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There’s an old adage that usually goes something like this: “If you’re going to talk the talk, you’d better walk the walk.” No matter how it’s presented, the meaning is always the same: Don’t talk about things you can’t reinforce with your actions.
Institutions of higher education are no different. While the campus at Elizabethtown College might look manicured and green, the real question is: ‘What is going on to ensure that vitality remains, both on the campus and in the community?’ The answer is: a lot. Elizabethtown has sustainability at its core, not only in what’s being discussed in the classroom but also in how it operates.
Many of the most sustainable practices on campus can be hard to notice, mostly because they’re about eliminating things—waste, in particular. E-town’s legacy of sustainable practices can be traced back mainly to one man—Joe Metro, the former director of Facilities Management who retired in 2013—and his mantra.
“If you look back to Joe’s initial thoughts on it,” says his successor, Mark Zimmerman, “the energy you never use is the cheapest energy there is, because it’s not made, and it’s not going to generate carbon.”
Zimmerman explains that Metro was always on the lookout for ways to cut costs, and he realized that one of his biggest line items was energy. In 2009, the College was spending roughly $1.6 million in utility costs. To curb those expenditures, Metro, Zimmerman and the rest of the facilities team entered into a 10-year “guaranteed performance contract” with Siemens, a global engineering and technological innovation company. Through this agreement, Siemens audited the campus and made energy-saving renovations that immediately began to pay off. For example, reduced energy bills guaranteed at least a $3.3 million savings over the contract period. So far, the collaboration has saved Elizabethtown approximately $2 million in the first six years and is on track to meet—if not exceed—the target. To Zimmerman, it’s a win-win.
When he took over for Metro, Zimmerman knew his role would mean much more than keeping the lights on and the windows clean. It also meant understanding the campus’ place in the ecosystem and making sure the College shouldered its fair portion of the load.
So, while major projects, such as a proposed solar array and reconditioning Lake Placida in 2012, get all the attention (and photo opportunities!), it’s been the little things that have made the difference: automated lighting that turns off when no one’s in the room, zoned temperature controls and planning for actual use instead of just leaving lights on and systems running. Shutting down unused buildings during this past Winter Break saved the College $22,000 in energy costs, alone, he estimates.
But Zimmerman can’t do it by himself. His team includes environmental services crew members empowered to recycle any appropriate materials they find in the trash, two horticulturalists who maintain native vegetation on campus and managers of other campus offices and programs. Coordinating with Athletics, for example, is a constant conversation to plan ahead—making sure facilities are available and ready when needed, shut down when not and constantly monitored to ensure long-term preservation.
Dining Services has its own set of challenges and opportunities. Director Eric Turzai oversaw the installation of an automated venting system a few years ago that senses cooking, turning on exhaust fans only as needed. The system saves energy, but Turzai knows, all too well, that his facilities produce another source of waste.
“We conducted research and found that each person … had a food-waste amount of approximately 4.5 ounces per person,” he said of Marketplace customers.
But the vast majority of the uneaten food is composed of organic material, and that can be reused; Turzai estimates the waste from each meal is roughly 80-percent recyclable. So when Somat, a Lancaster-based waste-reduction company, asked if he’d be willing to test out a potential solution, he jumped at the opportunity.
Somat installed a “pulping grinder” that, with a little bit of human assistance, mashes up all organic waste that gets thrown away after meals—think apple cores, banana peels and pizza crusts. The resulting slurry is trucked to a nearby dairy farm where it’s fed to a methane-digesting system. This process benefits both farm and campus:
Water use in Turzai’s facilities is reduced by 80 percent, and infusions help speed up the methane digesting, which produces enough energy to supply 300 houses, Turzai said.
The leftover, highly sanitized pulp is dried and used as bedding for the cows and, afterward, comes back to the College to be used as fertilizer in a campus garden. The food grown in the small field on campus is harvested and used in recipes, at the self-serve salad bars and even sold in the Jay’s Nest, thus completing the cycle.
