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Making Something Out of Nothing
Lately, I have been thinking a lot about nothing. Nothing is the absence of something, that is to say “no thing.” A great big zero. In sustainability, we set goals of achieving “zero.” In fact, AU has a goal of sending zero waste to landfill or incineration. But our real goal is not to achieve “nothing,” but rather to make something out of nothing.
In February, Facilities Management deployed hundreds of new “waste” containers, situated right next to the usual recycling and trash cans. These new orange containers are labeled “organic waste” and they are meant to collect discarded biological material that can be turned into compost. And that is where “nothing” becomes “something.” On the one hand, “zero waste” means preventing material from being wrapped in plastic and buried underground in a landfill for future generations to inherit. But on the other hand, zero waste is about turning “waste” materials into something new and useful. By doing this, we mimic nature, where there is no such thing as waste. Fallen leaves from trees are not trash; they are nutrient inputs for soil. Soil itself is not a waste material created from leaves and eroded rock; it is a nutrient substrate for growing life. Rain is not a “waste” expelled from clouds; it is one of the basic building blocks of life on earth. Similarly, by recycling paper, we provide pulp for new paper to be made. We collect plastic, aluminum and glass containers to become the raw materials to make new bottles and cans and other products. But paper, plastic, metal, and glass are not the only source of "waste" on campus.
In fact, they are only about half of our waste. Most of the rest of our waste is comprised of “organic” material, such as food scraps and disposable cups and plates and silverware made from plant-based plastics. Until now, except in certain locations like the Terrace Dining Room (as well as the Davenport Lounge Bender Library, both of which voluntarily started separating their organic materials over a year ago – kudos to them!), most of the so-called “waste” organic material generated on campus was being sent to landfills. But now we are keeping this material separate when we collect it, so it can be turned into compost. Compost turns the negative of landfill waste into the positive of topsoil.
And topsoil is no trifling matter. The world’s thin layer of topsoil is rapidly vanishing due to a combination of destructive agricultural practices, overgrazing, deforestation, and desertification. Without topsoil there is no farming. For a taste of what that means, read the history of the Dust Bowl. More than one hundred million acres of prairie in the American Midwest were lost due to poor agricultural management, which caused hundreds of thousands of people to migrate westward, and contributed to the already dire conditions of the Great Depression. As topsoil continues to disappear globally, and as the human population continues to climb, we are headed for a food crisis unless we can rebuild our topsoil.
So as you see the new orange bins and signs appearing, soon expanding from the residence halls into the rest of the buildings across campus, feel good about knowing that you are helping us achieve our goal of zero waste. But remember that zero waste doesn’t mean zero sum – it really means we are making a whole lot of something out of a whole lot of nothing.
Orange organic waste bins are lined up for installation in McDowell Hall
Around Valentines day, we usually think in shades of red and pink. This February, we are going orange instead. Campuswide organic waste collection is here. More than one hundred and fifty new organic waste containers have now been installed in the residence halls, dotting student lounges and kitchens with orange. Resident students can now easily give a second life to napkins, food waste, paper cups, and other organic waste materials that were once doomed to an eternity in a landfill. Reaction to the containers has been so swift and overwhelmingly positive – that students were so quick to catch on to organic waste separation - that within a week additional containers had to be brought in to meet the demand for sustainable solutions.
Facilities staff have been working closely with enthusiastic ARAMARK housekeeping employees to install the new containers and keep the new waste stream separated all the way to the trucks that collect compostable material from campus. The Green Eagles have also been soaring into action by engaging residents in hands-on education and awareness about the new bins. Read more about their efforts in the article below. The Housing and Dining Program's Residential Education staff, including Resident Directors and RA's, have built up tremendous zero waste spirit in the residence halls with activities and bulletin boards dedicated to education about organic waste and why we separate it to meet our ambitious zero waste goal.
The successful rollout of organic waste bins in the residence halls is due to the hard work and collaboration of Facilities Management, Housing and Dining Programs, the Office of Sustainability, ARAMARK Housekeeping, the Office of Procurement and Contracts, and most importantly, the passion and commitment to sustainability of the AU student body. After the logistics and implementation of the organics collection program is perfected in the residence halls, these groups and more will play a key role in making it successful throughout every corner of campus - look out for orange organics containers to appear in academic and administrative buildings throughout February and March.
For more information on organic waste collection, please visit us on our website: www.american.edu/zerowaste and like us for frequent updates on www.facebook.com/ZeroWasteAU.
The American University Staff Council has been a green beacon on campus for those looking for ways to reach our destination of zero waste. This winter, Staff Council's annual winter wear drive collected more than 100 coats and 10 boxes filled to the brim with hats, gloves, and scarves. Not only were these items saved from landfill, but they found a great home with A Wider Circle, a local nonprofit that helps impoverished children and adults in the Greater DC area.
