Monday, November 24, 2008

Gobble Gobble Gobble

I've been trying to encourage students in my Environmental Science class at Lasell College to think more about their food. I not only want students to have a better understanding of the source of their food but also of the amount of energy that went into producing that food. Local food is an idea I have been working with students to consider as part of their foodprint and Thanksgiving provides an interesting opportunity to apply this concept particularly as the meal occured here in Massachusetts.

Almost all food consumed in early colonial times was local. With the exception of a few spices that may have been transported on ships most of the food was of local origin. So what was on the original menu? Not potatoes, not pumpkin pie, not cranberry sauce, and maybe not even turkey as Karla Reed points out. Sugar was not available for cranberry sauce or pumpkin pie and potatoes were unheard of. So what did these true locavores eat?
  • Wild fowl
  • Pumpkin
  • Squash
  • Fish
  • Lobsters
  • Eel
  • Mussels
  • Oysters
  • Corn
  • Parsnips
  • Collards
  • Turnips
  • Spinach
  • Onions
  • Dried Beans
  • Dried Blueberries
  • Grapes
  • Nuts
Thanksgiving was originally a harvest celebration. As you sit down for your meal this year consider what has been harvested locally. Hopefully at least the squash is coming from a local farm. Is it right that we celebrate food that was harvested 3000 miles away?

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

My Dumpster Dive

I am proud to say that this morning I went dumpster diving. I did not physically dive into a giant 30 yarder but I did loot through a giant pile of trash. As I fumbled on my way to to the car this morning with the boy in one arm and his lunch in the other I noticed a huge mound of trash. In this mountain of trash on the side of this Cambridge street there was a suitcase. Someone was throwing out this perfectly beat up suitcase even though Professor Athey and the students heading to Mexico could use it? I quickly threw my son into his car seat and ran over to the trash pile to claim the suitcase before anyone could beat me to it. What joy when I discoved a second suitcase in the trash pile under my first dumpster dive prize. Quickly I realized how dumpster diving can get addicting. I felt great all morning. Not only was I able to bring in two more suitcases for the Mexico service-learning trip but I rescued two suitcases destined for the landfill.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Tangible Actions

The Lasell College Environmental Sustainability Committee met again today. We had some very interesting discussion regarding campus recycling. We also made a decision on the tangible actions we want to implement as part of the American College & University Presidents Climate Commitment.

The discussion regarding single stream vs. dual stream recycling was very interesting. It was pointed out that a single stream system would probably increase recycling rates, decrease costs, and be easier to implement. This makes it seem straightforward. However if the entire life cycle analysis is considered, the dual stream system may be the better choice for the environment as the quality of the product from the plant may be higher. But then again the dual stream system may require more truck trips to campus. After debating the merits of both systems the committee acknowledged that whichever system we choose we need to launch a major education campaign. Our next meeting will focus on creating a campaign that we will launch at the start of the spring semester. It is going to be huge so watch out!

It was a very productive meeting as we were also able to come to a consensus on which two tangible actions steps we will implement as part of the ACUPCC. In signing the ACUPCC, President Alexander agreed Lasell would commit to at least two short term greenhouse reduction actions. We decided Lasell College will:
-Adopt an energy-efficient appliance purchasing policy requiring purchase of ENERGY STAR certified products in all areas for which such ratings exist.
-Participate in the Waste Minimization component of the national RecycleMania competition, and adopt 3 or more associated measures to reduce waste.

Again the discussion was very interesting. We seriously considered choosing an action to adopt a new construction policy requiring that new buildings meet at least LEED silver standards. Although we chose two other action items we may look closely at LEED standards during the spring semester. To make an informed decision we would need a representative from the green building industry to educate the committee on the standards and the associated costs and benefits.

