Students are “going green” with more than just their cheers on the football field thanks to President Simon’s “Boldness by Design” initiative and the Office of Finance and Operation’s Environmental Stewardship campaign. The recent push for environmentalism here on campus has blossomed into a complex system that requires participation by the entire MSU community. [eco1]
“Recycling has had its ebb and flow on campus in different ways,” said Diane Barker, facilities manager for East Complex. In the mid-1990s, there were several student-driven initiatives for recycling programs on campus. But these grassroots movements were completely dependent on student action; there was never any coordination from the university itself. The realization of and concern about climate change tipped the scale, and recycling has now been embraced at many different levels on campus. “The recycling program has been building for a while, and now the movement finally happened. It’s very gratifying to see recycling finally getting the spotlight,” Barker added.
MSU Students for Sustainability Organization (MSUECO) was concerned with the lack of a comprehensive recycling plan on campus. “There was a definite lack of recycling,” said Lauren Olson, who attended MSU at the time and is now the project and events coordinator for the Office of Finance and Operations. In 2003, “it was very hard to find bins. You might find newspaper recycling, you might not. This was no fault on the part of MSU recycling, but they were just less focused on sustainability and environmentalism as a whole.”
In 2006, ECO campaigned and collected over 8,000 signatures from faculty, support staff and students who demanded a more comprehensive recycling program. It was clear that people wanted a better system, but they needed the administration’s support to build one, Olson said. ECO members attended the open-forum Board of Trustees meeting and gave a five-minute presentation that described the social, economic and environmental benefits of recycling, and compared MSU recycling to other Big 10 universities.
“At the time, I believe it was just us and Penn State who had no comprehensive recycling program. We really wanted MSU to become a pioneer in environmentalism,” Olson said. “It was just the right moment in MSU’s time because people started to realize that climate change was real. . .and environmentalism was becoming less of a special interest activity.” [barker]
Between 2006 and Jan. 2007, when the Board of Trustees approved a plan for a more comprehensive environmental program on campus, the Board surveyed initiatives and proposals and completed cost-benefit analyses in order to lay the groundwork for a better recycling program. These efforts included behavioral studies by Dr. Laurie Thorp, coordinator of the Residential Initiative on the Study of the Environment (RISE), and Olson, who was a graduate student at the time.
Preliminary studies began during the 2006 fall semester. Eight focus groups, each comprised of about 15 participants, were conducted. The participants included students, clerical and technical staff and faculty. They were screened before participating to ensure no one had strong ties to environmental causes that would interfere with the objective study. During the focus groups, Thorp investigated participants’ attitudes toward recycling and their knowledge of how recycling works. The focus groups’ responses helped dictate questions for a wide-reaching electronic survey about recycling that circulated in Feb. 2007, to which roughly 5,000-7,000 people responded.
The responses from the focus groups and the survey were not surprising, Thorp said. The study indicated that people did not have a clear idea of what materials can be recycled and how to go about recycling those. The responses also showed that for any recycling program to be successful, convenience was key. If recycling required more effort than normal trash collection, it would be more difficult to get the MSU community to recycle more. These findings provided helped to focus MSU’s recycling initiative and laid the groundwork for it to get underway.
Phase One
Phase One aimed to recycle five basic materials – cardboard, newspaper, plastics #1 and #2, and white and mixed paper – in every building on campus. By spring 2007, preliminary pilot programs within certain campus buildings were completed. In Dec. 2007, the project was extended to the entire campus. The end of Phase 1 will mean recycling containers are available in all campus buildings. Currently, the project is nearing the end of the first phase because about 30 of the over 600 campus buildings are without recycling containers. They are estimated to be in place in the next few weeks.
[eco6] The university is currently developing an online information system that will measure the recycling program’s success. This GIS (Geographic Information System) will allow individuals to click on a particular building and track how much material is recycled there.
MSU’s recycling program has a multi-layered collection process. The housing division collects all of the recycling inside buildings and brings it to the dock outside of the recycling building on the south side of campus by Harrison Avenue and Trowbridge Road. The custodial workers are the “unsung heroes” of the recycling project, Thorp said.
But regardless of how hard the custodial staff may work, certain constraints will still exist. “The biggest challenge for recycling is space,” Barker said. Between July 2007 and 2008, paper recycling was up 412 percent and plastic 80 percent. Increased participation results in increased physical materials and less space to store recyclables.
Despite constraints, MSU has received national recognition due to its increased sustainability efforts. On September 7, 2007 the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE) awarded MSU the Campus Sustainability Leadership Award in the category of schools with enrollment of over 7,500 students.
