How college campuses are going ‘green’

Peace & Justice
At many Catholic colleges, an environmental revolution is under way.

Out with the ubiquitous plastic water bottles, the reams of wasted paper, the showers that use a flood of water! In with being eco-friendly! And leading the way are the students themselves.

Having grown up with a biologist father and a mother who loved the outdoors, it seems only natural that Alyssa Thornburg would develop a passion for the environment. “I grew up with the mentality of being a little more conscious of using resources,” she says, “of protecting the environment and the natural life.” In high school, Thornburg cofounded an environmental action club which focused on recycling and trash cleanup projects. By the time she got to college at the University of Portland in Oregon, she knew she wanted to center her life on protecting the environment.

Thanks to an ever increasing number of sustainability initiatives at the university, Thornburg, now a senior, has been able to do just that. An environmental ethics and policy major, she is copresident of the school’s College Ecology Club. Last year she lived with three other students in an on-campus housing unit dedicated to promoting a sustainable lifestyle, and she has become involved in her school’s presidential advisory committee on sustainability (PACOS), which links faculty members and students together to promote sustainability on campus.

In her time at the University of Portland, Thornburg has participated in many environment-themed projects and campaigns, including tree plantings, street cleanups, and fun events like recycled-fashion shows. Earlier this year she and a classmate organized an on-campus conservation contest that pitted dorms against each other to see who could use the least amount of energy.


Projects like these are becoming more and more common at Catholic colleges and universities across the country, where an increasing number of school administrators, faculty members, and students are working to show that faith-based actions can and should include taking care of the environment. Now, for schools like the University of Portland, living out the Catholic faith includes filling compost bins, installing solar panels, and promoting conservation in all aspects of daily life.

A growing trend

Recent numbers from the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education show that approximately 1,000 colleges and universities across the country are working to make their practices, facilities, and curriculums more environmentally sustainable.

Among them are more and more Catholic schools that are taking concrete actions to become environmentally conscious. According to Michael Galligan-Stierle, executive director of the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities, 15 member institutions have made public commitments to sustainability by partnering with the Catholic Climate Covenant, a campaign that encourages both individuals and institutions to respond to the effects of climate change on God’s creation and the poor.

Among the 322 “green colleges” listed in a 2011 guide released by the Princeton Review were 26 Catholic colleges and universities, including the Catholic University of America in Washington and the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana. Galligan-Stierle says the involvement of Catholic colleges and universities in the fight for sustainability reflects modern church teaching on the environment, which dates back to Pope John Paul II’s 1990 World Day of Peace message, which called the lack of respect for nature a threat to world peace. Later Pope Benedict XVI wrote in his encyclical Caritas in Veritate (Charity in Truth), “The environment must be seen as God’s gift to all people, and the use we make of it entails a shared responsibility for all humanity, especially the poor and future generations.”


“Catholic colleges and universities have heeded these calls in numerous ways, taking real action to affirm their commitment to Catholic mission-based sustainability,” Galligan-Stierle says. To help Catholic colleges in these efforts, the Catholic Coalition for Climate Change published “Sustainability in Catholic Higher Education: A Toolkit for Mission Integration” in 2011, which provides actions and faith-based resources for Catholic colleges looking to “go green.”

As the guide says: “A Catholic school cannot just implement a recycling program, but must also explain that it is doing so because of its Catholic commitment to steward and care for God’s creation; a Catholic school cannot just reduce its energy consumption, but must also communicate that it is doing so because of its Catholic commitment to protect and defend human life and dignity.”

Reduce, reuse, recycle

One of the most common ways Catholic colleges and universities are working to promote sustainability on campus is by reducing waste in an effort to save money, resources, and energy. At Santa Clara University in Santa Clara, California, one of the main priorities for sustainability is waste diversion—keeping as much trash out of landfills as possible by emphasizing recycling and composting. Over the past several years, the university has revamped its recycling program by ensuring a 1-to-1 ratio of recycling bins and trash cans on campus. The idea is to make faculty and staff responsible for what they throw away so that they will be more conscious of what they are putting in the trash can and whether it can be recycled instead.

The school has implemented a large composting program, with bins in all dining halls, shared kitchens, and faculty break areas. Last year, the school ran a pilot program with 91 students and 10 employees to see if composting pails could work in dorm rooms. Based on the feedback, the housing office decided to expand campus composting efforts by placing collection units in kitchens and lounge areas in all residence halls and continuing individual collection pails.


Lindsey Cromwell Kalkbrenner is the director of Santa Clara’s sustainability office. She says the new waste diversion programs have resulted in a significant jump in the percentage of waste being recycled or composted. In 2005, only 16 percent of garbage was being recycled or composted; in 2013, the diversion rate consistently exceeds 55 percent.

“Not everyone embraced it at first, but the people who have been doing it the longest, they’re used to it now,” Kalkbrenner says. “Most of the people who I talk to enjoy being part of the process. They can see it’s easy for them.”

