California’s colleges and universities are going green at breakneck speeds and, though there’s plenty of support from administrators, faculty, and staff, the students are truly leading the way.

That was the oft-echoed sentiment this week at UCSB, which for the fourth time in just eight years hosted the UC/CSU/CCC Sustainability Conference, where more than 500 of the state’s brightest minds in higher education converge to show off their latest successes, discuss similar hurdles, and collaborate toward a more eco-friendly future. The four-day conference kicked off on Sunday with tours and finished Wednesday with workshops, but the bulk of the programming was Monday and Tuesday, with each day featuring keynote addresses at Campbell Hall as well as smaller presentations on 13 distinct “tracks,” ranging from the basics of water, waste, health, food, building, transportation, and energy to the more heady topics of social equity, research and curriculum, procurement, and institutionalizing sustainability.

Opening Talks

The sold-out conference, which was also webcast to more than 27 locations around the country, kicked off on Monday morning with a welcome from UCSB’s Ron Cortez and then some opening remarks by Bonnie Reiss, a longtime friend of Maria Shriver and Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger who was the governor’s senior advisor for many years and is now a UC Regent. “Each of you are leaders in the modern environmental movement,” she told the crowd in Campbell Hall. Instrumental herself in passing California’s “landmark” bill on carbon cap & trade, Reiss said that ending reliance on fossil fuels was the era’s most important challenge. “What you’re doing right now will determine,” she said, “when they look back in 100 years, did we meet this challenge or didn’t we?” The optimist-by-nature said she believes “that this story will have a happy ending.”

Following Reiss was keynote speaker Dave Newport, the director of the environmental center at the University of Colorado-Boulder. Explaining that he had heard this conference had the brightest minds and best ideas of any gathering of its sort, Newport shared that he had been told to keep his talk “somewhere between ‘big picture’ and pipe sizes,” a nod to the wide-ranging philosophies that were to unfold alongside very technical details about how to put those ideas in action. Newport started his “Making Sustainability Social” talk by delivering some pretty grave realities about environmental inequality, specifically that it’s the least wealthy, least educated, and “least white” people who bear the brunt of the climate change burden. With more than 300,000 people dying each year due to climate change and economic losses to the tune of $125 billion, the climate change problem is not a future matter, but a problem that needs to be handled today. “This chunk of rock is going to be just fine,” said Newport referring to those who worry we’re hurting the earth itself. “What we’re really doing is killing the people on it.” After showing slides of the Bay Area and Los Angeles showing how minorities live closest to the most toxic areas – a problem for both physical well-being and mental health – Newport poignantly referred to a 1968 Martin Luther King, Jr. speech in which the reverend worried about the “appalling silence and indifference of the good people.” Will we, asked Newport in King’s words, be “the children of the light” or not?

Luckily, he sees the solution as connecting eco-movements with the immediate human impacts. And many of those impacts are the natural results of sustainable movements – buying organic, locally grown food, for instance, cuts down on carbon emissions due to less driving, supports a nearby farming family, keeps you healthier, and so on. “The best way to preserve the environment through sustainability is to focus on people first,” said Newport.


Emerging Technologies in Water

Tracking Evapotranspiration: Why do we water our lawns and landscaping more than we need to? UC-San Diego is using wireless monitors on rooftops and fields to track “evapotranspiration” on his campus, where they use 366,000 gallons of water a day on landscaping. By understanding what water leaves the ground during any given period, the campus will only have to water what’s disappear, rather than applying large amounts of water everywhere. Kleissl is integrating the technology of an emerging company called Aquacue, which helps companies and institutions track their use of water by compiling an “aqua-score.” When implemented, one department building can compete against another department, all in the challenge to keep water use down. Soon, it seems that this real-time technology could even be used in households.

Making Wine from Less Water: Did you know that it takes six bottles of water to fill one bottle of wine? That dilemma is at the heart of UC-Davis’ to-be-built Robert Mondavi Institute, a 31,000-square-foot headquarters for the school’s winemaking, brewing, and food science studies. With state-of-the-art in sustainability that includes LEED certification, green cleaning chemistry, stormwater catchment, and the goal of zero net water, the institute intends to dramatically reduce use of water in wine and beer making. To get that six-to-one ratio down closer to one-to-one so, they’re focusing on cutting down the water used in cleaning, which is the bulk of the waste, by adapting the dairy industry’s cleaning-in-place technology that was created in the 1960s. The technology uses less water and less chemicals, but saves times and is more reliable than current methods. What’s the hold-up then? That’s what they hope to find out when the facility becomes operational around next year’s crush.

Making “Less-Bad” Cities: UC-Davis’ Josiah Raison Cain is an expert on water flow and is working across the state to “make less-bad cities.” He explained, “We’re trying to force water to move through our cities, which are inherently out of sync with the way water wants to flow.” That leads to such manmade catastrophes as flood, droughts, and heat waves (the number one “natural disaster” killer, in fact), because the water can’t go where it needs to, which is essentially back into the ground and the underlying aqueducts. He is trying to “intercept” that water with his designs, which include living roofs and living walls, whereby plants are laid on rooftops or on exterior and interior walls. Not only do living roofs attract butterflies, hummingbirds, and, he hopes, migratory bird species that otherwise fall prey to house cats, they also happen to increase nearby solar panel efficiency by 30 percent. And those are just a few of the “cascading manifests” that come from green-ifying developments. Other possible living roof ideas include greenhouse projects, which would fit nicely on the massive roofs of grocery stores, and Cain said that “two major national chains are very interested in this process.”

