecolympics events included movie screenings, a local arboretum cleanup, a visit from animal rights activist Gene Bauer, and a workshop and concert hosted by a band that uses only vegetable oil to power its truck.The Office of Environmental Sustainability incentivized student attendance by rewarding the dorm that had the highest percentage of resident participation at the events.

Sustainability Coordinator Bridget Flynn says that the Ecolympics is an “extremely meaningful” competition, due to its student engagement and its tangible results: In 2014, Oberlin trimmed its electricity use during the event by 13,182 kWh, which saved $1,054, and the campus reduced its overall water use by 55,889 gallons, or $559. Rowe values Ecolympics because, once the contest is over, electricity and water use continue to decrease across campus, he says.

In addition, the competition has infected the city of Oberlin, whose public schools held their first resource reduction in conjunction with Ecolympics in 2014. One public school reduced its electricity use by 36.7 percent, an impressive feat given that only 50 to 60 percent of average US building’s electricity use is discretionary, or under the control of the building’s occupants.

Ecolympics is no longer confined to Oberlin’s borders. The students who first invented the Ecolympics dashboard went on to found the Lucid Design Group, which develops resource-monitoring building software for small businesses and Fortune 500 companies alike. In 2010, Lucid helped make this contest national. Called the Campus Conservation Nationals competition, it runs every spring at 119 colleges and universities across the country. Oberlin participates each year, and simultaneously continues to run its dorm-wide contest. Last year, the Campus Conservation Nationals judges ranked Oberlin as a “top-five water reducer.”

Both Rowe and Flynn advise schools that are interested in Ecolympics to check out the many resources that Campus Conservation Nationals offers. Environmental Dashboard Project Leader Danny Rosenberg, a 2012 Oberlin graduate, stresses the importance of involving the entire student body in the competition. “Try to tie [the competition] in with a broader effort to engage the college community on sustainability,” says Rosenberg.  “Try to really build a culture around sustainability.”

—Sari Amiel