At Marymount University in Arlington, Virginia, school administrators ran an awareness program to show students and faculty members how much paper they were wasting each semester. After tracking paper usage at print kiosks around campus, the school instituted a printing quota for each student, limiting them to 250 free printed pages per semester. After that, they would have to pay for their own printing. “That started as an awareness project and ended up being something bigger,” says Liane Summerfield, who cochairs a sustainability committee for the university.

Marymount is also trying to cut back on food waste. With the help of their food supplier, Sodexo, the university got rid of trays in the school’s dining halls. “The trays are gone because people take food they’re not going to eat,” Summerfield says. “If they just have a plate, they tend to take only as much as they can eat.”


Another large source of waste on college campuses are plastic water bottles. To cut back on plastic waste and the costs of bottling and transporting the water, the University of Portland became the first college on the West Coast to ban the sale of water bottles on campus in 2010. Incoming students are now given reusable water bottles and encouraged to use on-campus bottle filling stations.

The university is also working to reduce car emissions by encouraging bicycle use and offering a shuttle service to the local light-rail system. Likewise, schools such as Santa Clara are asking students and faculty to share rides or use public transportation. “Part of what we’re trying to do is help students establish good habits while they’re here so when they graduate they can [continue] these behaviors on their own,” says Kalkbrenner.


Greening up their act

Technology has also played a role in the greening of Catholic colleges and universities, as many campuses have begun to use building supplies and fixtures designed to save energy and water. In 1997 the University of Portland became a national leader in green construction after completing Swindells Hall, a science building made with recycled glass, metals, and bricks. It features sustainably harvested wood, low toxicity paint, highly efficient heating and cooling systems, and state of the art lighting and windows.

A key player in the building’s planning process was Steven Kolmes, the university’s chair of environmental science. “At that point, it was the first science building in the country designed that way,” he says. “It was kind of a milestone, a statement that we were trying to really walk the talk in terms of living the right way.”


Since then the university has been working to become carbon-neutral by 2040. To work toward that goal, the school has been retrofitting older buildings with more efficient light fixtures and windows and installing energy-saving solar panels. “The campus is trying overall to become a campus that has all the normal sorts of things the students and faculty want with the lowest possible impact,” Kolmes says.

At Santa Clara University, all new buildings have earned a “LEED Gold” rating from the U.S. Green Building Council and include light sensors as well as water-saving systems like low-flow shower fixtures and waterless urinals. For gardening, the university’s landscaping team uses recycled water.

Marymount University is working to filter runoff from the campus to the nearby Donaldson Run stream thanks to a rain garden, which was installed in 2011. “Before, water runoff was going behind our library and pooling there,” says Summerfield. “A lot of the runoff would come off the driveway so there was always stuff in it, like road salt. Now the rain garden filters that water and the students are able to use that area for some of their research.”

Green updates to campus life can be expensive, says Mike Whittow, the sustainability officer at Marquette University in Milwaukee. In the past several years, Marquette has invested $7 million in energy and water efficiency improvements. Still, while the upfront costs can be large, “in the long run it will save us money,” he says.


According to the university website, the improvements have helped Marquette reduce its annual energy use by 1,547,000 kilowatt hours and its annual water consumption by the equivalency of 13,462,000 gallons. “Now the ball is rolling and things are moving faster and faster,” Whittow says. “There are always budget constraints, but we’re finding ways to make things economically sustainable as well.”

Major change

In addition to recycling campaigns and building projects, many colleges are hoping to help students connect the dots between sustainability and the wider world by incorporating environmental lessons into existing curriculums. At Marquette University, theology professor Jame Schaefer is currently working on a proposal for a new interdisciplinary major in global ecology that would require courses in ecology, physics, chemistry, economics, philosophy, environmental policy, and ecological ethics. If approved, the major will have three concentrations: scientific discovery and innovation, policy and advocacy, and sustainability and entrepreneurship.

She hopes students will graduate from the program with an understanding of how to address environmental issues wherever their career path may lead them. “I want them to be able to develop and work with their colleagues on how to live and how to function sustainably from within their own lives,” she says. “Whatever their workplace is, wherever they are, I would like to see them make an individual commitment to promoting environmental sustainability.”

Marymount also offers a minor in sustainability, and Santa Clara has more than 200 course offerings that are in some way related to environmental issues, ranging from engineering to literature to psychology. At the University of Portland, faculty and staff have extended their education efforts to the outside community by hosting sustainability conferences, meetings, and speakers on the environment. The end result? Russell Butkus, an environmental ethics professor at the University of Portland, says he hopes students and community members “are going to be world changers. Someone has to. If our graduates aren’t the ones able to go out and do it, I’m not sure who we expect to.”

