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Colleges are considered bastions of progressive and free thought, and it’s almost a matter of course that they’d be expected to be exemplars of environmental conscientiousness as well. Advances that allow schools to produce less waste and leave smaller footprints, from sustainable building practices to offering college courses online to reduce costs, are indeed growing more common across the country. However, despite such developments and the easy assumption that colleges will lead the way in sustainable practices, actual numbers reflect a less than perfect reality.

Judy Walton of the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE) suggests “We feel that campuses have a special duty, and I think they see it as well [because]…[t]hey’re training the next generation.” Concepts of sustainability on college campuses have moved from the early days of simple recycling to more recent efforts to compost and implement solar and other alternative power systems. However, these efforts did not appear on their own.

In 2008, Congress passed the Higher Education Sustainability Act, which included provisions for a summit on sustainability and a university sustainability grant program. The summit meeting is meant to bring together “higher education sustainability experts, federal agency staff, and business leaders to identify best practices in sustainability and opportunities for collaboration to expand sustainable operations and academic programs.” The grant program supplies “competitive grants to colleges and universities to establish sustainability research programs, such as developing new alternative energy sources. It also allows schools to implement sustainability practices on campus.”

This legislation also resulted in the formation of the AASHE’s Sustainability Tracking, Assessment, and Rating System (STARS). This program rates colleges’ and other institutions’ sustainability in terms of buildings, climate, dining services, energy consumption, grounds, purchasing, transportation, waste, and water use. Currently the program includes 250 American and nearly 25 Canadian higher education institutions. In 2011, of 322 schools assessed, 56 percent received “B” grades overall, while a mere 11 percent made the “A” grade.

However, problems with colleges’ sustainability aren’t necessarily with the schools’ efforts alone, but demonstrate that a concentrated effort must be made by all interested parties. Parents, students, alumni, and administrators all play roles in sustainability on campus. Educating the youth of today is a necessity and means teaching honesty and transparency, along with sustainability practices on campus. As the examples we’ve conjured have shown, there have been tangible applications of environmentally-sustainable efforts of varying degrees. Moving forward, comparing and contrasting between these applications and finding out which processes work and which don’t will be instrumental in scaling the pilot efforts which we have described.

 This is a guest post by Marina Salsbury who planned on becoming a teacher, but found her way instead into online writing after college. She currently writes on a variety of topics, but always seems to veer back to education-related articles.

This is a guest post written by Elizabeth Krause

Slowly but surely the term, “organic” is becoming more mainstream. The National Organic Standards Board says that if an item is to be labeled organic, it must be produced under the authority of the Organic Food Production Act. It must follow the guidelines that no materials or practices are used that would create an imbalance of ecological and natural systems.

The term organic can be used on a variety of products from the shirt on our back to the food on our plate. Most people like organic food because it means it is free of chemicals or artificial/manufactured ingredients such as MSG, high fructose corn syrup, hormones, artificial food colorings and the like.

In regards to clothing or other manufactured products, organic often goes alongside the term Fair Trade. Fair Trade means that companies are paid a fair price for their products (meaning no price-gouging), and in exchange for this guarantee, are required to pay their employees fair wages and provide safe working conditions. This in turn helps the local communities by improving the health of the workers and their families, and also reduces crime and benefits the local economy overall.

Take a Stand – With Your Wallet
Buying organic products not only helps your own health but also helps encourage business suppliers to pursue the organic market. This can occur when we, the consumers, get involved and buy organic products. We can make our voices heard loud and clear at the cash register.

Why would companies invest millions of dollars into consumer research? Because they know ultimately the power lies with the consumer, and that’s you and me. Over the last few years, the consumer has begun to find his/her own voice. For example, if a company discovers that the consumer market is not buying a particular product – it will want to find out why. If it discovers that the sale of organic cereals is increasing while the sale of generic sugar-ridden ones is declining, it will respond to the trend and act accordingly – if it plans on staying in business.

Many large box stores have seen the wave coming and have acted on this. They have sought out suppliers that grow food according to organic guidelines and are therefore meeting the demands of their customers. This keeps both the company and the customers happy – and healthier.

You Don’t Have to be Rich to Buy Organic Food
If you are not able to buy all organic products, look for organic products that are on sale or discounted. You will find great savings. You can also just buy a few organic food items to start with – whatever your budget allows.

Don’t forget the economic principles of supply and demand. As more people express demand for a product, the more that product will be supplied (assuming there is not a limit on materials available). The greater the supply, the lower the price.

Elizabeth Krause publisher of an Italian food website featuring simple Italian recipes.

Last June, math teacher and director of sustainability Kevin Merges arranged for the seniors at Rutgers Preparatory School in Somerset, New Jersey to get a surprise under their chairs at

RPS single bottle cropped

Sustainable Future bottles.

their graduation ceremony.  Seniors quenched their thirst from reusable bottles filled with tap water instead of bottled water during the ceremony.   Merges noticed in prior years that dozens of water bottles were only partially empty.  Mary Ganzenmuller, Vice President of the Board of Trustee worked with Merges to find this sustainable solution for the event.   Provided by Back2Tap, the stainless steel bottles were customized with the school logo and the words: Rutgers Preparatory School – A Sustainable Future.  According to Merges, the students were thrilled with their reusable bottles and plan to carry them proudly as they go forth toward their sustainable futures.

