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Q & A: Everyday Sustainability

April 21, 2010

What we do each day makes a difference. A team of ASU staff members from university sustainability practices recently discussed at a Sunday luncheon how we can make our daily lives – at home and at work – more ecological.

Participants in the discussion included: Bonny Bentzin, director of university sustainability practices; Betty Lombardo, program coordinator on the Tempe campus; Jehnifer Niklas, program coordinator on the Polytechnic campus; Leslie Lindo, program coordinator on the West campus; Alex Davis, student project developer; Andrew Latimer, student project developer; Eric Tank, student project developer; and Beth Magerman, student project developer.

• Getting from point A to point B can be a challenge, especially in a traffic-laden area such as Phoenix. Obviously, the most ecological and economical mode of transportation is a bicycle and your own two legs – but these are not always options.

What are some green transportation alternatives to biking/walking?

Jehn: Skateboarding offers an opportunity to carpool because it allows you the flexibility to get where you need to get after carpooling, which cuts down on the number of cars driving. 

Leslie: Taking the campus shuttles or public transportation allows you to spend the time being productive which is time that you would lose by driving instead. You can start your workday while in transport. The campus shuttles even have Internet access which makes it more possible to work. Students have classes on multiple campuses can easily take the intercampus shuttles to get to them.

It is important to remember that different days can have a different travel plan. You can be flexible and figure out what are the possible options for a shuttle or carpool or bike on different days. People also have to remember that they can take a bike or walk for close trips.

Bonny: When you take public transportation or carpool, there is a bigger opportunity for social interactions, people-watching or conversations with your carpool – it can be a fun way to start the day. It is a dramatic behavioral shift – the thought is that you lose your independence or freedom, but you might gain tremendous financial benefits and get to know new people. If you’re nervous about it, just start with one day.

• Connecting food and the production of food to sustainability has become more prominent recently, as the documentary "Food Inc." has led people to question like never before what types of food products they purchase and then put into their bodies.

How big a role does food, in fact, play in sustainability? 

Bonny: It’s a big part. Food has its set of environmental and social impact from its production and “miles” – or the impact from its supply chain; politics; and impact on our community’s social footprint. In the United States, we have turned food into a consumer product instead of a source of nutrition and nourishment. We have lost sight of the primary foundation of food.

Leslie: For the health concerns at least, we really want to make a break from the processed food diet, which tends to be carbon or “energy” intensive.

Jehn: As discussed in Michael Pollan’s "The Omnivore’s Dilemma," every time you increase your food’s trip from farm to fork, you are simultaneously increasing fuel and water consumption each leg of that trip. A perfect example would be choosing those processed baby carrots over the raw kind. Rather than being harvested and shipped off to the grocery store, those cute little carrots may travel more than hundreds of miles to a processing plant where they are stripped and cut by heavy machinery. This problem magnifies when you solely subsist on highly corn-based and/or processed food options.

Alex: We lose control over where our food comes from. Also, every time the food is processed we lose nutrition. The processors have to unnecessarily add the nutrients back in.

Leslie: And every step of the processing, water and energy is used. The choices you make when you buy food has a big impact. It is all interconnected.

Jehn: Our food demands are a significant part of our excessive carbon footprint.

Betty: As a local alternative, we have the farmers market monthly on the Tempe campus and the Downtown Phoenix campus.

• There has been an increased effort to lessen the toxicity of products used for cleaning and grooming. But, like food, products that are organic also are more expensive.

In a down economy, can you tell us why it might be worth paying extra for these types of products?

Leslie: A lot of the more “sustainable” cleaning products also happen to be concentrated so although the upfront cost may seem high, the long-term payoff is economically the same, but has a much more positive effect on the environment. When it comes to personal products, retailers such as Trader Joe’s offer organic alternatives that provide affordable organic hygiene products. The trade-off is the long-term unforeseen payoff of treating our environment better and not risking our clean water ways, not to mention you spare yourself that nasty headache when you clean your bathroom with conventional products. This also ties into the long-term health costs associated with the use of harmful chemicals in our daily lives.

• ASU's commitment to sustainability has become more visible on campus.

Where are some places on campus currently using solar energy, greener waste management and recycling practices?

Betty: The universitywide solar initiative already has installed 2.04 megawatts of photovoltaic power on the Tempe campus and has a 4.65 megawatt solar installation underway at West. Plans call for 10 megawatts of solar power capacity by the end of 2010, and 20 megawatts by the end of future phases, which is enough to provide electricity to 2,920 homes. Look up and you will see Solar Power Plants on top of roofs and parking structures at the following locations: Sun Devil Stadium Parking Structure, Global Institute of Sustainability, Lattie Coor Building, Apache Boulevard Parking Structure, Hassayampa Academic Village, Biodesign, Tyler Street Parking Structure, Police Building Parking Canopies and the Weatherup Center.

