When it comes to big institutions, good intentions — recycling, turning off lights and computers, printing only when necessary — can get buried under day-to-day priorities and staff turnover.
The Office of Sustainability at West Virginia University is working to make those good intentions — well, sustainable.
"Rather than being an anomaly or what I would call a ‘gall bladder' of the institution that can be snipped and thrown away, we've tried to align all our strategies with both longevity and legacy in mind," said Sustainability Director Clement Solomon, "so it can go beyond a person — it's more of an institutional framework."
As part of activities around Earth Day on April 22, the office held a town hall–style meeting on April 18 to unveil a draft "Sustainability Strategic Plan" for the coming five years and to get ideas from the university and the local community.
Every aspect of the strategic plan — not only its five interconnected program areas that go beyond stewardship to civic engagement and communication, but also its development by a Sustainability Committee of 18 faculty, staff and students from across the university — reflects the intention to create a culture of sustainability, one that builds on interests all across campus, permeates all aspects of university life and extends out into the community.
The public service and civic engagement area of the strategic plan is one example. As dozens of participants circulated among the five tables representing the five aspects of the strategic plan at the town hall meeting, Stephanie Toothman of Recycling Services in Facilities Management spoke at the public service and civic engagement table about ideas that would engage students in activities that work both as research projects and as service learning, and would benefit the surrounding community.
"If you're familiar with our Ecolympics," Toothman said — that's the month-long event the university holds each year in which buildings across campus compete to recycle the most and conserve the most energy — "one idea is more on a community scale. We could have neighborhoods competing to see who could recycle the most, who could conserve the most energy."
Another idea would build on a February "Taste not Waste" public education and research project, she said, in which student volunteers sorted and weighed recyclables and waste at WVU dining halls for a week. In the follow-up project, a biodigester run on food waste collected both from dining halls and from community restaurants would generate electricity for use on campus.
Asked about successes in sustainability on campus so far, Solomon spoke of the university's 2006 energy performance contract, in which Siemens Industry, Inc. identified $50 million in investments through 2016 that would bring guaranteed energy savings. Investments have totaled about $37 million so far and are ongoing; through them, the university saved $6.6 million in 2012 alone.
Solomon spoke of the 12 Evive reusable water bottle cleaning and filling stations on campus that saved more than 50,000 plastic bottles in the first month — that's more than a ton of plastic kept out of landfills.
And he spoke of the success of 25 student internships in the Sustainability Office.
"We've been very intentional about providing platforms for learning beyond those four walls," he said, "giving students a chance to think about things cradle to grave. What are the barriers to more sustainable practices? How do we overcome them?"
One of those interns is Katie Frontino, from Summersville, a senior in design studies with a minor in sustainable design.
As an intern, Frontino inventoried printer and copier use in five representative departments on campus. She concluded that, by moving from desktop printers to network printing, the university could cut waste and save $1.2 million. Plans for making those changes are forming now.
"I never knew how you could be sustainable in a business settings and also save money," Frontino said.
"I'm moving soon to North Carolina and I was looking at solar industry jobs," she said of the influence the experience will have on her career choice. "I'd love to work for a company that operates sustainably."
The sustainability effort on campus is not about activism, Solomon said — it's about building awareness and forming partnerships across campus.
"I see this as a journey of various interests, and one does not trump the other," Solomon said. "Collectively, seeing the cause from environmental, economic and social perspectives helps us all frame this journey together."