Class action

Making the world a better place is certainly one of the goals of David Mullins, a Marquette University junior majoring in civil engineering. As president of the university’s Students for an Environmentally Active Campus (SEAC), Mullins has participated in many student-led initiatives promoting sustainability. Two years ago he helped coordinate a move-out week donation drive which encouraged students to recycle used items instead of throwing them away. Last year he was involved with a “Take Back the Tap” campaign encouraging students to give up bottled water, as well as a project that will enable dining halls to compost all preconsumer food waste.

Mullins believes it’s vital for students to get involved with sustainability efforts since their lives will likely be affected by environmental damage in the years to come. “With what is happening in the world as far as climate change, there needs to be a response,” Mullins says. “It’s especially important with our generation because (our) action now is for the future of our children. . . . 2012 was the warmest year on record for 48 states. It’s very apparent that humans have caused something to be disturbed with the earth, and to not respond to it is a failure of the human race.”

Through his work with the school’s administration, Mullins has learned that steps toward sustainability are often complicated. A big part of the “Take Back the Tap” campaign, for instance, is installing filling stations on campus for reusable water bottles, which requires an investment from the university.

“There are always consequences to things we want to do and there are definitely challenges,” Mullins says. “Our goal is to push through that and make the most good we can.”


One way to do that, he thinks, is through student support. On campus, he believes students need to get involved for real change to happen. “Perhaps I’m biased, but there’s more done when students are behind it,” he said. “[The administration] really needs the student support for projects to take off.”

Mullins feels the student support is there. Though SEAC has just 15 to 20 consistently active members, it boasts an e-mail list of more than 600 students. The challenge comes with getting those students to take action. “In general people care and they would support what we’re doing,” Mullins says. “It’s just that people are very committed in school and other student organizations.”

Hard to resist

That level of interest was also noted by Sarah Nanbu, who graduated from the University of Portland in May 2012 with a degree in environmental ethics and policy. While a student, Nanbu was involved in the College Ecology Club and PACOS. Like Thornburg, she lived in the sustainability-themed housing unit.

She believes many of her fellow students cared about protecting the environment but were at times confused by the information they heard about sustainability. She also found that students would sometimes resist change if they felt it would inconvenience them or disrupt their daily behaviors.

“It’s really difficult [to institute changes] unless the alternative is really easy,” she says. When the university banned the sale of water bottles on campus, for instance, Nanbu remembers hearing some negative feedback from students. “A lot of students were really skeptical and a small portion of students felt inconvenienced,” she says. “But it was a small, small portion of the student body.”

As with other programs she helped with, like a composting program for her dorm, she noticed students didn’t mind participating once they became used to the program. “On some level there is resistance, but I’m seeing it become a minority,” she said. “I think people really want to get involved, and if you make actions as easy as possible, lots of people will get on board.”

The only real resistance Thornburg has seen to environmental change on campus has come from students and faculty members who aren’t as aware of the importance of caring for the planet. “A lot of the students and faculty members come from places where environmental affairs aren’t really the big priorities,” she says. “Some never really knew about recycling or what composting is, and there may be some resistance in that people aren’t aware of why it’s important.”

For those people, Thornburg hopes to change their minds by showing how easy and effective simple life changes can be. “These things can seem very large, like climate change, but living sustainably often is little life changes and habits,” she says. “If these habits are implemented now, it will make for a much better future.”


Like Mullins, she believes it is important for students to get involved in environmental efforts so that university faculty and administration will continue to make sustainability a priority. “I think it’s really at the grassroots level where these things will be taking place,” she says. “Faculty can do a very good job and institutionally we can do things, but . . . I think where we really get a lot of action is when the [students and administration] are united.”

Eco-faith lessons

Though some critics may question whether the green initiatives of Catholic colleges are really a matter of faith, Santa Clara’s Kalkbrenner sees a definite connection between the two. To her, sustainability is about more than protecting the planet. It’s about protecting people, too.

“When we talk about climate change, we’re really not talking about protecting the earth. We’re talking about making sure the earth is inhabitable for the human race and about quality of life, making sure we can meet our needs and that future generations can meet their needs,” she says. “We’re thinking about how the decisions we make on a daily basis affect others in our communities.”

One of the lessons Marquette’s Schaefer hopes to pass on to her students is the connection between environmental sustainability and Catholic social justice. She strongly believes protecting the environment is a moral issue.

“Justice is much more expansive than what we have thought about before,” Schaefer says. “Our commitment to justice, when we are looking at environmental issues, deals with the poor and vulnerable, who are most adversely affected by environmental issues. They have had little if any way of causing some of the problems that we’re identifying.

“We also have to think about the future generations who are adversely affected by what we’re doing today due to climate change, nuclear waste, the accelerated rate in species extinction, and loss of habitat,” she says. “We are robbing future generations of an inhabitable planet.”

This article appeared in the September 2013 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 78, No. 9, pages 21-25).

Image: Courtesy of the University of Portland

Interested in seeing how these campuses are working on their green initiatives? Watch this short video about Marymount University’s rain garden.