This month, Staff Council again stepped up its reuse game by organizing the popular Book and Media Swap for faculty and staff. Tables were neatly lined up in Bender Arena where the AU community dropped off their used and unwanted books, CD's, DVD's, and other media. Later that day, the participants picked up new items and exchanged for the same number of the items they dropped off that morning.
If you missed either of these exciting events this year, make sure to follow AU Staff Council on the web at american.edu/AUStaffCouncil to find out the dates for the next set of events that can help your old items find new and exciting lives.
The Green Eagles get a behind-the-bleachers sustainability tour of Nationals Park.
The Green Eagles have been talking a lot of trash lately as they suited up to help promote AU’s zero waste initiatives. With the introduction of organic material collection bins to the residence halls, the Green Eagles have had their hands full spreading the word about the importance of separating organic waste and how it is a key part of the university’s plan to send zero waste to landfill. By using surveys, observation, social media, and hands-on demonstrations, the Green Eagles have imparted a wealth of information to the campus community concerning the growth of campus zero waste initiatives and the statistics that drive their implementation. Due in part to these efforts there has been a notable reduction in the amount of organic residence hall waste destined for landfills. The Green Eagles will continue to serve as the eyes, ears, and wings of the zero waste program as it continues across campus.
After having worked with topics ranging from waste to energy, transportation to consumption, the Green Eagles are also taking some time to learn about green buildings and LEED Certification to help fellow residents understand AU's Green Building Policy, which applies to projects ranging from the new Cassell Hall, to the McKinley Building Renovation, to twenty five existing campus buildings that are all tracked for certification. To this end, the Green Eagles toured the sustainable features of Nationals Park, home to the Washington Nationals and the nation's first LEED-Certified MLB ballpark. In late February they came a bit closer to home for an AU architect-led tour of the green features being implemented in the McKinley Building renovation, to better understand how a building dating to the early 20th century can be updated to 21st-century green building standards. Next month, the Green Eagles will tackle food and water sustainability, begin preparations for Earth Month 2013 in April, and the 20th annual Campus Beautification Day.
Click here to watch a how-to video from Green Eagle Megan Clark (Centennial Hall) about what can, and can’t, be placed in orange organics collection bins on campus.
Keep in touch with the Green Eagles by finding out who is living and working in your residence hall, and by following @AUGreenEagles on twitter.
Sara Schwartz from the Office of Sustainability finds aluminum foil in the paper and cardboard recycling bin during a waste audit of the Osborn building. Aluminum can be recycled with other metals in green bins across campus.
It’s not often you find more than 600 faculty and staff throughout the university going out of their way to talk trash, but in January and February, that is exactly what Green Office (GO!) participants did. To help staff understand and strive to implement AU’s Zero Waste policy, GO! participants organized central waste collection stations in lounges and kitchens, “kicked the can” by ditching deskside trash bins, and engaged in hands-on audits of the waste discarded from their offices.
Learn how to conduct a simple, educational, and fun waste audit in your own office, classroom, or residence hall.
A number of new offices joined GO! this semester, including Central Receiving, the Office of Campus Life, the Center for Teaching, Research, and Learning (CTRL),and the Student Advocacy Center (SAC).Special recognition goes to SAC for being the first student office to participate in GO!, and their participation will help the program become available to student-run office spaces, such as the Student Government, in future semesters. If your office or department would like to join GO!, register online and the Office of Sustainability will contact you to find out how GO! can best work for your office.
Congratulations to the offices that achieved the highest scores in November and December as we focused on energy efficiency. Bender Library is the 2012 GO! Energy Champion, while Housing and Dining Programs came in a very close second as the runner-up. Throughout these months many academic and administrative buildings also competed in the Kill-A-Watt Challenge to reduce their overall energy consumption. The President’s Office Building and Ward Circle Building both came in a noteworthy first place in this competition by reducing their overall energy use by more than 34%. Congratulations to the Office of the President and SPA Dean’s Office, both GO! participants who through their strong sustainability leadership helped their buildings achieve this milestone.
By Courtney Greenley, CTRL Green Teaching Consultant
L to R: Inga Maslova (Dept. of Mathematics and Statistics), Kiho Kim (Department of Environmental Science), Courtney Greenley (CTRL Green Teaching Consultant) at the CTRL Annual Green Tea
The time for celebrating 100 Certified Green Teachers for the 2012-2013 academic year arrived this month. Each certified faculty member has stepped up and implemented sustainable practices in their course preparation and teaching, ranging from their form of commute to their use of online assignments to eliminating the use of paper cups. Thanks go to the faculty members for their individual contributions to the greater greening of American University. This high number of certifications will certainly make the decision of the Green Teacher of the Year award, (to be announced during this year's Earth Month celebrations in April), an exciting challenge.
