Sustainability in action

Sustainability has been a growing concern among students and faculty on college campuses. Many have formed clubs and created jobs to make campuses around the globe more sustainable. As of May, Truman State University’s sustainability office started tracking their sustainability using STARS — the Sustainability Tracking, Assessment, and Rating System — to ensure they were doing everything in their control to have a sustainable campus. 

The Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education, which maintains STARS, defines sustainability as “a pluralistic and inclusive way that encompases human and ecological health, social justice, secure livelihoods, and a better world for all generations.” 

With STARS, a program specifically for college campuses, Truman is able to track sustainability outreach and publications, sustainability-focused courses, research tied to sustainability and much more. 

When junior economics major Owen Smith joined the Environmental Campus Organization at Truman, he took an interest in updating Truman’s STARS information, seeing it had not been reported on since 2012. He is very passionate about Truman and ensuring it is running efficiently in all areas, especially sustainability.

“I really do care about the University,” Smith said. “As an economist, I hate to see things be less efficient than they could be.”

Smith works with two other students, Blaine Smallwood and Drew Arends, both of whom work in the Sustainability Office, as well as the Director of Sustainability Donna Liss. Smith and his colleagues contact many different departments on campus in conjunction with STARS, as the program has over 25 areas on which universities can submit sustainability data. 

“We are trying to involve a lot of stakeholders across campus,” Smith said. “Folks at the physical plant, printing services … just trying to understand how many natural resources we are using as a university.”

AASHE’s STARS program issues ratings to any institution that submits a sustainability report to it so schools can compare their results and strategies. Some sustainability metrics are more highly valued in STARS. For example, completing a greenhouse gas inventory, used to measure how much carbon dioxide, nitrogen, and other gasses are used, is worth almost 13% of the possible points a university can earn in its submission. Smith and his team’s primary focus is on such an inventory. 

Some Truman students have already completed such inventory for the city of Kirksville. The first group of Truman students to work on a climate inventory in Kirksville began their work during June 2021. Senior Daniel Bagby was the one of the students to help kick off the project.

The climate inventory looks into Kirksville’s greenhouse gas emissions and comes up with a plan on how to lower those emissions.

“I’d say at the very end was the most exciting ‘cause you know we actually saw what our work resulted in, and that was that most of our emissions were from wastewater facilities or anything water related in Kirksville,” Bagby said. “I think it was about 65% of all of our emissions were related to water, so the fact that we did all this work and organized all this data and could actually write it all in a report to the city officials… that was really cool.”

Bagby worked remotely and helped Kirksville’s city planner, Mary Turner, with data collection. The program lasted ten weeks. Once the program ended there was a big push to get more students involved in the coming semesters. Bagby went to classes to encourage students to join the project in the future.

“And at the end of it I talked about actually feeling like I was making a difference and I think I feel that especially now after having kept in touch with these people and given talks to different classes, you know, searching for more future interns,” Bagby said. “It definitely feels like this is something that will be continued in this community and it feels great to have that relationship between city and university.”

Recently, Sophomore Kristin Stein took the climate inventory to produce viable options to decrease Kirksville’s greenhouse gas emissions. Stein worked on the project during the spring 2022 semester.

Stein worked on forecasting and inventory for Turner. According to her, that involved trying to find ways to lower greenhouse gas emissions. With the climate inventory Bagby helped complete, she looked at different changes the city could make to become more sustainable. She used a program called ICLEI to accomplish this. 

“On an average day I would have two screens pulled up on my computer,” Stein said. “One of them would be of the inventory so that I knew where the data was coming from, and then the other screen was the actual ICLEI program and that’s where I would input the data in the correct places. ”

Stein said the process was completely new to her and said it was a challenge to learn the new calculations needed and get used to the computer program. 

“The end goal would be to actually see change happen,” Stein said. “What we learned from what I did is that there are super manageable ways to reduce Kirksville’s carbon emissions that don’t cost much money at all.”

One change that is being considered is implementing more energy efficient light bulbs into downtown Kirksville. Stein said another change could be to alter bus routes to use less gas.

Another important aspect of STARS is creating sustainable classes. There is no perfect example of a sustainable course, but Smith explained that there are two types of sustainable courses: sustainability focused and sustainability inclusive. 

A suitability inclusive class, Smith explained, could be a normal business course with a unit or two on sustainability topics such as carbon neutral purchasing habits. Sustainability focused courses are more traditional sustainability courses, such as those in the environmental science minor. 

There are many tools Smith’s team uses to chart the information they gather, including the Sustainability Indicator Management and Analysis Platform, where they provide information about the electricity usage they obtain. There, they can track data and assess the University’s performance.

“When we get the data, we try to mold it into a usable format that SIMAP and STARS will accept,” Smith said. “It’s been a little tedious at times, but hopefully in the end, it will give us a good picture of how sustainable we are.”

With all of Smith’s experiences with environmental sustainability on campus, there are days that are still quite challenging. In getting all of the information they need for STARS, there are many contacts they need to reach which has proven difficult. Smith mentioned there can be a lot of lag time and there is a certain amount of stress in trying to corral people to get things done in a timely manner, therefore impacting data collection.

There is also a deadline of Dec. 31 due to their subscription timeline. This means Smith and his colleagues are hard at work to submit as many credits as possible to ensure successful sustainability for Truman’s campus. 

Some of Smith’s favorite parts about this project are the people he gets to work with. Even in trying times, his fellow students and faculty lift his spirits and remind him of why he is working on the project. Smith said they all care deeply about sustainability at Truman and can laugh it off when difficult times arise.

“We’ve got this nice little camaraderie now,” Smith said. “We’ve all rolled our eyes at the same email replies and talked about ways in which we can systematically improve sustainability here, so it’s a nice little tight knit group.”

Something Smith and others working on sustainability want Truman students to know is The Environmental Sustainability Fee Accountability Committee allows for “the implementation of large-scale sustainability projects on Truman’s campus.” After talking to the director of the program about what they think could be more sustainable, students are able to submit a project proposal to ESFAC found on Truman’s sustainability page. 

Smith said personal action is the most influential way students and professors can help with sustainability on campus. A simple Google search on the most energy efficient way to set a thermostat in an apartment can go a long way. 

“We like to get people to think about the things that they are doing on a personal basis,” Smith said. “How are you contributing to your personal environmental footprint and the school’s environmental footprint? If everybody made small changes to how they heat and cool their rooms or how long they take their showers — it could make a real difference.”