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Nationwide, School Colors Turn Green

By Olivia Lin • May 1st, 2008 • Category: Public Affairs

Have you noticed the new foamy soap in the Hunter bathrooms, or the lights turning on automatically when you enter a classroom? Small things, but they help shrink the college’s carbon footprint. The foamy soap goes farther than liquid, so less of the stuff enters the city’s waste water. The motion-activated lights save electricity and reduce the need to burn fossil fuels to generate it.

A student at Hunter College uses the new environmentally friendly foam soap.
A student at Hunter College uses the new environmentally friendly foam soap.

Colleges like Hunter burn energy and emit CO2 as much as any office building, and the need for action seems urgent. Polar ice caps are melting rapidly with polar bears, penguins and other arctic creatures endangered as their habitats shrink miles at a time. The British Antarctic Survey found that more than 13,000 square kilometers of Antarctic Peninsula sea ice has melted over the past 50 years. The average global sea level is predicted to rise between 11-77 centimeters by 2100, according to the 2001 report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. As a result, more and more coastal cities are increasingly at risk for high tides, flooding and other dangers during storms.

Polar bears are left stranded as miles of ice melt. Photo courtesy of www.memelabs.com.
Polar bears are left stranded as miles of ice melt. Photo courtesy of www.memelabs.com.

Hunter is taking other steps to slow down this environmental damage. Newly installed software automatically puts classroom computers into “sleep” mode after a period of inactivity. That may not sound like much, but CUNY stands to save $3 million and reduce CO2 emissions by 22,000 tons over the next five years by using the program, according to Meredith Halpern, the college’s director of public relations.

Complying with Environmental Protection Agency mandates, Hunter College designated March 4th – 5th as collection days for old electronic equipment, such as computers, televisions, and batteries, according to Conan Freud, Acting Vice President for Finance and Administration.

Hunter’s initiatives are only a small part of a nationwide college campaign to go green. Last year, 201 colleges, participating in RecycleMania, a nationwide collegiate competition in waste reduction, saved her over 41.3 million pounds of recyclables and organics (recyclemaniacs.com). This year, 400 schools from 46 states will participate. (Hunter is not one of them.)

The Oregon Institute of Technology is offering the country’s undergraduate degree in renewable energy, according to an article in The New York Times. New York University recently purchased 132 million kilowatt-hours of wind power. At Plymouth State University, the administration paid $29 million to construct one of the nation’s largest “green” certified buildings. The dormitory will have energy conserving Energy Star roofing and laundry room appliances, recycling stations on every floor, and low-flow restroom utilities.

Hunter student organizations have pitched in on the energy conserving efforts. Representatives from the Undergraduate Student Government, the New York Public Interest Research Group and the Brookdale Council at the dormitory are spearheading campaigns on and off campus.

In November 2007, a coalition of student groups put together Environmental Week. Club exhibits highlighted conservation with one table showing students how much heat energy was wasted by regular light bulbs compared to florescent light bulbs.

Students from the Graduate Student Association of Teaching and NYPIRG demonstrated how to compost organic wastes at home using clear plastic boxes in which worms turn food waste into nutrient-rich soil. An “energy challenge” at Brookdale dormitory, organized by NYPIRG and the Brookdale Council in November 2007, resulted in an 8.5 percent decrease in energy usage compared to the previous month.

A Water Week sign encourages choosing tap water over bottled water.
A Water Week sign encourages choosing tap water over bottled water.

Liz Suter, who heads the environmental committee of Brookdale Council, is working on new initiatives with her team. They hosted “Water Week” to honor March 12th, International Water Day. The group held a water conservation movie night, distributed reusable bottles and conducted a taste test — bottled versus tap water (surprise! The majority of students preferred tap water). “We want to spread awareness of water conservation,” Suter said.

“It’s a big international problem that’s getting worse everyday…. We’re taking our water for granted.”

Students at other universities are initiating and practicing green habits. At Princeton University last fall, class officers helped reduce the university’s energy consumption by distributing free energy-efficient light bulbs to more than 500 students. At San Diego State University, student leaders spearheaded a “Green Love” campaign that even brought textbooks into the picture. A key slogan was, “Save a tree, buy used books.”

