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Working Toward a Sustainable Campus

By Eric Sean Weld

With an upcoming transition to a new co-generation power plant, aggressive recycling efforts and use of low-energy fluorescent lighting, Smith College is adopting environmental sustainability as a core value with a long-term focus on energy conservation and efficiency.

“In the not-too-distant future, our society will be having accelerated conversations about water, clean air and food crops,” says Thomas Litwin, director of the Clark Science Center and founding director of Smith’s Environmental Science and Policy Program. “Smith can play an important role in these conversations in a number of ways. As an academic institution, we are in an excellent position to create and test new ideas to expand the options that can aid society in transitioning to a sustainable economy and culture.”

Sidebar: Starting Small: Sustainability Initiatives

Sidebar: Students, the Keepers of the Green

Perhaps the most prominent example of sustainable design on campus is the “green architecture” plan for Smith’s new engineering and sciences building. Designed by the architectural firm Bohlin Cywinski Jackson, the 140,000-square-foot building, scheduled for ground breaking in 2007, will feature advanced energy-efficient construction, using design and technology focused on minimizing the long-term environmental impact to reduce the consumption of energy and the costs of operation. The building will be equipped with solar cells for temperature control, low-wattage lighting, passive lighting design, water management fixtures and “green” or vegetated roofs. While being operationally efficient, the building will also serve as a teaching tool for sustainable design.

Indeed, campus sustainability has emerged as a goal for many American colleges and universities. “Green” is in, and more campuses are embracing environmentally aware policies and campaigning for more energy efficiency.


Students registered to win a solar- and crank-powered radio while learning about ways to further reduce energy use on campus at a Green Team booth during Smith’s orientation in early September. Photo by Fish/Parham.

Students at Smith have joined their peers at other schools across the country in embracing the ideals of sustainability and calling for action. Last year, Changxin Fang ’05 began a student organization called Clean Energy for Smith and rallied a large part of the student body to support her effort to spur the college toward using clean, renewable energy sources (see related story). By doing so, Smith would advance its overall sustainable goals and join a national movement in higher education toward purchasing renewable energy. Other institutions currently purchasing renewable energy include Duke University and Connecticut College.

Smith’s dedication to environmental consciousness matches its mission to educate and prepare future leaders to begin their professional lives with a sense of responsibility and awareness of their symbiosis with the world and society.
“We are in a position to make choices that will benefit the environment and benefit our students,” says Fang. “It becomes part of the educational tool. This is a place where people become future leaders. We represent making choices that are good for our society.”

Embarking on a policy of campus sustainability requires rethinking campus strategies, systems and internal education and training. “The notion of sustainability is not only an academic idea, but it’s an active endeavor as well,” says Litwin.

He asks: “As an educational institution, do we have a responsibility to send our students out with the knowledge and sensibility of sustainable living? Don’t we need to get these student leaders out there with this knowledge? We have a long tradition at Smith of helping young women become leaders, thinkers and problem-solvers on behalf of society. Helping construct an environmentally sustainable future will need the best thinking and creativity our graduates can provide.”

Sophisticated and Multilayered

These days, Smith’s efforts to reduce its environmental impact and cut energy costs have become sophisticated and multilayered. A culture of environmental responsibility has come to pervade many sectors of the campus following a stepped-up emphasis on sustainability, increased availability of resources and public support from the top of the college’s administrative tiers.

“We believe strongly in developing the campus in ways that assure long-term sustainability in our use of resources,” says President Carol T. Christ. “There’s an obvious and increasing need in today’s world for institutions, as well as individuals, to become aware of our impact on the earth and its resources and to make every effort to behave with responsibility toward the environment.”

Adds Litwin, “In the coming decades, questions surrounding environmental sustainability -- our ability to conserve and distribute vital natural resources for the health and well-being of future generations -- are going to be a fundamental part of a global conversation about the planet’s future.”

Defining Sustainability

The word “sustainability” is itself broad and difficult to define. In the past decade, the term has become an amorphous catch-all encompassing a litany of interpretations and environmentally friendly activities.

At Smith, sustainability means “meeting the [energy] needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs,” as explained by the college’s Green Team, a small task force with the self-mandate of implementing changes on campus to enhance the college’s sustainability. See the Web site www.smith.edu/physplant/greenteam.

Todd Holland (left) and Gary Hartwell are co-founders of the Green Team. An offshoot of the college’s sustainability committee, the Green Team is responsible for implementing ideas and ways to reduce energy use on campus. The team is laying the groundwork for a transition next year to a co-generation power plant that will generate electricity and steam for heat at the same time. Photo by Jim Gipe.