The process saves money as well: With anywhere from 10 to 14 tons of waste eliminated per month, Turzai pays to empty the trash compactor half as often.
While he acknowledges that the 4,000 pounds of produce harvested, annually, from the garden is “a drop in the bucket” of all the food consumed on campus, it serves an important academic purpose. Several professors have found ways to include these initiatives in class field studies, and students are invited to tend to the garden. Turzai is excited to see it involved in a current senior project on hydroponics, and he’s looking for engineering students to utilize solar energy to heat the greenhouses.
“That’s the fun part, too,” he said. “Any form of getting students involved, that, to me, is the end goal. This is their campus and their learning experience.”
That focus is shared by the faculty, as well. The Department of Physics and Engineering added a sustainable design concentration a few years ago to “put a more concrete label” on the concepts, explained assistant professor Tómas Estrada, “so students know it’s a point of emphasis.” Beyond arming students with the technical ability, the faculty is committed to ensuring students consider the potential impacts—both positive and negative—of their designs.
“It goes back to the motto of the college: Educate for Service,” he said. “I think, in today’s world and going into the 21st century, if you’re ignoring the sustainability components, you’re missing something that’s going to be important for engineering professionals going forward. You’re not telling them the whole story.”
Beyond sprinkling the ideas and issues into his various engineering and physics courses, Estrada serves as the faculty mentor for the Future Energy and Sustainable Technology (FEAST) student group. The extracurricular group, which focuses on developing technological solutions for sustainability issues, formed because many students already were choosing the topic for their senior projects.
That student-led ethos still pervades the group. “They work on the projects they want to work on,” Estrada said.
The idea of incorporating sustainability into the classroom extends to the Department of Business, where Hossein Varamini, director of the international business program, oversees an international business seminar class that pairs students with local companies that are considering overseas expansion. Often, these enterprises—such as York-based International Water Co. and Solar Innovations Inc. in Pine Grove—are looking to offer solutions for foreign environmental issues.
“American products for environmental remediation are very competitive internationally,” explained Martin Brill, an international marketing specialist at Kutztown University of Pennsylvania’s Small Business Development Center (SBDC) who helps scout out partner companies for Varamini’s students. SBDCs are located throughout the Commonwealth and provide resources for Pennsylvania companies to grow and expand.
The class tasks students with providing companies with research about their potential foreign markets to help them decide if the decision is financially sound.
“I was really impressed because these are seniors in college, and they all have international experience,” said Mike Duus, Solar Innovations Inc.’s class representative. The company, which makes and installs high-end doors, windows and related items, is hoping to find international markets for products it developed.
The keyword for aspiring professional environmentalists is initiative. David Bowne, assistant professor of biology, notes that the challenge for students is that the major is not always a clear pathway to a career but, as he points out, the opportunities are diverse for resourceful students: “You make of it what you want.”
“If you’re ignoring the sustainability components, you’re missing something that’s going to be important for engineering professionals going forward.”
He certainly has. Marrying his education in science with his fondness for creative writing, Bowne created a course called “Experimental Ecology in Short Fiction” that simultaneously examines stories for their literary merit and how well they adhere to actual scientific theories. The course covers everything from science-fiction titans such as Kurt Vonnegut and Ray Bradbury to Gary Larson, the humorist/cartoonist who created “The Far Side” comics. Bowne even offers up a few of his own efforts for students to critique, such as a story about a college student who becomes a vegetarian after learning about energy flows and reducing resource consumption.
“It’s not like I’m trying to turn them into vegetarians—I’m not one myself—but it gets them thinking about those issues. … I find it’s a really good way to engage students in a topic that they might not think about, and it opens the doorway to a lot of cool discussions,” he said. “Basically, giving them additional tools to analyze the world around them. … Imagining different futures, which is what the creative process is all about, but we have to understand where we are now, which is where the science comes in.”