Phase Two
The Farm Lane Recycling Facility, which will be fully operational by fall 2009, marks the transition into Phase Two. “The facility’s design was very intentional and aimed to incorporate sustainable development,” Barker said. The roof will capture rainwater that will be used to flush toilets. Most of the building’s external structure was built with recycled materials, such as steel. Additionally, the building will be LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) Certified, and will include an education center that will be used to inform the public about recycling and sustainability.
[eco4] With this facility in operation, MSU will be able to expand its list of recyclable materials that it can accommodate. The next five materials have yet to be determined. Researchers are evaluating a variety of materials to decide which will have the greatest environmental impact and yield the highest net profit. The administration plans to sell the materials recycled at the Farm Lane facility to pay off the cost of the building.
Beyond Recycling
The recycling program is a “growing, evolving, living program,” said Michael Mitchner, service manager II in the Office of Waste Management. It is part of President Simon’s “Boldness by Design” program, which initiates a variety of projects on campus that make MSU greener and more sustainable. One of these projects is the Environmental Stewardship initiative. It calls university employees and students to form environmental stewardship teams to promote sustainability on campus. MSU’s environmental stewarshdip website,, provides information on new environmental programs on campus and tips on how the MSU community can “Be Spartan Green” not only by recycling, but also by reducing and reusing materials.
The next project for the environmental stewards is to promote energy conservation. Thorp recently conducted eight more focus groups for her newest behavioral study concerning energy and energy conservation. Like the recycling study, the data from the focus groups will be fed into an online survey that will circulate electronically this spring. [eco5]
While the data has yet to be fully examined, Thorp did notice that many people do not understand the effects of carbon dioxide on climate change. She was most surprised that students did not know about the coal plant on campus, which is still in use.
Unlike recycling, energy conservation is a deeper behavioral change. “Recycling is tangible [and] has been around since the 70s,” Thorp said. “People want to get rid of their waste; recycling is just a matter of which bin to put the waste in.” But energy conservation requires more sacrifice and approaching it as a campus-wide issue makes it more difficult to decipher where changes are being made because every student pays the university a standard amount for energy and faculty do not receive an energy bill at all.
Unlike recycling, energy conservation does not rely entirely on individual behavior. Conservation must occur on a much larger level, one that is more dependent upon infrastructure. One of the ways MSU has decided to create this infrastructural change is by joining the Chicago Climate Exchange (CCX). CCX is North America’s first and only financial ‘cap and trade’ program for greenhouse gases. Members make a voluntary but legally binding commitment to reduce their CO2 emissions. Members can purchase and sell CO2 emissions, depending on whether they exceed or fail to meet annual emission reduction targets. By joining CCX, MSU committed to reducing greenhouse gas emissions on campus by 6 percent by 2010. [boomer]
“We need to start acting now,” said Linda Boomer, an environmental engineer in Physical Plant Administration. “We can have an impact on the world as a whole, by being a leader [in environmentalism].” CCX is the method MSU has chosen in order to become one of those leaders.
Other smaller projects concerning energy conservation are underway. Many of these projects are directed at the science buildings on campus, which are notorious for having high energy costs. This is primarily because science buildings require a lot of “air changes” per hour to remove toxic chemicals from classrooms through fumigation hoods. The administration is testing new technology in the Food Sciences Building to measure the indoor air quality and determine if it would be safe to reduce the number of air changes per hour throughout the night. This would help cut back on energy consumption. Also, motion censored lights are being installed in classrooms, so that lights automatically turn off when people leave the room. Right now, classrooms in the Business College Complex and the Chemistry Building have motion censored lights.
The Physical Plant is also working with the MSU Computer Center to design a program that will allow the Computer Center to remotely turn off computers in computer labs around campus. But, Boomer warned, “It’s a fine line we walk with energy conservation because we want to save energy but still have to provide the services needed.”
[eco22]The Engineering and Architectural Services (EAS) component of the Physical Plant, which handles all new construction on campus, has upgraded its construction standards to those outlined by the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) rating system. By using materials such as recycled cork flooring rather than vinyl and recycled carpet, construction workers can help reduce the amount of volatile organic compound (VOC) emissions. These emissions produce the ‘new’ smell in buildings but can be harmful to our health. Additionally, EAS has a retro-commission team that performs “tune-ups” on the older buildings around campus that make the buildings as energy efficient as possible.
Reduce and Reuse
Students, faculty members and staff alike must continue to motivate MSU to stay at the forefront of environmentalism. To do this, they must understand that environmentalism is much more than recycling. Essentially, environmentalism is about lifestyle changes.
“Ideally, recycling is the last thing you want to do,” said Terry Link, the Director of Campus Sustainability for the Office of Finance and Operations. The MSU community must realize that reducing and reusing materials is just as important, if not more so, than recycling itself. “The ultimate goal should be zero waste, which requires changing the norm of how people think and act.”

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