Green revolution growing at Central Michigan University

Stale bread and overripe fruit will only go so far in a college cafeteria -- no matter how hungry college students get.

But at Central Michigan University, college students are giving these "leftovers" new life in the soil at the university's gardens. Every day this summer, 50 pounds of organic waste will be diverted from the landfill and used as compost in the gardens, thanks to the university's residential restaurants.

The program is just one of many green initiatives focused on making a long-term impact on the environment and the university's budget. In fact, the university won a Going Green Award earlier this year from Corp! magazine for its efforts -- many of which are student driven.  

"Students have lots of energy and lots of great ideas," says Jay Kahn, CMU's director of facilities operations. "I'm kind of the clearinghouse -- they come to me with an idea and we try to make decisions based on data."

Seeing results

Aside from the new composting program, students also are responsible for other green initiatives like improved outdoor recycling bins, the annual Recycle Mania challenge -- which pits CMU against other universities to increase recycling -- and outreach efforts to help educate their fellow students.

"We do orientation education during Welcome Week, " says Heather Curtis, a student recycling coordinator and senior from Flint. On a daily basis, educating fellow students also has become second nature for Curtis. Recently, she saw a man starting to throw away some cardboard instead of recycling it. "'Hey!' I yelled, 'Don't do that!'" she says, smiling.

The student-driven green initiatives are starting to make a noticeable impact too, says Kahn. "The numbers so far are encouraging."

CMU has decreased municipal solid waste -- which normally would end up in the landfill -- by more than 1 percent. Recycling on campus also has increased by 23 percent. And within the next three years, university plans call for a reduction in energy consumption by 20 percent, water usage by 6 percent, and a reduction in CMU's overall carbon footprint by 10 percent.

Beyond the positive environmental impact, the programs also are making a big difference for CMU's budget. The university saves $18.34 for every ton of waste that is recycled instead of taken to the landfill.

Going beyond recycling

Kahn says the university's sustainability plans hinge on the three well-known conservation prongs: reduce, reuse, and recycle. And while recycling may be the most visible of the three efforts, he said the first two actions are equally -- if not more  -- important.

Reduce in that three-pronged equation means "receiving less on campus, generating less waste," he says. To meet that goal, CMU has an organization-wide purchasing policy that requires reduced packaging from vendors who do business with the university.

Reuse comes into play with CMU's surplus auction every month, and with donations to local nonprofit organizations such as Goodwill and Better World Books.

CMU's wood chip boiler also has played a major role in these green efforts. The university purchases wood chips made from tree waste, such as tops and branches, within a 50-mile radius of campus. The chips are then burned to create boiler steam, an alternative source of heat for campus that is considered a "zero-carbon" source. This saves the university up to $2 million per year in fuel costs.

Other sustainability efforts also are taking root. New campus buildings follow LEED practices for design and operations -- the Education and Human Services Building, which opened in September 2009, includes a vegetative roof, which reduces temperatures and provides a natural sound insulation. Many campus vehicles have been converted to run on B20 biodiesel fuel. And new energy-efficient light fixtures and faucets now are installed around campus to reduce utility use.

But university officials say perhaps the biggest impact of all is the one on students as they deepen their understanding of what it means to "go green," and as they develop innovative ideas to make a lasting change for the university and for the environment.


CMU students Heather Curtis, Audrie Thelen, and Aly Szymanski are using bright ideas to recycle everything on campus -- from batteries to lettuce to lightbulbs.

Freshly discarded vegetables are placed on top of the compost pile near one of the on-campus gardens.

CMU students Heather Curtis, Audrie Thelen, and Aly Szymanski stand near their compost pile, which helps recycle much of the kitchen waste on campus.

The students keep detailed logs of everything they recycle so they can quantify their impact on reducing the university's carbon footprint.

Stickers on containers all over campus invite students and faculty to "go green" by recycling whatever they can.
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