Bowne also encourages student research and includes them in much of his own, such as through the multi-institutional Ecological Research as Education Network he helped create. The association tackles geographically large issues—the impact of urban development on turtle populations, for example—on a small budget through coordination with all of the institutions in the network.
While all the options could seem to some like overload, they’ve proven essential for students who arrive on campus with some inkling of where they want to be but lacking details on how to get there.
Erin Johnson ’12, environmental science, credits her research with Bowne for getting a second look by graduate schools. The research, which involved soil respiration comparisons, has been accepted for publication in the Soil Science Journal of America and provided her with opportunities to present their findings at several academic conferences.
An environmental career seemed a far cry for Johnson, who came to E-town from her hometown in New Jersey with little focus. After taking an entry-level class with Bowne, she recognized parallels between the concepts and experiences from her youth, and she dedicated herself to aquatic ecology.
“All of the sudden, I was like, ‘Yeah, I do like water—duh!’ … I didn’t even realize I had those meaningful connections” from her past, she said. The revelation led to her to studying abroad in Costa Rica, which led her to a first job with AmeriCorps focusing on watershed issues, followed by her current job with the Izaak Walton League of America, where she heads a youth-focused watershed-education program.
“I think that it’s definitely from the minute I decided to do environmental science, it was the right path,” she said. “Once you find something you like, the rest doesn’t feel like closing doors. It feels like more direction.”
The same holds for Aleah Miller ’13, biology. “I had no idea what I wanted to go into, and I chose to major in biology because it’s what I was good at in high school,” she said. “I knew I wanted to devote my career to sustainability within the first week of being in Dr. Bowne’s class. … Learning concepts in the classroom really made it hit home.”
That led to her to studying policy for a semester in Washington, D.C., through which she met an American University professor who would—several years, various jobs and endless networking later—offer her a position at Engage Globally, the professor’s start-up nonprofit, where she works as a communications and development coordinator.
I give E-town pretty much as much credit as I possibly can give.
Gabriel Chong ‘08
Miller credits her current career with the relationships she’s developed along the way. “I think the world of environmentalists can be so small; you work with someone someplace and a few months later…,” she said. “Building those relationships is so important and really giving the project you’re given your best is so important for moving forward.”
Choosing a major wasn’t an issue for Autumn Phillips ’12, environmental science, who grew up in the woods of Waynesboro, competed in EnviroThon, a high-school competition, and knew that’s what she loved. At E-town, she received a “Treehugger Award” for measuring all 755 trees on campus to determine their carbon-storage capacity and whether the campus was carbon-neutral.
That work led Phillips to getting a master’s degree. She is now the land manager at the American Chestnut Land Trust in Maryland and looking forward to a career remediating degraded environments.
“There’s something satisfying to me about going into an area that’s in bad shape and making it better,” she explained.
Gabriel Chong ’08 electrical engineering, feels the same fulfillment in solving a design problem. As an engineer for Johnson Controls Inc., he now designs the solar-energy and energy-storage systems that he used to install early in his career. “I used to complain about what people would do wrong with designs,” he explained. “When I got to go inside (to design projects), I was able to streamline and speed up the process by avoiding mistakes.”
Like many others, Chong’s career path formed unexpectedly, and has been aided by networking. He came to E-town only after an unplanned meeting with a recruiter about his goal to be an engineer. Once there, he was pushed by faculty members into working on the campus’ then-new solar cabin and “just kept going in that direction.” The hands-on work there gave him an advantage over contemporaries interested in the young industry and, through coincidental family connections, he was offered a position installing photovoltaic arrays in his native Hawaii. By 2012, he was the president of the industry’s trade association and used his connections to find his current position.
Chong is hardly alone when he says couldn’t be happier with his path, no matter how surprising it has been. He encourages current students to take advantage of the resources and faculty members at Elizabethtown because they might surprise themselves, too.
“I give E-town pretty much as much credit as I possibly can give,” he said.
And it’s that kind of feedback that keeps the College sustainable.