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TCU Magazine

Taking out the trash has become the mission of every Horned Frog as students, faculty and administrators look for ways to conserve natural resources. A spoon made from potato is an excellent start in TCU's quest to become clean and green.

By Kathryn Hopper

The burning issue of Melissa Crutchfield's generation isn't the Iraq War, Barack or Hilary versus McCain or whether Paris Hilton will ever settle down.

It's recycling bins.

Consider the fact that Crutchfield, a sophomore education major, and classmate Jon Akins, a sophomore business/accounting major, spent Earth Day gathering signatures for a petition asking campus administrators to place more of the bins around campus. By 4 p.m. that April day, the fresh-faced duo had gathered more than 150 signatures and expressed renewed optimism that they and other Horned Frogs could make a difference in saving the planet.

"If we don't do something then who will?" Crutchfield said. "We have to do something. We are the future."

On college campuses across America the three Rs now stand for Reduce, Reuse and Recycle. Many students are embracing a more sustainable lifestyle that includes riding bikes and buses, eschewing plastic for reusable bottles and using biodegradable Spudware to enjoy locally grown, organic vegetables.

The green youthquake movement is spurred by increasing media attention on global warming ignited by former Vice President Al Gore's 2006 documentary "An Inconvenient Truth" and, more recently in "The 11th Hour," a Leonardo Di Caprio-narrated feature that filled Palko Hall in a recent campus showing.

TCU students also find inspiration from fervent faculty who preach the politics of sustainable living and give class credit for cutting carbon footprints and posting eco-awareness videos on YouTube.

"A profound and exciting cultural shift is going on at TCU," said Keith Whitworth, a sociology instructor who teaches the popular new "Sustainability is Sexy" course, which will soon be required for students in sociology, criminal justice and anthropology. "If we do things at TCU as a community then we're an example to the wider community and we can join with other communities to form an even wider movement."

Don Mills, vice chancellor for student affairs, said today's eco movement is stronger and more widespread among students than in the 1970s, when the first Earth Day was launched.

"In the '70s, people were concerned about the environment because it was the right thing to do. We had to be stewards of the Earth," he said. "But now there's a political aspect to it. We need to do this because our future depends on finding the right answers to some very hard questions."

So the university is mobilizing the troops in a big way. In the spring, the annual Joint Assembly focused on greening the ivory tower. It invited representatives from the Faculty Senate, Staff Assembly and Student Government Association to outline what the university is already doing and talk about new eco-friendly initiatives.

Next fall, solutions large and small will be the focus of the Think Purple, Live Green theme semester, which will include bringing well-known personalities in sustainability to campus and offering classes and workshops on making human economic systems last longer and have less impact on ecological systems.

"The primary goal of the theme semester is to encourage members of the TCU community to participate in sustainable activities and learn how they can lower their carbon footprint," Whitworth said.

It's really just a continuation of sustainability efforts the university has quietly undertaken for some time. Under the watchful eye of Will Stallworth, associate vice chancellor for facilities for more than 15 years, the university has been cutting energy use and reducing waste. For example, the university operates three chiller plants on campus that crank out ice overnight, which is then used to cool buildings during the day. TCU has also upgraded heating and air-conditioning systems to improve efficiency and even put in larger electrical cables, which can, ironically, lessen energy use, said Harold Leeman, associate director of major projects.

The Physical Plant has also downsized, where possible, from full-sized trucks to compact vehicles and electric golf carts to lower costs and reduce emissions.

The lush landscape and plentiful flowerbeds on campus require water and while some think the university could use more drought-tolerant, native vegetation, administrators say the focus for now is making sure sprinklers are only used when needed. Leeman said 95 percent of campus sprinklers have been upgraded to automatic, meaning they don't run when it's raining.

"We've reduced our water consumption considerably in the last six years," he said. Even Frog Fountain has gone a bit green with a wind sensor atop a nearby colonnade that slows or shuts off flow during powerful, prolonged gusts.

"We're trying to keep the water in the fountain as best as we can," Leeman said. "We used to get calls saying, 'Hey the fountain is going crazy,' so we had to send someone over to turn it off, then a couple of hours later someone would call and say, 'Hey, the fountain's not working.' It was hard for us to see what was going on."