I'm excited about the two action steps we have adopted. I really like the RecycleMania because it engages students. Professor Sarikas brought up a great point about the importance of waste minimization. Whether a material is in the garbage or in the recycling bin it is still waste. We can do a lot more to try and minimize our waste and participating in RecycleMania will provide a fun arena to make improvements.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Just Get the Job Done

Last Monday morning I had the unique opportunity to hear Van Jones deliver a speech to attendees at the AASHE2008 conference. Van Jones is probably the best speaker I have ever heard. Sorry, Al Gore. Gore's speech at Harvard last month was good, but Van Jones was incredible. He spoke for nearly an hour and his points are still clear in my mind. Take a look at part of his speech on YouTube. Jones is co-founder of the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights and the author of The Green Collar Economy: How One Solution Can Fix Our Two Biggest Problems. Many people think Van Jones should be in the Obama Whitehouse.

Van Jones provided great inspiration to me. He started by telling the audience that there is no time to worry and to just get the job done. This resonated with me and probably most of the other campus sustainability representatives at the conference.

On a national scale, Jones outlined three initiatives to move America towards a sustainable future. First he said we need to put a price on carbon and make the polluters pay. Second we need to retrofit America. Retrofitting America creates jobs and will pay for itself in energy savings. Third we need to repower America. To make this happen, Jones suggested we invoke that it is in the best interest of national security. The national highway system was a project that was overwhelming to imagine. People argued the cost would be so high there was no way it could be done. In the interest of national security the highway system was completed and you can say some other benefits were realized. Shifting our energy supply to renewables is on a scale similar to highways.

At the end of his speech Van Jones rallied the audience, "Barack Obama has done his job and taken America back." He followed, "Now let's do our job and take America forward." He is absolutely right. We have put the right man in place but he can't do it alone. We all need to get on board and just get the job done.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Live From AASHE

On Sunday evening I arrived in Raleigh, NC to attend the annual conference of the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education. The conference is really impressive and sustainability has been thought through in every aspect of the planning. Let me share a few of the things happening here.

On the way to the airport I was telling my wife I felt a bit guilty flying 700 miles to attend a conference on sustainability. Flying is not really a sustainable action. However, when I arrived I discovered that conference planners used a company called Blue Horizons to offset all the travel of the attendees. Rather than asking conference attendees to consider paying to offset their travel, planners just did it and incorporated the costs into the conference fee. The fee now more accurately reflects the true cost of the conference by taking into account the environmental impact of flying.

When I entered the conference hall I was overly impressed with the recycling stations. They actually call them the Resource Recovery Stations and not recycling. At the stations there were five containers: paper recycling, plastic recycling, organics and compostables, liquids, and landfill waste. I loved the sign on the garbage stating landfill waste. Let's just make it flat out clear that what is put in this container is going to fill the landfill. The organizers are estimating they will generate 30% of the waste of a typical conference. The meals and snacks have all been served on washable plates and cups. If disposable products are used, they are starch based cups so they can be placed in the compostable bin. Again I'm sure the cost was more but this is what it is going to take to force people into making the right decision.

The meals did not have any red meat. In fact most of the meals were vegetarian based. I did see chicken served a few times but all the people I ate with were choosing meatless options. At one of the sessions I attended I learned that about 1/3 of global greenhouse gases are from agriculture and over half of that is due to livestock. Eating less meat is a great way to reduce your footprint. Some colleges are incorporating Meatless Mondays, which I think is a great idea to promote awareness of foodprints.

I have one more day of sessions and I will be back in Boston tonight. There is good stuff happening here, and I am excited to share with the Lasell community what I have learned. I have been impressed with the energy at the conference and I am hopeful that institutions of higher education will step up and meet the challenge to make our campuses sustainable places to live, work, and study.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Name Me!

