Jan 122012

Bruk, David, Alex with 6-4 class

This past Tuesday, three members of ESW-Pitt went out to the Shady Side Academy Middle School to talk about solar and wind power with the sixth grade class at the request of their science teacher, Mr. Brunner. Alexander Dale, Bruk Berhanu, and Chapter President David Palm got to spend the day in the school’s community and hopefully spread some knowledge.

For each of the four classes, we did a ~30 min. presentation, looking at our overall electricity sources, the specifics of how wind and solar operate (at a 6th grade level), and some pros and cons for each individual source, and for renewables vs. conventional fuels. Mr. Brunner had a demonstration wind turbine and a basic solar car for demonstrations, and we had some maps of local wind and solar installations to show that you can use these energy sources in SW PA!

The presentations were well received, with a bundle of questions from each class, ranging from discussions about birds and exploding turbines to questions about capturing light from the moon at night or concentrating the sun, something that’s actually being done for high-efficiency panels.

In between classes, we got a smattering of different experiences. These included a tour of the building, which is built around an old mansion (the grand staircase is still very much in use), a cafeteria lunch at the teachers’ table (a new experience for all of us), and a mid-afternoon fire drill on a very nice day. We also got to see the large, south-facing hillsides next to the building – a possible solar project site if ever I’ve seen one – and go to the recycling committee meeting, where we got to mention Pitt’s participation in Recycle-mania and hear about how the school’s composting program is going (very well, tyvm).

It was a great experience for both sides, and something we’d love to repeat either there or at other schools.

Nov 152011

Hey everyone,
On Friday November 10th, 2011. 5 members from Zero Waste Pittsburgh took a tour of Greenstar Recycling, who provides recycling services all the way from Cleveland to Central Pa. They process over 30 tons of recyclables every hour. The following fact sheet summarizes what we learned about recycling in Pittsbugh.

1. What is not recyclable?

Well, just about everything is recyclable. That is if there is a market for it and if it can be easily sorted in Greenstar’s automated single-stream system. Bottle caps, small scraps of paper, and other small pieces often become separated erroneously with crushed glass. Plastic bags also get caught in the sorting system, and large irregular items, such as toy bicycles do as well.

Some things that are not yet recyclable at Greenstar include:

Plastic bag and plastic wrap: You should collect these and take them to Giant Eagle for Recycling. They will bale them on site. In the summer of 2012- Greenstar will partner with a plastic-to-oil recycler that will allow them to take plastic bags.

Aluminum Foil: It is a different composition compared the can aluminum. Can-aluminum has high demand, but the market for the foil is small. Nonetheless if you’re not sure, it’s probably best to to bundle up your used aluminum into a big ball and put it in the recycling. The little pieces will fall in with the glass.

Packing peanuts and styrofoam: It breaks up to easily in the system and becomes mixed with glass. In addition, it’s low melting point allows it to coat the machinery and mess up some of the plastic sorting systems.

Plate Glass: Different kind of glass than the ones that go into making glass jars and bottles. Take these to Construction Junction.

Small irregular pieces of plastic: Small pieces of plastic are indeed recyclable, but they will fall into the glass stream if the pieces are too small.

2. What is recyclable?

There are a few things that we’re never quite sure about when it comes to recycling. The following questionable items are indeed recyclable at Greenstar.

1. Juice boxes. Yes even the ones with the plastic lining and aluminum plastic inside are taken at Greenstar.
2. Paperboard. Consider you’re cereal boxes and milk cartons as recyclable as well.
3. #6 Plastic. As long as it is not puffed up and in the styrofoam type, Greenstar will take and process this plastic. Indeed your Solo cups are recyclable too!
4. Then of course there are the regulars:

Glass containers: Jars, bottles, etc. These do not need to be of any particular size.

Plastics 1-7

Aluminum, tin, and steel cans.

Paper and cardboard. But make sure if you have shredded paper to bag it in a clear bag. When they are torn open, the little shreds of paper fall down to the glass stream and contaminate it.