In basic practice, sustainability requires using only the resources needed and making every effort to minimize the environmental footprint left behind. It entails recycling on many levels; composting food and other waste; using alternative, non- or low-polluting forms of energy; and reducing the need for using energy sources.

While the word “sustainability” is relatively new to the lexicon of environmental consciousness, many of its components have been in practice at Smith for years. The college’s recycling program goes back at least two decades, albeit in an informal sense, when trash handlers in the Physical Plant sorted recyclable materials by hand and voluntarily lugged the re-usables to separate depositories. For at least a decade, Smith employees have cooperated on various levels in sorting their own recyclables from trash. And over the years, lower-wattage fluorescent bulbs have replaced many light bulbs on campus.

“There’s nothing that can’t be recycled,” proclaims Robert Dombkowski, supervisor of grounds in the Physical Plant, who oversees Smith’s recycling program and has dramatically increased the quantity and percentage of recycled materials since arriving in 1996. “We’re doing a wider variety of materials now. We’re doing a better job of recycling. Our numbers are going up all the time. I don’t think a week goes by when we don’t market something different.”

The college’s kitchens and dining rooms purchase napkins made of recycled materials, use biodegradable plates and flatware at outdoor events and have switched to bulk condiment dispensers to reduce waste. Used cooking grease is gathered each week and processed for re-use in making perfume, powders, soaps, glues and other household products. The college is also exploring the possibility of purchasing hybrid vehicles for the campus.

Serious Work Ahead

The college’s efforts to corral its various environmentally conscious practices received a boost about five years ago with the production of “Sustainability at Smith College,” a comprehensive report compiled by Richard White, professor emeritus of astronomy. White recommended the formation of a high-level policy committee to coordinate the college’s efforts and emphasized a need for the college to adopt sustainability policies.

Subsequently, President Christ appointed a Committee on Sustainability to oversee policy and administrative aspects of the endeavor.
“The idea of the sustainability committee is to provide an umbrella under which all the college’s initiatives would be considered,” says Litwin, a member of the committee. “The committee for the first time brought all these groups together.”

Last year the committee hired the Good Company, a consulting firm in Eugene, Oregon, that helps organizations assess their environmental impact. The Good Company recently completed its first evaluation of Smith’s environmental performance, on which the college will base its master plan for sustainability.
Litwin concedes that Smith has a way to go in becoming an efficiently sustainable campus community. “I think we’re doing a good job,” he says, “but as a responsible citizen of the environment I feel a sense of urgency.”

Gary Hartwell, a project manager in the Physical Plant and a member of the sustainability committee, agrees with Litwin that, though Smith is making headway and has made efforts in the recent past to improve its efficiency, there is no time to waste. “We’ve done a lot of little things over the years,” Hartwell says, “but we need to move faster in reducing our energy consumption.”

Bolstered by that belief, Hartwell partnered this year with Todd Holland, the Five College energy manager, to form the Green Team. An offshoot of the sustainability committee, the Green Team voluntarily took on the responsibility of implementing ideas and strategies, and following up on ways to significantly reduce energy use on campus.

In addition to installing energy-efficient light bulbs, the team is pursuing a project to cut energy used for gymnasium lighting, enabling more of the college’s computers to shut down when not in use, and planning a new residence for Ada Comstock Scholars that will feature triple-paned windows and thicker walls filled with insulation, aiming for a high energy-efficiency rating.

Most ambitiously, the Green Team is laying the groundwork for a transition next year to a “co-generation” power plant that will generate electricity and steam for heat at the same time. The co-generation plant will involve replacing 60-year-old boilers with a single turbine engine at an initial cost of about $5.5 million. At an annual savings of $650,000, it is expected to pay for itself within six years. Of equal importance, the co-generation plant will substantially reduce pollution, cutting overall greenhouse gas emissions almost in half.

“This is the crown jewel of our efforts to reduce energy on campus,” says Holland of the co-generation plant. “This will send us back to the 1960s in terms of [lower] energy usage.”

The team also plans to encourage students to turn off their computers and lights when not in use and explore the possibility of installing devices that decrease the draw of electricity of items plugged into wall sockets. “We hope to demonstrate environmental impact to students to gain student buy-in,” says Holland. “The top three student energy uses are lights, computers and refrigerators. A lot of our effort is about conservation.”

The college’s efforts in environmentally conscious practices can be large as well as small and include encouraging students to reduce waste by using Dining Service’s re-usable mugs, which were handed out at central check-in in early September. Photo by Jim Gipe.

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