Back at Hunter, NYPIRG plans to gather signatures for a petition to reduce mercury pollution. In Albany, the group lobbied assembly members and senators to support the “Bigger Better Bottle Bill,” which would extend the five cents deposit for glass and cans to water bottles. They plan to continue to pressure local assembly members, including conducting a letter writing campaign.

Students recycle their Poland Spring bottles in the kitchen bin at Brookdale dorms.
Students recycle their Poland Spring bottles in the kitchen bin at Brookdale dorms.

PlanetArk, the “daily guide to helping the planet,” states that plastic bottles and bags can take up to 1000 years to break down in the environment.

Every year, hundreds of thousands of birds, whales, seals and turtles are killed when they mistake plastic for food. After their bodies decompose, the plastic is back in the environment to kill again.

“I didn’t know how damaging plastic bottles are to the environment,” said Ilana Dunn, a 21-year-old education major. “Those [Water Week] posters really make me look at my packs of Poland Spring bottles in a new way.”

Nonetheless, many Hunter students are unenthusiastic about conservation efforts, even when they believe the problem is real. Kristina Abramova, a 20-year-old nursing major, liked the idea of Recyclemania and approved of the college greening movement, but doesn’t recycle herself.

“I really won’t go out of my way to throw out a can, or visit a club table that’s preaching about conservation,” Abramova said. “I don’t think I have the influence as an individual. Maybe that would change if the whole world recycled, but let’s be realistic. There are too many other concerns out there.”

“People are just tired of hearing [about measures to confront global warming],” said Elias Saber-Khiabani, 19, a major in biology and classics. “They just don’t care anymore. But global warming is happening.” Some students are dubious about Hunter’s efforts. “I don’t consider Hunter as an environmentally friendly school, because they’re not doing nearly enough,” said James Wong, 21, is a political science major.

Student-made signs at Brookdale dorms encourage recycling on the 7th floor.
Student-made signs at Brookdale dorms encourage recycling on the 7th floor.

“I’ve seen a lot of conservation efforts on the grassroots level from the student community, but I don’t actually see Hunter implement administrative changes. There are barely enough recycling bins for paper and bottles in every building,” said Emil Marquita, a 19-year-old urban studies major. He said he separates his water bottles, aluminum foil, and plastic before he throws out the garbage at the dorms, but believes that “Hunter should give students the option of whether they can recycle, but leave it up to them whether they should or want to.”

A random check of recycling bins at the college found they are often filled with trash. Leo Delgado, who leads the conservation project of NYPIRG at Hunter, regards mixed garbage as a major problem that counters recycling initiatives at Hunter and the dorms. Janitors are not required to sort out contaminated recycling bins. According to several students who wish to remain anonymous, the janitors instead throw everything in the trash, including plastic bottles, cans, and paper.

“Students at Hunter aren’t recycling because they’re lazy, and it’s not something directly related to themselves,” said Chui-Hung Wong, an 18-year-old Asian American Studies minor. “They don’t actively think ‘I’m not going to recycle.’ They just naturally throw their garbage into the nearest bin they see.”

For Delgado, the fact remains–“Students are definitely a resource for change because we have the energy and enthusiasm. We need to be ones to initiate change, to drive the administration – not the other way around.”

To Learn More:
The website of the Institute of Science in Society has comprehensive information on global warming. Information on changing climate patterns can be found in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Fourth Assessment Report. Keep yourself updated on current environmental news. To help at a personal level, learn about the size of your own carbon footprint and join the fight for a greener world. You can always donate to a variety of organizations, such as the World Wildlife Fund, Network for Good, or the Environmental Defense Action Fund.

To Do More:
• Reuse and recycle. Reduce energy usage, consume less, and decrease the amount of trash your household discards.
• Buy organic food at local stores.
• Compost food waste at home and grass and leaves in the fall.
• Walk, bike, ride mass transit or car pool to work.
• Unplug inactive appliances. Even when your television is off it draws current.
• Invest in fluorescent light bulbs and Energy Star appliances. They use less energy and save money over time.

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Olivia Lin is a junior in the Macaulay Honors Program at Hunter College, where she majors in Media Studies and minors in Asian American Studies. At Hunter, she is involved with the Coalition for the Revitalization of Asian American Studies at Hunter (CRAASH), and Circle K, a community service club.
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