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Committee focuses on environment

Aaron Steiner | Monday, April 23, 2007

When Earth Day was celebrated Sunday, people worldwide took note of conservation and environmental issues – and while Notre Dame said it has been doing that for a long time, University officials also say they have recently renewed their focus.

According to a press release from the newly-established Energy and Environmental Issues Committee, the University has always made environmental stewardship part of its mission, and the new committee hopes to boost conservation efforts on campus through new initiatives and increased awareness about current ones.

“Growing concern for the environment, continued growth of campus … and volatile energy prices have brought a renewed focus on reducing the University’s energy and environmental impact,” the press release said.

The committee, formed this January under the guidance of Executive Vice President John Affleck-Graves, is chaired by Vice President for Business Operations Jim Lyphout and comprised of administrators, faculty and two students.

Junior Kerry O’Connor, who serves on the committee, said it exists to spread awareness about initiatives the University has underway and to advise University leaders on environmentally sound options in any number of decisions.

Being a part of the committee has allowed O’Connor to see that the administration is concerned about the environment, something he thinks is a common misunderstanding among students.

“It’s been very refreshing to know that the University … is taking strides to work on environmental issues,” O’Connor said.

Students for Environmental Action (SEA) president Morgan Dill – who does not sit on the committee – said its formation is “a step in the right direction.”

“I’m glad they’re taking the initiative,” Dill said. She emphasized the importance of bringing environmental issues and any existing environmentally-friendly options to the attention of students.

“They do a lot of things that the public isn’t aware of,” Dill said.

One such initiative may be the University’s recycling program.

In 1990, the University started “Recycling’ Irish,” a program that recycles nearly 133,000 pounds of aluminum, newspapers, glass and plastic every year. Today, not only have the types of qualifying waste increased, but in recent years more than 13 million pounds of waste have been recycled, according to the press release.

Building Services Director and “Recycling’ Irish” coordinator Alan Bigger said that typically the University recycles around 60 percent of its total waste, and this academic year the school has recycled around 65 percent.

“That rate – and the rates of recent years – exceeds most of the national norms, and peer institutions,” Bigger said.

O’Connor agreed that the program has been an achievement.

“It’s one of the University’s biggest success stories, in terms of environmental initiatives,” he said.

Other recent University initiatives include “From Old 2 Gold,” a resale program that sells food and items donated by students – as well as “NDSurplus,” a program that sells any furniture and other equipment Notre Dame’s departments no longer use, the committee’s release said.

Both initiatives are designed to reduce the waste stream coming from the University.

Another recent initiative, involving Notre Dame’s use of fuel, led to the purchase of a hybrid vehicle for the University motor pool, a collection of vehicles that can be rented for campus events.

Perhaps one of the most promising initiatives, Dill said, is the environmentally-friendly design planned for the new multi-disciplinary engineering building, scheduled to break ground this November.

“It’s definitely one of the most important [initiatives]. We build so much here on campus,” Dill said.

She said with any new construction it’s important to look at the impact of new facilities on the environment and the University’ sustainability.

O’Connor said a representative from the Office of the University Architect recently told the committee that whenever the opportunity arises, they will make all new buildings LEED-certified, a national certification for environmental design.

The “green” design of the engineering hall will address water protection, water efficiency, energy efficiency and conservation of resources.

While these initiatives are altogether positive and encouraging, Dill thinks there is plenty for the committee and the University to work on and consider.

“We need to focus on where we’re getting our energy,” Dill said, and “consider what kind of energy we’re getting” from the University’s power plant.

Dill also said older campus buildings could be retrofitted to include updated energy-saving devices like light sensors, among other environmentally-sound changes. Energy-saving techniques across campus – putting cluster computers to sleep overnight, for example – also need attention, she said.

The University, Dill said, should also consider increasing the number of courses it offers that focus on environmental issues and conservation.

O’Connor said the committee will hear suggestions like these and work with groups like SEA during a campus-wide green campaign scheduled this fall.

Dill said she is pleased the administration will involve students.

“I think that’s really key,” Dill said. “The intent of a committee like that is to serve the students and University community.”

Embracing student groups and working from the bottom-up – not just top-down from the administration – is important, she said.

O’Connor said the campaign will focus on ways students can directly become involved in conservation on campus, from reducing energy consumption to increasing recycling, among other things.

“It’s something that we’re really looking forward to, as a committee,” O’Connor said.

A sustainable campus in the near future, he said, is one of the committee’s goals, but he recognized achieving it is a long way off.

“It’s going to be a long process for Notre Dame, but it’s something that we’re striving for,” O’Connor said.