Turtle #294 desperately needs a name. Imagine an endangered northern red-bellied cooter named after you! I've decided to use the naming of the turtle as a chance to raise some money to help us grow the turtles and conduct outreach. We are currently asking for donations and we will award the naming right for Turtle #294 to the individual making the largest donation to our turtle program. Alumni, faculty, staff, students and friends are all welcome to participate. Let me look at the staff directory and find some good turtle names. How about Aieta? Ostrow? Malini? Rosenthal? Maybe a name after a recent graduate such as Kevin or Alisha? Alexander has a nice ring to it! Turtle #294 can't wait to finally have a name. More information and the link to donate can be found on the Lasell College Alumni page (

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Waste Audit

Students in my Environmental Science class participated in a waste audit today. It was on a small scale but still the data is quite revealing. The data gives us an indication as to how well our new recycling system is working. We collected all the waste from the classroom and hallway garbage cans in Wolfe Hall. We then sorted the waste into different categories. Here is what we found:
  • 31% cans and bottles
  • 53% waste (12% from paper coffee cups)
  • 10% paper
  • 7% other plastic
Recycling for cans and bottles as well as paper is available in the hallway of these buildings and yet 41% of our waste contains recyclables. Also striking is the amount of waste from paper coffee cups. Paper coffee cups represent 12% of our waste in this building. Clearly a Lug-a-Mug campaign is needed.

We then collected all the material in the recycling bins and found the following:
  • 58% cans and bottles
  • 17% paper
  • 11% other plastic
  • 11% paper coffee cups
The data highlights two problems. First students are not placing recyclables into the bins. Second students are placing items that cannot be recycled into the recycling bins. We recovered 4.5 lbs of cans and bottles from the garbage cans and only 2.5 lbs of cans and bottles from the recycling bins. The culture needs to change on our campus. We also found plastic and paper coffee cups in the recycling that we currently cannot recycle. This indicates to me that students want to recycle these items and think these items can be recycled in our system.

Where do we go from here? Next week I am going to run an experiment. I think to increase recycling in the academic buildings each classroom needs recycling stations or we need to remove all garbage cans in each classroom. Bins in each classroom is not an option right now because the recycling budget is dry. I will test the hypothesis that students will recycle more if there are no garbage cans in classrooms because it forces them into the hallway to throw items away where they will see the recycling bins. My colleague thinks my hypothesis will not be supported and students will just pile their waste in the classroom along the wall. I'm confident Lasell students are better than that.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Building Dashboard

I ran an electricity reduction contest in the Lasell College residential houses for the month of October. I had my Environmental Science students implement programs to help residents reduce their electricity consumption for the month. Students implemented programs such as passing out CFL bulbs and convincing roommates to share a refrigerator. Data was reported weekly on the Green Campus Initiative web page. At the end of the month, electricity consumption was down 3.7% compared to October of 2007.

I ran the contest as a pilot to determine if investing in Building Dashboard is a worthwhile pursuit. Oberlin College has implemented the system and experienced up to a 55% reduction in electricity consumption in high resolution feedback buildings. By combining a building performance monitoring system with a web based display, the data can be used to engage, educate, entertain, and empower as described by John Petersen in his Definitive Design paper. Students in environmental studies courses can use the data to calculate carbon footprints and discuss energy conservation. Residents on campus can be engaged by participating in electricity reduction contests. The display system is entertaining as visual graphics display comparisons of building energy consumption. Finally, the system is empowering residents are inspired to reduce energy consumption in the building.

I ran the contest in the houses at Lasell to feel out interest. I wasn't sure it was worthwhile as I had to walk around to the houses and manually record the data each week. But one comment has convinced me it was worthwhile and should be expanded. A student in my FYS class commented that she looks forward to seeing the data each week and she discusses with her roomate what they can do to help their building. With that I am sold. I'm convinced it is worthwhile to work to find money to implement this system.

My contest was low cost and simple to run. It did not provide real-time data and required me to walk around to meters and report the data on a web page. I could not include dormitories because the meters are in the basements and I don't have access. The Building Dashboard system could be grown to include all campus buildings and increase the transparency of energy use data. I think the place to start is in the dormitories as residential house data can easily be obtained manually.

The dorm energy contest idea is great and depends on residents buying into the contest. The support of an RA can make a big difference. For example, in our contest the RA in Mott House sent text messages with ideas and words of encouragement to all residents. This house realized a 20% reduction largely due to the RA's leadership.