Among other projects – including a fancy off-the-grid environmental education institute near San Francisco – his students are at work designing the state’s agriculture department building in Sacramento. Among other ideas there are chicken coops under solar panels on the roof and rotating live walls of greenery to feed resident goats. If Sacramento spent $18 billion to green-ify the city, he said, it would only take 20 years to make it back.

Institutionalizing Sustainability

Fixing Dorm Waste: UCLA recently hired a new solid waste contractor and made composting a massive part of the deal, which is one of their strategies to reach the UC-mandated 75 percent diversion rate by 2012 and zero waste goal of 2020. They also taught the students and staff with hands-on recycling and sorting exercises, and empowered the students to start Waste Watchers, which calculated that each UCLA students wastes about 0.23 pounds of food – roughly equivalent to a cheeseburger – every day. The morale of the story, said UCLA’s Rob Gilbert, is that universities “have an influence, as a large buyer, as to how the corporations do things.”

Teach Green: Chico State’s Scott McNall started his talk with admittedly passionate language about how the planet has reached carrying capacity, about how we’re running out of natural resources, how more people are dying now due to lack of water rather than lack of food, and so on. And yet, people are not reacting as if an asteroid is coming toward the planet, which is analogous to what’s happening. “Who’s got a problem?” he asked. “American universities have a problem.” That’s because higher education is tasked with teaching the next generation, yet”the depth of the crisis is not understood on our campuses,” said McNall. So it’s time for a change of vision. “This is not about recycling cans and bottles,” he said. “It’s about recycling our values.” He believes that all disciplines should include some lesson plans to include sustainability, whether you’re teaching chemistry or psychology.

While the UC system has a climate action plan, the CSU system does not said McNall’s colleague Halli Bovia. “We need a chancellor’s mandate in our system for climate policy,” she said, explaining that there is no top-down guidance. “We need to have some continuity if we’re going to be effective at all.”

Environmental Studies Stalled: Santa Monica College’s green successes have been attained in an “organic, non-linear way” according to professor Pete Morris, but their one failure is evidence of bigger statewide problems. Despite hard-fought efforts to establish an environmental science and/or studies track approved at the community college level, the school’s plans have been shot down. That’s unfortunate, because many people want to study that as a major, yet they aren’t able to get ahead at this level.

Rethinking Diversion Rates and Innovations in Waste Management

Recycle Lab Junk: The UCSB Laboratory Research and Technical Staff (LabRATS), have developed a new web-based surplus inventory program, which aims to reduce unneeded waste, avoid the cost of new items, and extend the productive life of campus resources. The online system, modeled after eBay and Craigslist, is essentially a redistribution program for surplus equipment. The process is digital: a UCSB employee posts an item to the surplus system, which checks the central computer database to determine the owner’s department, and sends an email. The owner in the department reviews it to check for any title issues, and see if they want to keep the item. After this process, equipment management completes the final review and releases it to the campus where it is displayed online, allowing for transfer to and use by another department.

Zero Waste for All: UC-Davis is continuing to build on their zero waste event goals. According to Lin King, program manager for the R4 Recycling Program and UC Davis, the way to begin developing zero waste events is to begin with the end in mind, focus on education and promotion, and make it easy. Ways to keep events low or zero waste are to make compost and recycling bins easily available. A new strategy used at UC-Davis events is the use of reusable dishes and utensils, which are returned to the vendors after being washed by the students. It is also crucial at zero-waste events so involve caterers and vendors that are willing and able to support and maintain the goals of the efforts to eliminate waste.

New State Diversion System: A new per capita disposal measurement system (SB 1016), has now replaced the previous diversion rate measurement system. The new measurement system was developed because stakeholders wanted the system changed, the old system was too complex for cities and counties, and there was too much emphasis on numbers instead of program implementation. With the new system data is provided earlier, goal measurement is simplified, and uses a case-by-case review instead of using comparisons nationwide.


Don’t Fake the Funk: Greenwashing is a rapidly spreading marketing strategy used by companies, advertising their product as environmentally friendly to attract consumers who are drawn to eco-friendly products. However, “green” claims are increasing, and often misleading consumers regarding the environment effects of a product. There are various ways in which companies can fool consumers into believing they are purchasing something that will not harm the environment. One common strategy is advertising a single attribute, which when examined in a complete environmental assessment is less significant than presented. Another strategy is vague claims that are poorly defined and easily misunderstood by the consumer. The popularity of false labeling has increased. Many companies now create their own logos that look like a stamp of approval, but in reality have no credibility in the assessment of environmental safety.

