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Steady Advances in Sustainability

Vassar’s ongoing efforts to get “greener” are moving fast, as students, faculty, and administrators tackle projects ranging from light bulbs to lawn care. “A lot of people here are working very hard to make the campus environmentally safer and more energy efficient,” says Alistair Hall ’11, the college’s sustainability coordinator.

Sustainability Coordinator Alistair Hall ’11 with student members of the College Committee on Sustainability Juan Pablo Fernandez ’16 and Allison Crook ’14

Hall says he and other members of the College Committee on Sustainability (CCS) continue to work on ongoing initiatives, such as increasing the amount of recycled materials and compost from campus dining centers. In the first nine months of 2013, the college collected an average of 909 pounds of food waste per day—up from 761 pounds per day last year—and converted it into nearly two tons of compost.

“We’re constantly auditing how we’re doing keeping things out of the waste stream,” Hall says, “and we’ll continue to publicize it through new signage this fall.”

CCS is also working with the Buildings and Grounds Department on two new initiatives—curbing the use of potentially toxic lawn chemicals and replacing light bulbs across campus with long-lasting, energy efficient LED (light-emitting diode) or HID (high-intensity discharge) bulbs.

Some plans for “greening” lawn care on campus have already been implemented. Kevin Mercer, manager of grounds for the Buildings and Grounds Department, announced last month that the college had stopped using products containing the potentially hazardous herbicide 2,4-D and replaced it with a product designated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as a “low-risk” herbicide.

“While we recognize that, by definition, an herbicide is designed to kill and, thus, there is no truly ‘green option,’ we believe that overall, Buildings and Grounds is making progress toward a more sustainable lawn care management program,” Mercer says.

Plans are also underway to convert more than three acres of the lawns on campus into grass-and-wildflower “meadows.” Hall says the switch will cut down on the use of gasoline-powered lawnmowers, fertilizers, and weed killers, and the meadows would serve as more effective buffers for runoff into nearby streams.

Students in an environmental biology class taught by Professor Margaret Ronsheim are conducting the preliminary studies for the “meadow” project. Ronsheim says she and other faculty members are also helping architects plan for the use of the open space adjacent to the new Integrated Science Center now under construction along the Fonteyn Kill.

Allison Crook ’14 helps to distribute compost pails to residential houses

David Bishop, manager of mechanical services for the Buildings and Grounds Department, estimates the switch to more efficient lighting would reduce energy consumption by 40 to 70 percent, yielding a positive return on the cost of the new bulbs in less than three years. Bishop says the conversion could yield the college additional cash incentives from local utilities and the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority. The college is currently soliciting proposals from light bulb vendors and is expected to decide on a specific plan by the spring.

CCS’ next major task begins in December, when it considers proposals for the college’s Resource Conservation Fund, a pot of money that supports new green initiatives on campus. The college provided seed money for the fund, and it has been augmented by savings generated by ongoing conservation efforts. This year, $50,000 is available to fund new projects, Hall says. Anyone on campus—faculty, students, and staff—may submit a proposal, and CCS is working on ways to accept suggestions from alumnae/i.

Juan Pablo Fernandez ’16, an intern for the Buildings and Grounds Department and a member of CCS, says he’s encouraged by the progress Vassar has made in saving energy and “greening” the campus. “When I was a high school student, I visited Iceland and Greenland and saw first-hand the effects of global warming—the changes in salmon migration that affected people’s food supply—and that made it real for me,” Fernandez says. “Being a member of CCS is definitely a good way to have your voice heard. It’s empowering to be on a team that sets goals on such important issues and meets them.”

—Larry Hertz

Posted by Office of Communications Wednesday, November 27, 2013