Colleges Are Huge Resource Wasters. This Program Is Changing That

Ally Hirschlag

The average college student produces 640 pounds of trash a year. The biggest sources of that waste are disposable cups and paper products, and since those things are used year-round, this is hardly just an end of semester problem. But excessive waste is just one reason why colleges and universities across the United States have developed campus sustainability programs.

These programs operate in conjunction with The Association for Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE), a nonprofit umbrella organization helping higher learning institutions develop sustainability initiatives. At Florida State University, such initiatives exist within FSU’s Sustainable Campus (SC)—an environmental action group using education and community outreach to help students and faculty develop, apply, and practice sustainability. The group has been underway for more than a decade, officially given formal offices at the University eight years ago.

While SC may have started as a small group of students looking for a more sustainable path, the organization quickly realized they’d need to scale up—and better meet the university’s needs—to make a real impact. “We’re a very large organization,” says Elizabeth Swiman, director of Sustainability Campus “While there’s a grassroots effort that’s absolutely necessary, you sort of have to find that sweet spot of grassroots effort and priority for the institution.”

Today, they have a number of sustainability initiatives operating at any given time. Their student-run Seminole Organic Garden teaches students new to the space how to grow organic food using sustainable methods. Using only organic seeds and fertilizers, they maintain a collection of native plants that aid in the preservation of local biodiversity.

The student-run bike ReCycle program provides an easy, inexpensive, and sustainable way for students and faculty to get around. The program rents out more than 85 second-hand bikes by the semester or the school year, which students and faculty can then use for all their transportation needs both inside and outside the campus. This lowers the number of cars driven on campus, and helps keep used bikes out of landfills.

The student-run Take Back the Tap campaign aims to make FSU plastic water bottle-free by implementing methods to help the student body reduce their bottled water waste, like creating a map to show people where the 85+ hydration stations are across campus. They’re also able to track how many bottles are filled at these stations, and, based on that tracking system, they’ve saved over 4 million bottles.

And in order to tackle FSU’s waste problem—especially during student move out, when waste tends to increase—they set up a program helping students donate their unwanted goods called Chuck it for Charity. The students working on the initiative set up blue collection bins all over campus so students can easily donate things like books, clothes, unopened food, and storage bins. The students running the initiative then collect the bins, weigh and sort what’s been collected, and donate their haul to a local nonprofit that distributes everything to people in need. The program has saved 139 tons of waste over the last 10 years.

But Swiman’s biggest accomplishment is the lasting impact these efforts have had on students. While they’re on campus they aren’t only participating in these sustainability programs: they’re changing wasteful habits for life. “Students today come in with a heightened level of environmental awareness and knowledge,” says Swiman. “I think our opportunity is to take that little seed that’s been planted and help them understand how this affects their personal life and the choices that they make.”

Most kids who come to college don’t have much experience making big life decisions on their own, and suddenly they’re besieged with important issues and responsibilities. It’s a unique moment to help them understand their impact on the environment and the differences they can make in the world with simple changes to their behavior.

First and foremost, SC begs the question of impact, and asks students, “What do you want to do about it?” Those who respond positively have moved the environmentalism needle forward at FSU. But the initiative is not without setbacks.

About four years ago, the group decided to petition for a student fee increase of 50 cents per credit hour that would go toward a fund supporting large-scale campus sustainability projects. FSU, along with the University of West Florida, the University of South Florida, and New College petitioned for the increase, which they named “The Green Fee.” The effort involved weeks of work and prep to set up a presentation for the Board of Governors—the governing body for colleges and universities in Florida. Unfortunately, despite knocking the presentation out of the park and doing everything by the book, the motion failed. While they weren’t given a clear reason why, it’s likely the cost was a significant factor in the Board’s decision.

According to Swiman, the experience was “a huge gut check moment,” but it taught the students that playing by the rules doesn’t always mean you’re going to win and that failure can still lead to progress. For example, the students and SC staff were eventually able to turn their Green Fee idea into a donation-based fund. Since the fund was started about 2 years ago, they’ve raised $37,000, and have been able to support a list of projects including solar charger umbrellas and a composting pilot program.

The endeavor is also a prime example of how Swiman and the rest of FSU’s SC staff are helping students process the difficult to swallow climate change reports rolling out recently. First, she tries to dissuade the compulsion to “freak out.” Then, she levels with them: “This is going to take work, and working within a system and a process to try and create change means a lot of time, effort, failure, and tiny successes that you have to live up in the moment. Chances are you’re not going to see [change immediately], but we’re also not going to get to the next step if you’re not going to help us do this [first] step.”

However, because college is a microcosm, students working with SC do get to see some results in terms of how their work is making a difference—like exactly how many water bottles they’re keeping from landfills via their hydration stations. Swiman hopes it will inspire them to carry what they’ve learned into the real world.

“If you can get something changed at Florida State, whatever it is, if you can create a teeny tiny bit of good here that can be exponentially replicated out in the real world,” says Swiman. If the people outside of FSU can start making similar efforts that move the sustainability process forward in their own communities, the world will begin to get a whole lot greener.