Unfortunately, Horned Frogs haven't always been recognized for their ecological efforts. The College Sustainability Report Card, which grades colleges on their green practices and policies, gave TCU a D+ in this year's report, marking it down for not having a formal sustainability policy or campus coordinator, and for not disclosing its endowment holdings or restricting them to eco-friendly investments.

Provost R. Nowell Donovan said the report, which is funded by the Sustainable Endowments Institute, has an underlying agenda of guiding college investments and policies.

"That report came out of a left-wing think tank that is opposed to the capitalist ethic in any case," said Donovan, a geology professor and driving force behind the creation of TCU's Institute for Environmental Studies. "In my mind, that's a bogus rating for TCU. It's a politically charged document, and it's not entirely honest."

But that doesn't mean TCU is taking the issue lightly. In the spring Donovan assembled a planning council of faculty, staff and students to assess the university's efforts to cut energy and reduce waste.

"We are going to integrate our actions in a common sense way," Donovan said. "How can we improve our energy use to be less wasteful, what landscaping actions can we take to maintain the beauty of the campus while better managing our natural resources? These are the kinds of things we'll be examining."

The council's formation comes as Chancellor Victor Boschini Jr. weighs signing the American College and University Presidents' Climate Commitment, a commitment to take measurable steps toward sustainability that has already been signed by more than 500 colleges and universities. Specifically, the commitment requires the college to reduce its carbon dioxide emissions. The ultimate goal would be to achieve "carbon neutrality," meaning the campus would offset any remaining carbon emissions with counter efforts that benefit the environment.

"It's a very ambitious document - hugely ambitious - and in my opinion, a lot of it's unrealistic and not doable," said Donovan. "Some parts of it we can easily do and that's what we'll concentrate on."

TCU has already undertaken many of the initiatives spelled out in the commitment, including buying Energy Star-certified products and encouraging use of public transportation. But several of the steps outlined in the commitment trouble Donovan. For example, universities that sign on promise to make climate neutrality and sustainability a part of the curriculum.

The straight-talking Scotsman bristles at that, saying: "I don't even know what the term carbon neutrality means, and I'm not sure how you measure it."

And while he believes every student should be exposed to the ins and outs of environmental issues, he doesn't like requiring every student to take a class on the topic.

"Graduate students may be here to study English, history or chemistry, not necessarily carbon neutrality," he added.

The agreement also expects institutions to establish a policy to offset all greenhouse gas emissions generated by air travel paid for by TCU.

"This one is particularly ugly," Donovan said. "It hits students going overseas to study and faculty going overseas to conferences who might want to take students with them.

"My job is to provide balance - to find great ideas and say, 'This one makes sense for TCU,' or to say, 'This is a fine idea but it doesn't make sense for TCU,' or 'This is a fine idea, and if we modify it, it might make sense for TCU.' "

Donovan sees the planning council evolving into an Environmental Council that will involve various campus groups, particularly students, and report annually to the chancellor.

"The mere fact that we sign this commitment is not the driving force," he said. "The driving force is what TCU wants to do about the environment. The commitment is simply a way of trying to hold our feet to the fire."

Taking the LEED

The new Brown-Lupton Student Union offers an opportunity for TCU to have its first building certified in Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Green Building Rating System. (The U.S. Green Building Council rates new construction for sustainability, indoor environmental quality and energy efficiency among other things, awarding four levels of certification: certified, silver, gold and platinum.)

The Union made the grade - almost. Leeman said the building fell a few points shy of getting the most basic "certified" accreditation, earning a score of 23 instead of the required 26, mainly because of physical and financial constraints. For example, LEED required the building to have a 30,000-gallon water tank to hold rainwater and other gray water for reuse in landscaping.

"The union is built on solid rock," Leeman said. "So excavating that tank would have been difficult to do on our budget."

But he is optimistic the building can earn LEED accreditation in a year as an existing building because those construction issues wouldn't be taken into account. The building does have paints low in volatile organic compounds, which can diminish air quality, and carpets made of recycled materials. Furniture will be made from wood harvested using sustainable practices.

The union will also have high-tech eco-friendly features such as carbon dioxide sensors in large conference rooms that can sense how many people are in a room and quickly adjust the heating and air-conditioning.

"It's an automatic thing instead of someone running in and saying, 'Oh man, I'm having a big meeting. I better turn down the air-conditioning beforehand,' " Leeman said.

He also added that as the old Student Center is torn down, every effort would be made to re-use and recycle the materials from the demolition. The concrete will be crushed to reuse in roads.

