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It Isn't Easy Getting Green

June 1, 1997

Judith Zwolak

After hundreds of phone calls, dozens of meetings and many hours poring over reports and other university documents, students in an environmental sociology class taught by J. Timmons Roberts, associate professor, have issued a report card based on their semester-long audit of Tulane's environmental policies and practices.

The students gave the university a passing grade--with a cumulative eco-grade-point-average of 2.02--but claimed there was much room for improvement. "The research shows that Tulane is making some effort to minimize negative effects on the environment, but in other areas it continues to cause serious damage," reads a sentence from the report's executive summary.

Students gave the highest ratings to Tulane's environmental studies curriculum, the uptown campus's lighting program and the university's hazardous waste policies--all of which received A-minus grades. Receiving failing grades were the investment management practices pertaining to Tulane's endowment, recycling efforts on campus grounds and the policies regarding procurement of cleaning chemicals and pesticides.

When choosing which aspects of the university to audit, "we followed a model that is emerging from other universities around the country," says Roberts. This model is outlined in the book, Campus Ecology, which was required reading for all students in the class. After customizing these audit guidelines to Tulane, students broke into groups in the beginning of the semester to gather information.

They released their preliminary report on Earth Day, April 22. An obvious area to audit is the university's recycling program, which a group of five students in the class broke down into three parts--academic buildings, residence halls and campus grounds. Committee member Mary Harner, a senior majoring in environmental studies and ecology, evolution and organismal biology (EEOB), was active in forming the residence hall recycling program last year and says she was interested in assessing its effectiveness.

"In the residence halls, there are bins on almost every floor and the program is off to a good start," Harner says. "One of the important things right now is to educate students not to contaminate the bins. We found out from Jani-King [custodial services contractors] that if there is a whole bin of cans and one pizza box gets thrown in, the contents of the whole bin get thrown in the trash."

In late April, Harner and some of her classmates met with staff members in the physical plant department and Jani-King administrators to walk through the residence halls. Based on this tour, the students and staff members decided to place the recycling bins in more accessible areas and also stressed the importance of lining the recycling bins with clear plastic bags so that recyclables aren't confused with trash.

"I think one of the good things about our project is that we're working on things right now and making changes," she says. One of the areas the group would like to see changed is the way Tulane's endowment funds are invested.

Jane Davis, a sophomore majoring in environmental studies and EEOB, says her committee was unable to obtain information about specific university investments, but "they definitely don't have screening for environmental issues" when deciding in which companies to investment endowment funds. Her committee proposed that Tulane make a trial run at green investing by appointing one or two of its endowment fund managers to invest a portion of the endowment in companies with good social and environmental records and then compare the results with the other investments.

Hannah Carmalt's food committee also had recommendations for the university. "One of the easiest things they could start doing is to compost [food and yard wastes]," Carmalt says. "That's very feasible." The committee's report claims that up to 8 percent of Tulane's garbage is food waste that can be placed in a pile where microorganisms feed on the dead organic tissue, reducing it to a fine black substance that can be returned to the soil.

The food committee gave slightly different grades to the two main dining areas on campus, the University Center (C+) and Bruff Commons (B-). Bruff fared better in the audit primarily due to its use of reusable plates and utensils and its program to reuse leftover food. The University Center Food Court has recently adopted a "Green Dining Program," but still uses large quantities of disposable food packaging and utensils, the report says.

These issues and others audited by the group combine to form a representative picture of environmental consciousness at Tulane and in the larger community, Roberts says. The college campus is a microcosm of society. "Studying Tulane's environmental policies tell us a lot about why things are as they are and what it would take to change them," he says.

Roberts stresses that this audit report is preliminary and will serve as a stepping stone for encouraging a stronger commitment from the university to adopt environmentally conscious policies and practices. "We propose that a standing university committee do this audit annually or every two years," Roberts says. "We don't want this to be treated as just an academic exercise. Although we sell its value partly on that it's a class exercise, we think it needs to be part of the institutional culture at Tulane."

This summer, class members Aaron Allen and Alicia Lyttle will do more in-depth research on the audit under a work-study grant from the Center for Bioenvironmental Research and the Tulane Environmental Studies Program. Allen, a junior majoring in environmental studies and music, is also president of the Green Club and a prominent environmental activist on the uptown campus.

"We'll be putting together a larger report that will include some information on what other universities are doing in this area," Allen says. "Ultimately, this audit was a way to be prepared. In the fall, we would like to give this information to the University Senate."

Using the audit information, Allen and Roberts will argue for the establishment of a committee on environmental affairs or for a stronger decision-making role for the existing Tulane Environmental Project, which is comprised of faculty, staff and students. Educating the campus community about the importance of environmental stewardship is integral to creating effective policies, Roberts says.

"There is a perception in Louisiana that there is a trade off between jobs and the environment," Roberts says. "There has been some good research showing that, in fact, places that have better environmental protection actually have higher economic growth rates." The report will soon be available on the Internet at the Green Club's homepage at http://www.tulane.edu/~green clb.

For a review copy of the audit, contact Aaron Allen at 862-6049 or aallen1@mailhost.tcs.tulane.edu, or J. Timmons Roberts at 865-5820 or timmons@mailhost.tcs.tulane.edu.

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