“The Sustainable Choice”

At our recent all-employee, pre-semester gathering, President Mulkey addressed the crowd by video feed for his State of the College address, The Sustainability Imperative and Emerging Opportunities for Unity College. In asserting Unity’s sustainability niche, Stephen emphasized the commitment of Unity’s students, faculty, and staff. Exhibiting this commitment during the Q&A portion of the address, Student Center Manager Charlie Krause identified a gap in our sustainability performance that seems worth exploring briefly here. Charlie’s question was specific, but has broader implications about how we demonstrate sustainability in action — bridging our mission and academic focus on sustainability science with the operations and governance of the institution.

Paraphrased, Charlie essentially asked, “how should I as a budget manager weigh increased costs and the presumably ‘sustainable choice’ — especially when the sustainability impacts aren’t obvious?” His example was his purchase of biodegradable flatware for the Student Center. Charlie buys compostable plates and utensils for certain campus uses at a higher price tag than some conventional paper products. Our food waste diversion efforts, however active and successful, have changed form in the last few years, and we can’t currently process biodegradable flatware for effective composting. So should Charlie spend more of the College’s resources for a product that doesn’t achieve the intended sustainability benefit?

Of course, the answer depends on your metric for sustainability — the intended benefit. The truth is, this is probably how cultural change works on a campus, how administrative charge meets grassroots (often student) demand — right in the middle. And at a place as small as Unity, the choice of the middle-manager to satisfy those interests can make all the difference for the sustainability impact and profile of the institution. We hope that by engaging each other in a candid conversation about the issues, we’re better empowered to make “the sustainable choice” when we’re able.

Food and Water Watch's Nisha Swinton (L) helps campus ambassadors distribute water bottles to new students.

But let’s be clear, success is iterative, it’s cyclical, it’s chicken-and-egg.  When our Dean for Students and Human Resources Director conspired to provide a reusable, stainless steel water bottle for every student and employee on campus, we knew it was a good idea, even if we didn’t all know precisely why it was a good idea. We quickly realized, however, that we didn’t have the infrastructure in place to fully support such an initiative. Within months, the Facilities team had installed “goose neck” fillers on our public water fountains to make filling the bottles easier. Unity Experience instructors focused all of our first-year students on bottled water issues in classroom and public venues and art installations exploring the social, environmental, and political impacts of bottled water cropped up all over campus. Just this month, our Facilities team has contracted a local vendor to install new water filling stations in all of the residence halls, responding quickly to student requests for the service (more on that later).

This, in my view, is the sustainability commitment that President Mulkey was referring to in his address.  We have a distributed responsibility for the sustainability mission of the College that is evident in the decisions we each make in our daily work. Sometimes those small “sustainable choices” turn into campus movements.

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About Jesse