With Sustainability, Small Choices Can Have Big Impact

Sustainability starts with small choices: the decision to recycle a plastic bottle instead of chucking it in the nearest trash can. Or the commitment to wake up a little earlier to ride the bus or bike to campus instead of driving. Sometimes we struggle to make those choices, because the impact seems so laughably small. How will one bottle, or one bike ride, really make a difference?

It may not, in the scheme of things. But when a campus of more than 50,000 people begins working together to make those small changes, the results can be huge. This was the takeaway message of the second annual UT Sustainability Symposium, held Friday in the Student Activities Center.

Students, faculty, and staff from a wide range of offices and programs spoke at the daylong event, and many reported remarkable progress.

Athletics staffer Merrick Mycue shared the successes of the Gameday Sustainability program: 1,300 pounds of recyclables collected from campus tailgates last year. 9.56 tons of plastic collected during the first two home games of the 2011 season alone. And $7 million saved by switching the field from grass to artificial turf.

The amount of food thrown in the trash from Jester and Kingsolving cafeterias has been cut by 50 percent in the past few years, said Meagan Jones, an environmental specialist with the Division of Housing and Food Service.
In 2008, the two cafeterias produced a staggering 112 tons of trash per year. Now it’s just 58 tons per year; the rest is composted. And 95 percent of the serviceware (plates, cups, forks, etc.) in the campus cafeterias is compostable, too.

Housing and Food Service staffers have made innovative changes, such as shrinking the trash hole in cafeteria bins so that dinner plates, which are compostable, won’t easily fit inside it. That clever design compels far more students to put their dinner plates in the compost bin, Jones said.

UT’s janitors used to use 85 different cleaning chemicals, but now they use only 25, reported Corey Wright of Custodial Services. And switching to a better mop and bucket system has decreased their water usage by 70 percent—saving millions of gallons of water per year.

President Bill Powers spoke about the challenges of making sustainability a priority. “On this campus, we have plenty of problems just to get to the weekend,” he said. “And we’re not real good at delayed gratification. We’ve been spending a lot of time on [sustainability], but we’re not there yet.”

Photo: Athletic director Chris Plonsky asks a question during the symposium.


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