Does Greenstar Recycle in Pittsburgh?

Yes and no. The City of Pittsburgh’s curbside program recycling is in a contract with another recycling company, Pittsburgh Recycling. They do not have the same recycling practices as Greenstar and may accept different material.

Greenstar does contract with all of the private waste management companies in the area, including Allied Waste and Waste Management among others. See if your building uses one of these companies for their waste management. In this event, your recyclables are making their way to Greenstar. Greenstar also has contracted with most of the municipalities in the area, so if you do not live in the city of Pittsburgh proper, you may want to see if Greenstar is the final destination for your municipal recycling program.

Fun Facts:

Your plastic bottles are often downcycled to make carpet thread.

Milk cartons often get downcycled to make Kleenex and tissues.

Greenstar is operated by ten workers per shift for pre-sorting.

Greenstar is part of a megaconglomerate that spans across the United States and Europe.

Til Next time!

Oct 302011

(The Center for Metropolitan Studies invited David Mazmanian, a public policy professor from USC, to talk this past Friday. These are some thoughts on his talk on civic engagement and climate policy, and what it might mean for Pitt)

The talk was put on by a division of GSPIA, and 90% of the attendance was one policy class (huge!). I’m curious about what the policy students normally get regarding climate change – the conclusions of this talk weren’t all that new to me, and I don’t think they’d be all that new to most people in the more activist-y side of environmentalism. So what were those conclusions?

Mazmanian looked at California’s new climate policy, and found that although it does a good job of affecting (or trying to affect) a lot of major sectors in terms of reducing carbon emissions and mitigating climate change (the effects of which will be felt in a very diffuse way everywhere), it does almost nothing about adaptation to the changes which will already come about, and which will hit much closer to home. Fine – interesting, even, that we’re so focused on mitigation and not on adaptation. Personally, I’m curious as to whether talking about adaptation would require more of an admission of a problem than we’re yet willing to do.

He further talked about the tragedy of the commons, and the idea of solving it through mutual coercion, mutually agreed upon (hooray democracy!). But his final conclusion was that in order to truly and fully tackle the problem, we need a giant shift in our values and ethics.

Wait. What?

That’s the conclusion you get from hippies (no offense intended, hippies :-P). That’s not the conclusion I was expecting – I figured a policy person would have a different response from looking at different angles and approaches, and I was initially disappointed. But I realize that if someone like Mazmanian is coming to the conclusion that the only way to address climate change – both sufficient mitigation and any adaptation – then it should underline the severity and magnitude of the problem. Which is very depressing, because civic engagement and actively created value shifts are Hard. (Caveat: I don’t see Hard as a reason not to do something. But it should make us wary in how we approach it).

On how this relates to civic engagement: the CA plan had very little, and seems to be a pretty decent piece of legislation – insufficient, but interesting. And we probably don’t need more in the traditional sense of ‘call your legislators, right now!’. We do need more in the ‘talk to your neighbors, be interested in stuff, convince people of a different set of what’s important’ sense – and his particular theme was intergenerational. We have no real sense of obligation to our children – most of us, anyway – because they can’t do anything to make our lives worse. And we need to figure out a different logic to policymaking that puts long-term problems like climate change front and center. (Personal note: Rule #1: Children are Important) So we need a *lot* of civic engagement, because our two most promising policy approaches, of slow policy evolution and focusing on related problems such as energy security, probably won’t be enough.

On how this relates to Pittsburgh: How many people that are reading this blog post (which, by my estimates, is maybe 5 of you – though comment and convince me I’m wrong!) have looked at Pittsburgh’s Climate Action Plan? This question came up in relation to CA, but it’s true here too. Similarly, how many people could properly explain the science of global warming, or deal with some of the major myths? (I’m working on some aspects of this – there will be an event post in the next few days). The answer to both of these – and they’re not hard questions, really – is far-fewer-than-it-ought-to-be. So, while we worry about preaching to the choir, the choir probably should be educated on what our cities and municipalities are proposing, as well as being able to talk about why these problems are important. That way, when the questions come up, we’ve already got some ideas of new values figured out (here’s mine, from the summer of 2009, and they remain true), and some answers to people who simply haven’t been exposed to the truth of our environmental crisis.

