Student interest fuels green campus innovations

recycling logoOn Earth Day in 1970, months before the Environmental Protection Agency existed, a group of eco-minded students at the University of Colorado at Boulder started something big -- and green. More than 40 years later, CU's Environmental Center has grown to employ more than 100 students, operate a recycling program so large it actually turns a profit, and lead U.S. schools in green campus innovation. It has learned, as other colleges are realizing, that going green goes beyond environmental stewardship -- it's also good business.

According to a 2010 Princeton Review survey of 16,000 college applicants and parents, 66% of incoming freshman want to know about a prospective college's sustainability efforts, and a full 24% say a school's eco-friendliness "very much" influences their decision to either apply or attend. That same student interest has been a driving force behind CU's green campus practices, according to Dave Newport, director of CU's Environmental Center for the past five years.

"The students here were the ones pushing for resourceful programs and making them happen by voting with their wallets to tax themselves, and increase their student fees to pay for them," Newport told WalletPop in a phone interview.

At any one time, about 10,000 of CU's 30,000 students are using bicycles to get around the university, which boasts a long list of firsts: the first zero-waste football stadium, first all-organic dining hall menu, and the country's first college recycling program on its green campus.

Started by students in the 1970s, the green campus program now partners with the university and was clearing $250,000 a year in profit five years ago. It's almost certainly grown since then, Newport said. Living in a state known for its purple mountains majesty, he said, "We can't look up and not see a stunning environment, so it keeps people focused on it."

But it's not just a Colorado thing. Schools across the country are going green because of a "huge uptick in interest" from students, according to Mark Orlowski, executive director of the independent Sustainable Endowments Institute, which publishes the College Sustainability Report Card grading green campus efforts on 48 criteria across nine categories. In just two years, the number of colleges with a permanent sustainability office on their green campus has more than doubled to 45%, while the percentage of freshman orientations featuring "green" issues skyrocketed from 27% to 69%, said Orlowski in a phone interview.

"In many cases it can be a real win-win," with a little bit of innovative thinking, Orlowski said. "It's not about doing less or having a lower quality of life, it's about having the same or better while conserving resources."

While some colleges' green campus efforts are still in their infancy, other leaders in the sustainability field stand out, earning top grades on the report card.

College of the Atlantic
-- a tiny, eco-minded Maine liberal arts school boasting to be the only carbon neutral U.S. college in terms of net emissions as a green campus -- composts all food on campus and uses 100% renewable electricity, bought from an in-state hydroelectric project.

Middlebury College mandates recycled paper use at buildings on its green campus, and puts waste to work, using "cow power" -- energy made from farm manure. Harvard University President Drew Faust affirmed the Ivy League leader's green campus commitments at a Sustainability Celebration speech attended by former Vice President Al Gore, and in the Southwest, Arizona State University plans to achieve a net zero carbon footprint on its 50,000+ student campus by 2025.

CU's Newport encouraged other universities to focus on short-term sustainable goals on a green campus, even if their green campus programs start small, and offered this advice: "I've never really heard a bad idea from students. There's been some ideas that were refocused or needed a reality check ... but the foundation of their ideas is something good. Smart administrators figure out how to listen to that and adapt it to the context of the university," he said. "Basically, just don't blow students off."
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