A link has been posted to your Facebook feed.
- 1 of 15
- 2 of 15
- 3 of 15
- 4 of 15
- 5 of 15
- 6 of 15
- 7 of 15
- 8 of 15
- 9 of 15
- 10 of 15
- 11 of 15
- 12 of 15
- 13 of 15
- 14 of 15
- 15 of 15
Before heading to class, Jenessa Gilarski tucks silverware, a nonbreakable plate that belonged to her grandmother, a silicone straw, a water bottle and a stainless steel travel mug in her backpack.
The daily ritual is to avoid plastic.
Fueled by concerns over the environment — underscored by a new United Nations report on the imminent effects of climate change — dramatic changes are taking place on college campuses, whether in the construction of buildings or the habits of students like Gilarski.
“Especially in America, we live with a ‘throw-away’ mindset and once we can’t see something, we think it is no longer our problem, which is an unethical way to think,” said the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point senior.
Across Wisconsin, universities are banning plastic straws, nonrecyclable takeout containers and plastic bags in campus dining halls. They are composting food scraps and collecting uneaten food for food pantries. And they are supporting local food growers or tending campus gardens to reduce the distance food travels.
The latest move by student associations is putting student fees toward solar energy shares from community “solar gardens.” Wind power has arrived on campuses, too.
The developments are changing campus life and go way beyond green roofs and bicycle rental stations.
Last spring, University of Wisconsin-La Crosse elected a student association president and vice president who campaigned on banning plastic straws. After the election, a student referendum approved various student-funding initiatives for environmental sustainability and overwhelmingly sealed the straw ban.
WISCONSIN EDUCATION: Join the conversation in our Facebook group
At tiny Northland College in Ashland, on the shores of Lake Superior, most if not all students have a compost bucket in their dorm room or apartment. Once or twice a week, community residents, in addition to students, come to campus with buckets of food waste to dump in the enormous campus composter, which turns it into nutrient-rich fertilizer.
The liberal arts school with about 580 students is staking its future on environmental science. Northland in 1971 became one of the first colleges in the nation to offer an environmental studies degree. And its board of trustees just made sustainability its niche mission to attract more students in an increasingly competitive market.
“We’re an environmental college living our sustainable mission every day,” the new mission statement says. “What sets us apart from other colleges and universities is our commitment to deliver a liberal arts education with critical ‘green skills’ that employers and graduate schools are looking for.”
Sierra magazine this fall included Northland on its “Coolest Schools” list for commitment to the environment and sustainability initiatives, ranking it 55th overall, 14th among undergraduate colleges and first in Wisconsin.
“I think when students come to Northland, they realize it’s easy to live more sustainably when you live in a culture and environment that supports it and makes it a norm,” said Northland Student Association President Jenise Swartley, a senior from suburban Philadelphia. “These decisions quickly become part of your daily consciousness.”
And yes, she has a compost bucket under the kitchen sink in her off-campus apartment.
Hopes and worries
Since 2008, when the Princeton Review first started asking college applicants and their parents about environmental concerns on its annual “College Hopes and Worries” survey, roughly two-thirds consistently have responded that information about a college’s commitment to the environment would influence their decision to apply to or attend the school.
Northland also made Princeton Review’s “Green Colleges” list this year, as did Lawrence University in Appleton, Edgewood College in Madison, Western Technical College in La Crosse and University of Wisconsin campuses in Milwaukee, Oshkosh, Platteville, Stevens Point, Menomonie (UW-Stout) and Whitewater.
Environmental worries were further fueled by a report earlier this month by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change — a group of scientists convened by the United Nations to guide world leaders. The report projected worsening food shortages and wildfires, negative impact on economic growth and health, and a mass die-off of coral reefs in this fast-warming world as soon as 2040.
“I am very concerned about climate change and the rapid rate at which it is occurring due to human activity,” said Gilarski, the UW-Stevens Point senior. “It’s something I think about almost every day and the more I learn about the consequences of climate change, the more concerned I am. I have no doubt that in my lifetime I will be seeing, firsthand, some of these consequences.”
Green funds and Eco U
Many college campuses now have Green Funds created by student government associations to direct student fees toward environmental-sustainability projects.
UW-La Crosse bought a vermicomposter through its Green Fund.
Tens of thousands of worms in the vermicomposter break down food scraps into nutrient-rich fertilizer. For now, scraps are collected from the Whitney Center — the main dining hall — but the campus has set a goal of collecting from other dining areas on campus, as well.
Last year, 3,439 pounds of food waste from the Whitney Center was transformed into fertilizer by the vermicomposter’s army of worms. Western Technical College, the People’s Food Co-op and Mayo Clinic Health Systems-Franciscan Healthcare also use the vermicomposter, which Mayo Clinic now owns.
UW-Stevens Point’s Green Fund purchased reusable “Green on the Go” containers this fall and gave them to all students in residence halls.