I think I remain unimpressed by Mazmanian in a lot of ways – his talk was about twice as long as it needed to be, and could have used at least one picture in that hour and a half. But his conclusions, though common in activist circles, are more subtle than they appear because of who they come from, and probably hit an audience that doesn’t hear them all that often – and one which will be involved in policymaking in the future. “Our challenge is to discover a new logic for the basis of policy making”. True enough, sir, though I wish you’d had more guidance on how to do so.

Oct 142011

I got a chance to attend the AASHE Student Summit along with a couple of random sessions Monday and Tuesday.  Most of the sessions I went to focused on campus green funds, since I played a role in developing ours.

Here are some neat ideas that other schools are doing that I learned. Does anyone have any thoughts about incorporating these into our Green Fund or about these practices in general?

  • Have the students pay a fee resulting in a total of $xxx,xxx… then have the university or the university president match that, penny for penny.  This idea was implemented in Canada, and their universities work differently, so I don’t know how feasible it would be here.
  • Have part of the income for the fund come from “taxes” on environmentally destructive things… for example, raise the price of parking and the price of buying plastic bottles, then put all of the extra money from those raised prices into the green fund.  I think this is brilliant and the way things ideally SHOULD work, but in a world that is far too obsessed with economic gain it is impractical, especially if it results in less revenue for the university because people don’t buy the things as much because they cost more.
  • Many other schools, the ones with 6 or 7 digit green funds (like everyone but us) use part of that money to hire an often full-time secretary/coordinator.  It varies school to school – some have professionals and some have students do this.  They also hire a couple interns.  This seems to make the process run very smoothly and allows them to dedicate enough time to using their massive budgets.  It is not feasible or necessary for us now, but if we ever get that much money, we should definitely consider it.
  • UC Berkeley has a policy where their projects can only be done on campus UNLESS the university has some type of negative impact in the surrounding community, then projects can be funded and done in the community if they work toward mitigating that impact.  This is really cool and I’m not sure how much it actually arises, but I think it’s a great policy to have and could help show that the university is a good neighbor.

Many people, including students, administrators at other universities, and a lady from the EPA (!!!) came up to us and were telling me how impressed they were with what we have managed to do with our green fund without having a central office of sustainability or a full-time sustainability coordinator.  That was encouraging, but seeing everything that these schools have been able to accomplish has convinced me that both of these are necessary if we want to take it to the next level.  We put one hydration station in one building, which is definitely a good thing… but UW-EC had enough money to put one in every academic building in one fell swoop.  If our students and our university as a whole is truly dedicated to sustainability, we need to put more money where our mouths are.


On Tuesday, I managed to catch the last 30 minutes of Sandra Steingraber’s keynote address.  Those last 30 minutes were so engaging and awesome that it made me really regret stopping at Au Bon Pain for some wild mushroom soup instead of going to the whole thing.  She is a science writer who works at Ithaca College, and she recently won the Heinz Award.  She donated all her money from the Heinz Award (I think it was a million dollars, but maybe $100,000) to fighting fracking in New York, which is incredibly inspiring to hear.  She said two things and the quotes probably aren’t exactly right, but I thought this first one was just a great way of phrasing the way things are:

“We live in a nation which has no energy policy, and in that void are the business plans of the major energy corporations – Exxon, Halliburton, Chesapeake…”

That’s the truth, pure and simple.  State and local efforts are great, but the real problem stems from the fact that we have no national energy policy but we do have all these corporations with huge national influence and obviously they put their own financial interests first.  This is a problem – we should not be a resource for these companies to use to get what they want, and there should be no void for them to step into.

This second thing she said struck me as something that our administrators would think as incredibly radical, but it got a healthy round of applause from the students and administrators in the audience at the AASHE Conference:

“What if universities were opinion-makers?”

