Campus sees sustainability gains, along with energy management, recycling success

When Western Carolina University’s Staff Senate and Office of Sustainability and Energy Management held an open forum recently, the students, faculty and staff in attendance made one thing clear: WCU’s success in sustainability is a shared responsibility.

WCU is a leader in efficiency and waste reduction for several good reasons, namely participation and program leadership, said Joseph Guseman, a parks and recreation major and chair of the Sustainable Energy Initiative committee, which is responsible for allocating money towards the implementation of renewable energy, energy efficiency improvements, internships and research on campus. The committee’s annual operating budget comes from a self-imposed student fee of $5 per semester.

The forum was held at the A.K. Hinds University Center theater on Wednesday, Feb. 15, with a panel discussion as campus experts fielded questions and gathered input to help guide the university’s sustainability future.

“WCU is committed to helping improve our environment, not only locally as a college community, but globally by influencing the minds of students to be environmentally minded in their future endeavors,” Guseman said. “I also believe it largely has to do with our culture we have here at WCU and the beautiful environment we live in. Students here are aware of the beauty around us and the importance protecting this environment has for us. Therefore, students are always eager to assist.”

Joseph Guseman, a WCU senior, is chair of the Sustainable Energy Initiative committee.

In the last 15 years, WCU has reduced its energy usage by 42 percent and avoided more than $25 million in energy costs through conservation measures. In the last five years, the university’s recycling volume has increased by 85 percent. WCU has been recognized as a “green college” by the Princeton Review since 2010 and received the state Department of Environmental Leadership Award in 2012 and 2016.

Lauren Bishop, chief sustainability officer at the university, said current SEI-funded projects include installing a free, solar-powered electrical vehicle charging station with construction beginning in April, and a multi-year campus tree survey project headed by Diane Styers, assistant professor of geosciences and natural resources. The SEI be accepting new sustainability proposals in March.

“Some of our best ideas come from the minds of students,” Bishop said. “That influences how our office operates. They tend to think outside of the box and are a powerful force, and that keeps us energized.”

Other recent developments include first-time students receiving a personal recycling container and participation in RecycleMania, a national collegiate recycling competition.

Jeff White, WCU’s recycling coordinator, said that the more recyclables removed from the waste stream, “the more money the university saves.” The individual recycling containers allow a personal commitment that quickly adds to the overall recycling efforts, he said.

David King, WCU energy manager, spoke about building efficiency. “If we ask how many miles per gallon your vehicle gets, everybody has an answer,” he said. “Whether it’s 10, 20 or 40, everybody knows that metric. Then, if we ask ‘how many miles per gallon does the house you grew up in get, how many mpg does your current residence get?’” That answer doesn’t come as easily, he said. “The largest energy use in this country by far is commercial and residential buildings, not transportation or the manufacturing industry. There are metrics to measure that, too, but maybe not so familiar. So asking about it gets you thinking about efficiencies, wise use and savings,” he said.

When asked what it is lacking in the sustainability effort, Bishop said communication needs improvement, both across campus and to the Jackson County community as well. “We get caught up in completing our daily tasks and neglect to tell our story,” she said. Educational outreach is a big part of what we do. Recent requests from campus constituents wanting to learn more prompted this forum. We also must stay true to the needs of campus so we can continue to provide support. The feedback we received was very helpful in helping us achieve our shared goals.”

For more information on recycling, energy conservation and sustainability at WCU, contact the Office of Sustainability and Energy Management at 828-227-7442.