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Seniors with their reusable bottles.Sustainable Future bottles.

A soccer player with one of our bottles

Did you know that Americans each drank an average of 218 bottles of water in 2007? bottles – 66 billion, in fact! Only 23% of them are recycled so on a daily basis, a staggering 140 million disposable plastic bottles go to landfills in the USA. That’s enough, laid end to end, to reach from New Jersey to China and back every day.

It doesn’t take an engineering degree to understand that this is a problem. It is extremely wasteful. To begin with, finite natural resources like water and oil are being consumed in the manufacturing of bottled water. It takes 4 ounces of oil and 51 ounces of water to make one 17 ounce bottle of water! Then after their use, 50 billion disposable plastic water bottles are dumped in landfills each year where they will take over 700 years to decompose.

There is a simple solution to this problem. Drink tap water instead of bottled water and use a reusable bottle when you are on-the-go. Even if you filter and flavor your tap water, you will save money because bottled water is 1000 times more expensive than tap water. There are many reusable bottles on the market today. For a high performance, high quality water bottle, try a stainless steel bottle from Back2Tap.

Spring is here – it’s time to start thinking about lawns and gardens!  This year, I am especially inspired by the White House announcement that there is going to be a new organic kitchen garden on the far end of the South Lawn.   The White House is sending a powerful message to Americans: you can improve your health by eating fresh produce on a daily basis, especially produce grown organically, and you can grow your own produce to save money as well as your impact on the planet.   Conventional produce has a huge carbon footprint due to the enormous amount of petroleum required to fertilize it, spray it with pesticides, and transport it to you.  That’s why growing your own organic produce is so beneficial.  Check out “This Lawn is Your Lawn“, a fun video about why you should convert some of your lawn into a produce garden.   At my house, we’re pretty limited in the sun department because of the big trees, but we’re planning to double our usual 9×9 garden plot.    The peas and lettuce seeds were sown today!

The other big step you can take is to ditch your lawn chemicals and care for your lawn organically.  We converted about five years ago;  it’s not significantly more difficult or more expensive if you lower your expectations a bit and pull a few weeds by hand.  Conventional fertilizers and pesticides require a huge amount of petroleum to manufacture and transport.  Once spread on your lawn, they don’t stay put, and they don’t break down within 48 hours as the little hazard signs lead you to believe.  Some of these toxic chemicals will runoff into your storm drains and harm the drinking water quality and creatures in your watershed.  Some of them will get tracked into your house where they persist for months while you gradually inhale and ingest them over time.  Lawn pesticides which have been associated with cancer, Parkinsons, and other diseases, are especially unhealthy for children and pets.   There are great resources on organic lawn care available on the internet to guide you.  We have learned a lot from the information and videos on the SafeLawns website:  http://www.safelawns.org/ .

Healthy lawns and gardens are better for you and better for the planet.    So, replace part of your lawn with a kitchen garden or grow some produce in a community garden, and make it pesticide-free!  In these difficult economic times, growing your own food and maintaining your own lawn can help you save money and regain a sense of accomplishment and self-sufficiency.

Last Saturday I participated in a forum called “Inventing the Future – Rebuilding Communities from the Inside Out” organized by We Are BOOST (Building Open Opportunity Structures Together) in Trenton, NJ.   As I navigated my way to the event using the GPS system in my new Toyota Camry hybrid, I found a neighborhood “in transition” – some of the old houses and buildings were boarded up, but many were cared for and charming.  There was a feeling of hope here. 

Once inside Planet Havana, the bar/nightclub hosting the all day event, I found the people who embodied that hope.  Many of them had known each other for decades.  All of them were committed to collaborating to find new solutions to old problems in their under-served Trenton neighborhood.   In addition to hope, there was passion – the meeting began with local children aged 5 through 17 years reading their prize-winning poems on peace.    Then each forum participant shared what they were doing and fielded questions. 

After listening to the stories, I have to admit that the challenges faced in this community and others like it were not at all familiar to me – prolonged unemployment, crime, violence, prejudice, poor self-image, school water with high lead levels, industrial contamination of residential neighborhoods, and the difficulties of re-entering society after prison.  All mind-boggling problems, and yet, my message about the wastefulness of bottled water and the importance of drinking tap water from reusable bottles was recieved with great interest and enthusiasm. 

Maybe it was because getting Back2Tap is a simple concrete step that anyone can take toward a more sustainable lifestyle.  Maybe it was because people who have been exposed to environmental contamination have a greater appreciation for the limitations of our planet and its vulnerability.  Maybe it was because having less discretionary income motivates people to be less wasteful.  Maybe it was because there is a mindfulness here that is far too uncommon.  Maybe it was because of their unflagging hope for better days ahead.

At the end of the forum, over half of the crowd came up to take a brochure and express an interest in running a Back2Tap fundraising campaign with their particular organization or group.   As I left, two of my beautiful new-found sisters Amini and Sa Mut gave me warm hugs that I won’t soon forget.   As soon as I got back into my car and started for home, I discovered that Planet Havana is less than two blocks from a penitentiary surrounded by towering stone walls topped with huge bales of barbed wire that must serve as a constant reminder of how wrong things can go.

My new hope is that Back2Tap will be able to help these dynamic community organizers raise money, save money, and spread sustainability in their under-served community.

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