The new Clarence and Kerry Scharbauer Hall, which will rise in the place of the Student Center, was designed to maximize energy. For example, large classrooms were put on the east side of the building so they wouldn't bake in western-facing windows on hot afternoons.

Leeman expects the building to gain silver-accredited LEED status, one of only 40 or so in the Dallas-Fort Worth metro area.

"This is almost cutting-edge and we're really working hard to make it happen," he said.

Getting students involved

The turnout of more than 200 students at a recent Earth Day Concert for the Macaws thrilled Gretchen Wilbrandt, a junior English and environmental studies major, who worked to stage the event for Adduco Viridis: TCU Environmental Club. The concert helped raise more than $1,500 to fund habitat for endangered green macaws in Costa Rica. This spring, the club also adopted 27 acres in Trinity Park along the Trinity River, where members spent a sunny April afternoon picking up trash.

Last semester, the club's outreach included showing the "11th Hour" documentary followed by a question and answer session with Mike Slattery, director of TCU's Institute for Environmental Studies; Brian Boerner, director of Fort Worth's Environmental Management Department; and Stephan McGuire, co-producer of the film. The event drew support from other student activist organizations such as Frogs for Fair Trade, Peace Action and the Society of Sustainability.

Refreshments were locally produced organic fruits and juices from the farmers' market that were served on plates and cups students gathered from local thrift shops. Afterward, students gathered the second-hand dishware in a laundry basket and carted it all home for washing.

"It's not that hard to just do a few things," said Wilbrandt, who travels with her water bottle hooked to her backpack. "We're trying to show students you don't have to been all earthy to be green."

That's the same point Mark Bloom, assistant professor of science education, makes to the 180 or so students who take his class "Contemporary Issues in Biology" each semester. As a final assignment, he asks each student to come up with five small things they can do to cut down on their energy use. He calls it the "Environmental Footprint Challenge."

"The idea came to me when I was brushing my teeth," he said. "I realized that I had always left the water running while I brushed. One day I measured how much water I wasted. It was a gallon of water I didn't use going down the drain. Multiply that three times a day, 365 days a year, and it adds up.

"So I tell my students if each of them turns the water off, and there are 180 of them, we could be saving thousands of gallons," he said.

"It helps them to realize you don't have to go out and buy a hybrid car or stop driving entirely," he said. "You can do little things like parking and going inside a restaurant instead of running your engine 10 minutes in the drive-through. It doesn't have to be a major expense or inconvenience. In fact, there's often the cascading effect, you use less energy, you spend less money and have less stress."

He applauds the university's efforts to cut energy consumption even though those efforts cause him to flap his arms from time to time as he sits in his office inside the Bailey Building.

He isn't trying to fly. He's turning the lights on.

"When they renovated the building they put in these sensors," said Bloom, "If they don't detect any movement after a while, they turn out the lights."

So if he sits particularly still at his computer screen, he finds himself suddenly engulfed in darkness.

"If it happens during the day I often notice I don't really need the lights, so I get up and turn them of," he said. "The sensors not only save energy, but they let me know I've been sitting too long and could use some exercise."

This fall, a select group of students will get practice in green living in a new living-learning community dubbed "Green House." Located on the third floor of Amon G. Carter Residence Hall, the community will have 42 students and a resident assistant. Hall Director Rachel Siron said faculty members will work with students on projects such as an off-campus organic community garden and contests for recycling and turning off lights.

"We've gotten a real mix of students," she said. "Some are just interested in learning more about sustainable living while others are fully immersed in the lifestyle."

Frog Camp is also offering a green option this summer with a new experience called "Eco." Located near Rockwall, the camp won't mean totally roughing it (cabins are air-conditioned), but participants will spend time exploring sustainability initiatives and service projects.

They will also ponder at how sustainability relates to TCU's mission statement: To educate individuals to think and act as ethical leaders and responsible citizens in the global community.

Donovan said it's crucial for TCU to provide leadership both locally and globally as humankind grapples with providing for the planet's current inhabitants while also protecting its bounty for future generations.

"My mantra, which I've used for all my life, basically is: We've only got one planet. Let's not screw it up," he said. "It's a fairly simple statement, but behind that is a vastly complicated network of thoughts and actions."

Comment at tcumagazine@tcu.edu.