Lawrence University employs sustainability peer-educators in its residence halls who provide programming for students, help with energy and water reduction goals, and make sure waste is sorted properly.
Among UW-Oshkosh’s Green Fund projects are two bicycle fix-it stations, an OZZI machine for the reusable container program at Reeve Union and recycling containers at the Oshkosh Sports Complex.
UW-Green Bay went so far as to trademark itself as Eco U. The campus has diverted nearly a million plastic water bottles from landfills by replacing water fountains with hydration stations that encourage reusable water bottles.
Students at UW-Green Bay also have collected 5,452 pounds of plastic film. Through this initiative, they diverted over 2.5 tons of plastic from the landfill, the equivalent of 494,605 plastic grocery bags. Those bags are now being used in backyards as TREX composite decking.
Capturing sun, wind, rain
Instead of burning fossil fuels onsite to heat its buildings, Marquette University uses “waste” heat from the nearby Valley Power Plant — a steam byproduct of electricity.
Marquette’s Engineering Hall and under-construction Athletic and Human Performance Research Center have underground stormwater collection systems. The student commons not only has a green roof, it has a green wall, growing hops.
UW-Eau Claire, UW-Stout, UW-LaCrosse and Northland College all recently started using solar energy.
LIKE US ON FACEBOOK: Get the latest Journal Sentinel news in your feed
At UW-Stout, the student association funded the campus’s first solar panel project on a student-funded building, the Merle Price Commons. They have set aside additional money for more panels in the next year or two.
Built in 2012, UW-Eau Claire’s student union is 100 percent powered by renewable energy from wind farms in Minnesota and four solar panels on the roof, which reduce water heating costs.
A green roof on the union terrace retains rainfall, absorbing much of the rain and allowing the rest to drain more slowly through the drainage system into Little Niagara Creek. The drainage system protects creek banks from erosion.
A lengthy section about the student union on UW-Eau Claire’s website touts the building as a model of sustainable design.
Northland College’s student association recently tapped a student-administered grant program to purchase 100 200-watt solar shares (20 kW) for $32,000. Solar energy will power a greenhouse and the Larson-Juhl Center for Science and the Environment once a solar garden is built by Xcel Energy.
Solar shares purchased by the student association are expected to save the college $53,000 to $67,000 in electricity bills over the next 25 years.
If there’s any issue that seems to galvanize students, however, it’s straws.
This fall, 86 percent of students voting in a UW-La Crosse referendum supported a campuswide ban of plastic straws through a campaign that noted Americans use 500 million straws every day and many end up in drainage systems that directly flow into waterways such as the Mississippi River.
UW campuses in La Crosse, River Falls, Stevens Point, Stout (Menomonie) and Eau Claire have all taken up the plastic straw issue, though straws may still be available when requested.
Straws at UW-River Falls are made from biodegradable corn-based plastic. UW-Madison’s straws are compostable, too, and the university is exploring paper straws.
UW-Milwaukee still uses plastic straws, but the student association is promoting a ban on plastic bags.
Lawrence University was way ahead of the anti-straw movement. It hasn’t used plastic straws in food service for nearly a decade and now uses recyclable paper straws.
Reusable to-go containers and strategies for curbing food waste are a big thing on campuses, too.
The state’s flagship campus just started using reuseable to-go containers. At the Gordon Dining Event Center — the largest dining facility on campus — between 400 and 500 containers are processed a day.
Northland College, which shifted from plastic straws to paper straws last year, went trayless in 2009 to discourage students from piling on food they won’t eat. Reusable to-go containers came on board there in 2012.
The student referendum at UW-La Crosse on a straw ban also asked which investments in renewable energy and environmentally sustainable projects should get Green Fund support through student fees.
Students voted in favor of solar water heaters, wind power, and composting systems for food waste, among other things. They agreed to purchase renewable energy or energy efficiency systems by contributing no more than $7 per semester to the Green Fund.
College students should set a good example for those who are younger, said Ben O’Connell, the student who was elected president of the UW-La Crosse Student Association after campaigning with his running mate to ban straws.
“It’s going to be even more important that the next generation works toward more environmentally sustainable practices,” O’Connell said.
Going straw-free isn’t an option for UW-Whitewater because part of its mission is to serve students with disabilities, who may need straws.
The campus instead focuses on projects like a campus garden, which has grown more than 2,000 pounds of produce this year alone and collected another 2,900 pounds from vendors at the local farmer’s market to donate to the Whitewater Community Food Bank.
Taking it home
What young people learn in college, they take with them into the world.
After graduating from UW-Whitewater last spring, Blake Fontana returned to his hometown of Freeport, Illinois, to do digital marketing and sales for his family’s business, Frank Jewelers.
Fontana had volunteered at the campus garden and nature preserve as a student. Now he tends his own vegetable garden at his parents’ house.
And most weeks during the growing season, Fontana and his girlfriend buy locally grown fruits and vegetables from the town farmer’s market.
“I like fresh food, and I like to support local businesses,” he said.