April 08, 2020

UMaine vision neglected

As a founding member of the campus Sustainability Coalition, I applaud the administration’s appointment of a Campus Planning Committee at the University of Maine. One of its four charges is to incorporate environmental protection issues into campus planning. But we need not await Planning Committee decisions to treat our campus with more care. Consider the following:

1. Energy use has major environmental and dollar implications. On two occasions the Sustainability Coalition has offered to assist the administration by coordinating a cadre of volunteers to monitor energy use in campus buildings and to promote energy conservation. Fuel prices have risen 82 percent over last year and we await their response.

2. For many years, students have complained that the only way to regulate the temperature of many dorm rooms in winter is by opening windows. Other campus buildings have the same problem. It is great news that the campus will retire our ancient highly polluting steam plant and switch to natural gas. However, energy efficiency – that is, undertaking simple energy conservation measures – is also urgently needed. Making old buildings energy efficient won’t pay for itself overnight: But if starting 10 years ago we had corrected even one building a year, the program would be paying for itself now, and probably saving money. Why not start now? It could also be a great teaching tool for our students.

3. The university produces large quantities of recyclable office paper. The good news is that office paper has the highest value of any recyclable. However, the university has lacked a recycling coordinator since May and the recycling responsibilities mandated by Maine law have been added to the responsibilities of other campus personnel. Students tell me they receive very little recycling education in the dorms. And no program educates faculty, staff or janitors. The result? Trash is often dumped in recycling containers and recyclables in trash containers. Even when properly presorted, much is not recycled. Our Sustainability Coalition has offered to include recycling in its system of energy monitoring and conservation.

Our coalition also urged that the university hire, in lieu of a recycling coordinator, an energy-recycling coordinator. Considering our profligate use of energy, having a person directing attention to energy conservation could more than pay the cost of the position.

4. Let’s look for ways to increase environmental awareness campus wide. Why not set up the Administration Building – or the newly remodeled Student Union – as a building exemplary in the use of electricity, heat, and water, in the way it recycles, buys and reuses materials? It need not be expensive. Campus volunteers would assist and it would be a great teaching experience.

5. Last January, I visited the Maine Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) to ask for assistance for the university to move toward environmental excellence. In response, DEP offered a trained person to help set up a campus Environmental Management System (EMS). DEP said this person could serve as consultant and need not participate in audits. Advantages of an EMS are many. One is that an EMS could be a great teaching tool for students to participate in audits and help set up the EMS.

Last spring the Maine Legislature passed a bill to promote Environmental Management Systems. Another bill included a Clean State Initiative proposed by Gov. Angus King urging each state institution to voluntarily model environmental behavior and set up an EMS. Last spring our University’s Faculty Senate also urged the Administration to set up an EMS. This summer the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency sent a list of 20 questions to college and university presidents. Several related to using an EMS “to help the campus maintain compliance and operate in an environmentally responsible manner.”

Conservation and other actions can often be implemented without cost. What we most need is an infusion of caring. Who within the administration will champion these causes? Who will say, “This is what our campus community cares about, here is our vision of what we can become, and let’s get started now”? Who will say, with David Orr, “The curriculum embedded in any building instructs as fully and as effectively as any course taught in it”? Many people who study here, who work here, and who watch the campus from Maine communities are eager to see this happen – and are at hand to help. Isn’t it time to get started?

Marquita Hill chairs the Sustainability Coalition, an informal group of University of Maine students, faculty, and staff that promotes campus environmental excellence.

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