The new year brings to light another cause for celebration. The Green Teaching Certificate celebrated its 5-Year Anniversary by rewarding the fourteen faculty members who have been certified every year since 2008 with a special “5 Years as a Green Teacher” travel mug at the Annual Green Tea. In total, over 300 individual AU faculty members have been certified at least once over the past five years. By reaching one hundred Certified Green Teachers, we have reached a milestone which has inspired us to set our next goal at certifying two hundred teachers, out of the total of over eight hundred faculty members teaching this year.
Are your courses certified for Spring 2013? CTRL is still accepting applications for Spring 2013 Green Teaching Certificates.The Green Teaching Certificate is based on a system of self-reporting. Faculty members at American University can qualify for a Green Teaching Certificate by answering a number of questions about their efforts to make their courses more sustainable.
Members of Team Capital DC scout out a location for Harvest House in Irvine, CA. Photo by Kelsey Marsh.
American University students from the School of Communication (SOC) form an important part of Team Capitol DC, the group of DC-based university students participating in the 2013 Solar Decathlon in Irvine, California. This biennel event, hosted by the U.S. Department of Energy challenges twenty groups of students from top universities around the world to design, build, and operate houses with innovative sustainable solutions that take them off the grid.
Team Capitol DC consists of students from AU, the Catholic University of America (CUA), and the George Washington University (GWU). CUA students are providing architecture and mechanical engineering expertise, while GWU students work on interior design and landscaping. The house they are building – with the goal of donating it to a disabled veteran after the competition – is named, simply, “Harvest.” The role of the AU students is to tell the visual story of Harvest from its creation and initial construction in January 2013 through the actual judged competition in October.
Harvest’s primary themes are “beginning again” and “renewal,” and will help educate the public about how these concepts can be combined with clean energy technologies in the home. It is the only home in the competition being designed for a specific client, and its future occupants will find it a perfect place to emphasize recovery with special features focusing on assistance with impaired mobility, physical, emotional, and spiritual healing, and other factors important to veterans. Communications are part of the judging criteria. So the SOC students have the task of communicating this unique vision over the course of nearly a year and will utilize many cutting-edge communication methods to do so, including an online webinar series, social media, 3D and graphic design, and more.
Learn more and follow Team Capitol DC from now through the competition this fall with the following links:
Business Students Seek Fusion of Purpose, Profit, and Planet
Emily Billheimer (L) and Susanne Fratzscher (R)
Sustainability-focused academic programs can be found in every school and college at AU. Students in AU’s new MS in Sustainability Management program, housed in the Kogod School of Business, see the potential of business to help create a sustainable future. Learn about how Emily Billheimer plans to use the skills she learns in the program to champion sustainable urban planning. Suzanne Fratzscher wants to help businesses see the benefits of investing in renewable energy. Click here to read her story.
Click here for more information about the MS in Sustainability Management program.
The Fair Trade Student Association hosts the Fair Trade Chocolate Challenge on the quad during Earth Week 2012
American University Earth Week is now Earth Month because seven days is simply not enough to hold all of AU’s Earth Day celebrations. As one of AU’s largest community events, Earth Month provides an opportunity for campus organizations, clubs, departments, programs, and offices to showcase their own active pursuits of sustainability. In 2012, more than 50 events included performances, academic lectures, expert panels, test-driving electric vehicles, hands-on demonstrations and workshops, and a keynote lecture by then-EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson hosted by the Kogod School of Business. In 2013, Earth Month will feature a celebration of alternative fuels, the 20th annual Campus Beautification Day, and an all-new Day of Sustainable Service open to the campus community.
Don’t be left out. Click here to submit an event from your group to be included on the official Earth Month calendar. Submit by Friday, March 15th to be included in all materials and gain maximum exposure for your event and group. Contact Joshua Kaplan in the Office of Sustainability with questions.
You can match up to split the cost of gas and meet other students going the same way you are. Zimride will be raffling off an iPad, and all you have to do to enter is post a one-time trip by Friday, March 7th. Please check back to the AU Zimride site for details soon.
When we throw away our trash, we make a split-second selection of one bin over another bin. Sometimes, trash ends up in the incorrect bin, either “contaminating” recycling or organics collection by including items that can’t be processed in the same way, or dooming it to an eternity in a landfill when it could have been recycled or composted. One of the most effective ways to become more aware of which bins we use, and help our coworkers, classmates, and friends do the same, is to “audit”, or self-sort, our own trash. During this twenty-to-thirty minute affair, you can host an educational and fun event where the waste in your office space, classroom, lounge, or common area is sorted by the same people who discarded it. Looking at waste in this new way helps identify where contamination originates, and how behavior can be changed to help reach a point where we can make landfills a thing of the past.
Click here to download a step-by-step pictorial guide to hosting an audit. Waste audit supply kits (including the signs and floor cover seen in the picture above) can be borrowed at the Osborn building by e-mailing firstname.lastname@example.org