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Notre Dame celebrates Earth Day virtually, reflecting on sustainability progress

| Thursday, April 23, 2020

While many Earth Day events were canceled across the globe, the Office of Sustainability provided resources to allow Notre Dame community members to celebrate the environment indoors on the historic 50th anniversary of the holiday.

In the past few years, the University has prioritized creating a comprehensive strategy to address sustainability concerns across campus after Pope Francis issued his encyclical Laudato Si in 2015, which called on people to take action against environmental degradation.

“I think that gave us a new, and a kind of an enhanced call to action,” Carol Mullaney, the senior director in the office of sustainability, said during a Zoom discussion Wednesday.

Serena Zacharias | The Observer

The Office of Sustainability hosted a Zoom seminar Wednesday presenting on the progress the University has made in the past few years to adopt sustainable practices.

Mullaney and others in the Office of Sustainability highlighted sustainability initiatives and progress Notre Dame has made in the past year in multiple categories, including energy and emissions, water, building and construction and waste.

In terms of energy and emissions, the University broke ground of the hydroelectric generation facility in Seitz Park on the St. Joseph River and announced a solar facility partnership with the Indiana Michigan Power.

“Once commissioned these two renewable energy projects together will supply the equivalent of approximately 15% of the University’s electrical needs purely from renewable sources,” Allison Mihalich, senior program director in the office of sustainability, said.

Notre Dame has also phased out coal burning entirely and commissioned a plant which uses geothermal well fields in order to power Dunne, Flaherty and McCourtney Halls. Fourteen campus buildings now have Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification with Duncan Student Center, Corbett Family Hall and O’Neill Hall receiving the honor just last week.

Mihalich also noted the care Notre Dame facilities have taken with major renovations and reconstruction projects on campus, specifically mentioning McKenna Hall. Since McKenna Hall closed reconstruction, 693 pieces of furniture and fixtures have been distributed to other University departments across campus.

In addition, the Grotto’s asphalt was replaced over the summer with permeable pavers and sidewalks.

“Permeable surfaces are really great for the environment as they reduce the amount of stormwater runoff entering our natural waterways and allow it to naturally drain into the surface,” Mihalich said.

The University also introduced a new food waste system, Grind2Energy, in the past year to reduce the amount of nonconsumable food waste on campus while providing clean energy to a local farm. Since the three systems were installed in the beginning of 2019, Mihalich said over 280 tons of food waste have been diverted from the landfill.

The Office of Sustainability also mentioned progress in the food sourcing, education, research and community outreach. Prior to the cancellation of in-person classes at the University, many of the events slated to occur on Earth Day involved lectures and discussions allowing faculty members and researchers across campus to discuss sustainability work.

As the first Earth Day was organized as a teach-in, Caitlin Jacobs, the associate program manager in the Office of Sustainability, said in an interview that the planning committee wanted to nod to the day’s history by structuring the events in a similar style.

“We agree that calling it a teach-in wouldn’t be quite right because a teach-in kind of implies opposition to the administration and rather we conceived of it as a teach-for the planet,” Annie Gilbert Coleman, an associate professor of American Studies who was involved in planning for the day, said.

While in-person events were cancelled, the Office of Sustainability worked to gather a number of digital resources for students, faculty and staff to honor the planet while staying safe.

Coleman urged faculty members in a letter sent out last week to use the newly-created Take 10 for the Planet page, which Alex Hajek, program coordinator for the minor in sustainability, worked on building. The page offers resources at varying time commitments over a number of disciplinary standpoints to learn more about climate change and the environment. While Hajek said the page is still a work in progress, the website offers resources which can serve as a starting point to learn more about environmental issues.

In place of an exhibit in the Rare Books and Special Collections department of the Hesburgh Library, an online exhibit was created to feature primary sources to learn more about the natural world and policies and campaigns throughout history relating to the environment. Jacobs also provided a list of suggestions of films about sustainability and the climate which can be accessed for free on Kanopy with a Notre Dame net ID and password.

Coleman hopes these resources and the discussions regarding the state of the planet can help shed light on the importance of improving environmental issues, as COVID-19 has made it clear how people, the economy, consumerism and political ideologies are connected to the natural world.

“The virus really is exposing environmental problems we’ve been brushing under the rug for a long time,” she said.

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About Serena Zacharias

Serena is a senior majoring in Neuroscience and Behavior and minoring in Journalism, Ethics and Democracy. She hails from the great cheese state of Wisconsin and currently serves as the ND News Editor for The Observer.

Contact Serena