By Jeffrey Corbin
This week is Earth Week, and we have much to be proud of at Union College. Our per capita energy use is declining, we have finished FIRST in per capita recyclables in the nationwide Recyclemania competition for two consecutive years, and our Ozone Café, Octopus’s Garden, and O3 Marketplace—all founded in order to make campus operations more sustainable and decrease our impacts on the environment—are wildly popular.
None of these successes would have been possible without widespread participation by our whole community. We couldn’t have reduced our energy use as much as we have, become first in the nation in recycling, or have access to sustainable dining options without everyone doing her/his part.
Facilities continues to invest in a variety of initiatives to reduce our environmental impact and live up to President Ainlay’s pledge to become a carbon neutral campus. New construction, including the Peter Irving Wold Center, and building renovations are built to meet LEED standards as “green buildings;” we hope to expand the proportion of dining hall waste that is composted and kept out of landfills; and I have no doubt that we will see significant alternative energy production on campus in the not-too- distant future.Our greener future will also be achieved as faculty, staff and students continue to live lifestyles that have smaller impacts on the environment. Indeed, choices we make throughout our day as individuals matter a great deal to the whole college’s environmental impact.
I hope that the Union College community will use Earth Week to consider how our own lifestyle choices affect the environment and the resources that our campus uses. I will focus on two particular choices where small and relatively easy changes can have big environmental payoffs: what do we eat, and where do we get our water?
We are used to thinking of electricity and our cars as sources of the greenhouse gases that are contributing to climate change. But our food—specifically, how much red meat we eat—can have a major impact as well. In fact nationwide, food production is responsible for more CO2 emissions than either transportation or industry.
We can make choices that reduce these emissions. The simplest one: Eat less beef. A serving of beef produces almost four times more greenhouse gases compared to the same amount of pork, and over thirteen times more than the same amount of chicken. A serving of vegetables emits one-twenty-fifth the amount of greenhouse gases as beef. So, put down that burger and have the chicken sandwich, or better yet the grilled cheese.
The second choice is to use water fountains and refillable bottles instead of disposable water bottles. Our campus is awash (pun intended) in plastic bottles. When I look around the room during my lectures, as many as one in four desks has a plastic water bottle. It is great that we are recycling the empties; it would be better still to not use them at all.
Facilities has installed bottle refill stations that provide cold, filtered water in Reamer, College Park Hall, and Grant House, with more planned. Water fountains do the same thing—in fact a fountain in the library has a bottle filler attached to it. We all have refillable bottles in our closets or kitchens—we just have to get into the mindset of carrying one along when we leave the house or our room instead of buying bottled water as we go.
There are other benefits of these choices besides the environmental ones. Reducing beef consumption can pay big dividends in terms of heart health and the amount of fat we consume. And that Kleen Kanteen can pay for itself in less than a week’s worth of trips to the C-Store.
I know that old habits die hard. And I’m not suggesting that everyone go cold turkey (again, pun intended). Try scaling back your beef consumption gradually—for example, eating red meat four to five days per week instead of every day, or giving up red meat at lunch. Even such small changes could lower your CO2 emissions more than if you traded your car for a significantly more efficient one—at no extra cost. And there may be days when your refillable Sigg bottle is left behind in your room and you will buy a bottle of Aquafina. But make those days rare, not the norm.
Together, we are making Union College a model for other colleges and institutions across the country. Our administration will continue to invest in green technologies, energy efficiency, and ways to reduce our environmental impacts. Let’s match those investments with some easy choices that we can make every day to add up to big benefits.