ASU Tempe Campus Grounds Management recently earned the 2010 President’s Award for Sustainability for initiating programs that convert landscaping waste into compost and harvest sour oranges instead of sending the fruit to a landfill. Between these two programs, more than 240 tons of green “waste” have been kept out of landfills. You may also have noticed the BigBelly Solar compactors. Each unit takes up as much space as an ordinary receptacle, but its capacity is five times greater therefore maximizing staffing and resources. We have recycling receptacles in all of our offices and classrooms along with associated recycling signage.

About a year ago, our Surplus Property established a program called SunSET (Surplus Exchange and Transfer) that serves as an internal “Craigslist.” ASU departments post items that are no longer needed such as office supplies and furniture for other university departments to use. Lastly, we recently added blue recycling tops to the Tempe campus outdoor trash containers. In most cases, we have paired solar and trash bins to make it easier for the campus community to recycle.

• It's hard for people to change, and one of sustainability’s most daunting challenges is just that – change.

What are some simple things you can do at home and at work that take very little time, energy or thought, but make a positive impact on the earth?

Jehn: Reusable bags! Reusable water bottles! It may seem trite or daunting at first, but research shows that it only takes six weeks to change your habits. You will forget your bag(s) many times in the beginning, but don’t get discouraged! After you train yourself to fold it up into your bag or car for long enough, it will begin to feel natural.

Eric: Turning off the A/C when you're not home is a great way to save energy and money, especially during the more expensive or "peak" times.

Betty: Powering down your computer each night. 

Beth: Turning out the lights when you're not using a room is another easy one. These choices really save you a lot of money, which is an added bonus to sustainable practices.

Leslie: Switch to more energy-efficient lightbulbs. The price is much more economical than it used to be, and again, it comes down to the initial upfront investment for long-term payoff.

Bonny: Many utilities companies offer a real-time energy monitoring feature. Call up your respective company and get involved with monitoring your home’s energy consumption.

• Becoming more eco-conscious can feel defeating. It seems like once you turn your attention to one thing, you have turned your back on another. For example, if someone chooses to buy their food from a local, organic farmers market, but has to drive 40 miles to get there, do the environmental positives outweigh the negatives?

How clear are the lines between what is eco-friendly and what is not?

Leslie: It depends on your goals. For example, if you are hosting an event and trying to make the decision between reusable cups or throw-away cups, you need to address if waste aversion or water conservation is your primary goal.

Jehn: There really is no easy answer. Adding to what Leslie said, sometimes a life cycle on a product or choice is easier to understand than others. The cup conundrum may be largely defined by what kind of infrastructure already exists. Do you have a composting facility to send that cup to? If the answer is no, then the recyclable or reusable options are probably your better bet.

With the food example given, yes, while you may travel farther for the local produce, how far did the produce travel that you find at the Fry’s up the street? Is their produce being shipped in from Argentina? Or California? I guess it comes down to informing yourself and making an educated decision.

• Finally, the environmental movement – once considered to be alternative/underground – has come a long way. In this 40th anniversary of Earth Day, we now have a more mainstream term: sustainability.

What do you think the next 10 years will bring? On the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, what habits will we be practicing everyday without even thinking about it?

Leslie: We will be designing buildings better – more efficient buildings with better heating and cooling systems – and with more input from the building occupants, which helps create a better sense of place.

Products that we use will be designed with their entire life cycle in mind, taking into consideration what happens after your electronics die or what happens to leftover chemicals. Renewable energy systems will be more prevalent – even now, the residential solar programs are extremely successful.

Bonny: Our next generation will have grown up in an atmosphere that supports sustainability practices and actions like recycling and bringing your reuseable shopping bags. In other words, understanding the system and impact of our actions will become second nature.

Equate it to the seatbelt evolution – many people didn’t wear their seatbelts in the 1970s. In the 80s the K-12 schools were targeted for education and the kids became the trainers to the adults, then came some state policies, incentives from insurance agencies, some graphic public service announcements and then a national law. Now, the majority of the people in the United States now wear their seatbelts. We are seeing a similar scenario with sustainability.

Beth: We will be more conscious about our waste – who knows where our trash goes? We may even be “mining” our landfills. I think in 10 years we will be much more conscious about how our world works.

Eric: And we will be much more knowledgeable about where our food comes from.