Beware the Fakers: Avoiding greenwashing is only possible through the examination of each claim made, such as eco-safe or eco-friendly. Alicia Culver, owner and executive director of the Green Purchasing Institute, explained that the environmental impact of a product is not as easily defined as good or bad, there are different “shades of green,” such as the amount of recyclable content, bio-based content, or mercury content. She also focused on the increased popularity of EPP’s, or Environmentally Preferable Products, which are those with a reduced negative effect or increased positive effect on human health and the environment when compared to competing products that serve the same purpose.

Sustainable Food Education

Representatives from UC Santa Cruz and Cal Poly Pomona illustrated how to “get things to move beyond the classroom” in a presentation on Food Sustainability. The speakers also tackled the issue surrounding a university’s obligation to support the sustainability of its surrounding region. “How can UCSB contribute to the Goleta Valley area?” moderator Megan Carney asked. UCSC supports the Community Agroecology Network (CAN), an international organization that connects students with farmers all over the world to help develop healthy food systems. CAN specializes in the coffee trade, and sends students all over the world to “get out of the classroom” and explore food sustainability firsthand. Rosemary Squires, a graduate student at Cal Poly Pomona, introduced the school’s new program, “Garden to Table.” The student-led outreach program coaches novice gardeners in sustainable gardening and cooking practices for free on campus. Pomona’s program emphasizes the sustainable food movement’s strong local ties, as well as its emphasis on community development.

Green Collar Jobs

Sustainable Careers: Los Angeles Trade Tech, already involved in green workforce development, is integrating sustainability into courses throughout the campus. Efforts are being made in areas including green construction, sustainable land-use and real-estate development, alternate fuel systems technology, and sustainable design architecture. The school is also working to develop career pathways, which map out the steps towards job advancement in the green job industry. The Los Angeles Community College District now has a renewable energy and sustainability program, which focuses on reducing energy and water consumption, and reducing our carbon footprint, among other things. They are incorporating the study of renewable energy technologies including concentrated solar power, wind, bio-mass, geothermal, hydrogen, and electrical energy. The department of energy is planning to prepare students for a green career.

Green Job Info: New information regarding the development of the green workforce is now being consistently collected by the Center of Excellence. Using regional studies, it has been estimated that the industries most likely to be connected to the green economy are engineering, building, public administration, agriculture, and energy production and utilities. The study of green workforce also helps to identify the needs and occupations that are most relevant to the industries, and the demands of employers. In a summary of findings, the Center of Excellence estimated the top employment opportunities for the green industry to be renewable energy training programs, green engineering technician programs, and environmental policy.

Closing Session

With so much evidence of student involvement in the conference and on campus, it made sense to have the closing session start and end with the current and incoming student UC regents, D’Artagnan Scorza and Jesse Bernal, respectively. As he introduced a panel of representatives from each of the 13 tracks, Scorza opined that “the sustainability movement has never been in a better position” because “crisis meets opportunity.” Just that afternoon, in fact, the UC system had passed a new requirement into their sustainability mandates that will require campuses to use 20 percent sustainable food sources by 2020. Following that, each of the tracks’ reps gave a little discussion of what was learned. Here are some highlights:

Silas Snyder, UC-Santa Cruz, waste reduction and recycling track: Happy to see recycling going beyond cans and bottles and into electronics, but said “we need to get our compost on.”

Dave Weil, UC-San Diego, water track: Concerned that the regulations have not caught up to the innovation. “We need to go back to our regulators.”

Charlotte Strem, UC Office of the President, transportation: After a year of negotiation, the UC and CSU systems have finally come to a contract with ZipCar for car sharing on all campuses, so long as a campus enters into the agreement. Also discussed the problem of lead tire balance weights on our vehciles, which are polluting our water, but can be replaced usually for free. “The final action is to get on your bike.”

Melinda Riley, Butte College, research curriculum: Happy to see so much student involvement. “Students are co-creating.”

Mark Stemen, Chico State, student affairs: It’s the third year of this track, and “the students have jumped out of the track and started leading other tracks,” he said, which is a great sign. “The next step we need to take:is sideways,” he said. “Get out of their way and let the students go.” Added comment: “The revolution will not be televised. It’s going to be on Facebook.”

Len Pettis, CSU Office of the Chancellor, energy: “We need to stop building buildings in the 21st century with 20th century technology.”

Kathy Cunningham, UC-Santa Cruz, procurement: Good news is that “people understand the difference between greenwashing and green cleaning.” Advocated for having sustainability moved up to at least be 20 percent on the cost-per-quality contracting ratio in the UC system.

Nurit Katz, UCLA, social equity: When she started attending the conference, there was no social equity track, so it’s existence is a sign that equity is becoming a tighter component of the environment-economy model. She called equity the third leg of the sustainability stool, saying that people are starting to “recognize how interdependent they are.”

And during the brief Q&A that ended the conference, Katz responded to a question about how to keep the spirit burning by saying that the sustainability movement is alive and well on state campuses. Best of all, she called the conference the best place for students, staff, and faculty to be reminded that they are not working by themselves.

“You are not alone,” said Katz. “This is a very vibrant, very active community.”

Next year’s conference will be held at the Los Angeles Community College in June 2010.


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