The example she used was of a university (I can’t remember where) that took runaway slaves into their ranks and gave them an education, all this while slavery was still legal.  She talked about (sometimes in the form of statements, but many times by posing questions) what role the university should have in our society.  She believes that we should work toward what is right by paving the way ourselves – the government does not make slavery illegal, then we can at least take a stance that it is wrong and work to educate previous slaves and shape a better world.  A similar comparison can be made to energy policy – we think that doing nothing about global warming is wrong, but the government is not mandating us to do anything… so what we should do is start a massive nationwide university switch to cleaner sources of energy.  Some universities are taking this lead, being opinion-makers by saying that society should not rely on nonrenewables any longer than they need to, so we’re not going to either – and they have goals of carbon neutrality just several years away!  Meanwhile, our university refuses to even make an opinion on the greatest environmental struggle of all time, much less act on its opinion.  Universities once again need to recognize when the human race is misguided and take a firm stand, leading us in the right direction.

Oct 112011

So I’m currently swamped with various things to be written, and didn’t get to go to any of the second day of the conference – but I wanted to add a post on yesterday afternoon, and put up that list of things Pitt could/should be doing. I might have a third post after the tour of Pitt/MCSI tomorrow afternoon (depending on how the conversations with the tour group goes).

Sessions attended:

Development of sustainability courses for the undergraduate curriculum

Three different approaches here – one which was a student led effort to make one day of the intro course all freshmen and transfers have to take focused on sustainability (Babson), one which was a Susty Office effort to teach systems thinking as part of a larger course (UVM), and one which was a lone faculty effort to add susty content to existing courses, slowly spreading out through the disciplines (Ohio Dominion).

(Sidenote: the social media folks introduced me to the term ‘susty’ instead of sustainability, and I love it for typing – it’s much faster and I mistype it far less)

All three of these seemed like very good approaches. Some of the Env. Studies students did some teach-ins during freshmen classes last year, with mixed success, but it wasn’t institutionalized, and it was at the end of the year rather than the beginning. The argument the Babson students made was that people who are new to campus are highly impressionable in terms of setting good behaviors, and that makes a lot of sense. Might be worth looking into, but it would have to be as an FTP/ESW/?? project, not a spring ES class project.

The systems thinking presentation had some great ideas – namely that unsustainability is totally a systems problem, and that ‘programatic responses to systemic problems are entirely insufficient’. As for the unit, whether it would work seems very context dependent. I’ll keep it around as a possibility for future curricula.

The final approach is something I’d like to work on, possibly through the SuSC – getting a little bit of susty content into a few courses, in the closest disciplines first. The lone professor who led this effort (in the hope of getting administrative backing eventually) started with ES/Biology, and then moved to sociology (there’s a lot of stuff to survey), and is now working with capstone courses (lots of design problems here!). We might start with different disciplines, since ES at Pitt is already pretty happy with environmental content, and engineering is fairly amenable to the idea, but the slow approach of focusing on changing current classes seemed to work well both here and in a few other examples that I saw on posters.

Second session: Building a Diverse Sustainability Council (Appalachian State)

This was fascinating – they have a university wide council of 50 people from all across the university, after a previous incarnation of people who were interested and informally attended died a slow death. They got there by making it more formal, and changing how they did things – rather than meeting every month, the full council meets twice a semester – once at the beginning to plan, and once at the end to report. The main work is done by subcommittees, and since they have people from all the important positions (from FM to parking to sports), the subcommittees can be very effective. There are two faculty reps from each school, and they are appointed by their deans – it’s definitely a position with clear responsibilities. They also have a highly functional website (meaning forums, polls, shared documents, etc.) that people seem to actually use to plan. I don’t know whether PE would be sufficient, but it could certainly supply a lot of those roles (more than you might think!).

I then skipped out to go to Becky and Eva’s presentation on Green Funds, which was excellent and very honest during the questions – both Pitt and the previous group had used student efforts to get a green fund, and someone asked about whether either of the schools had an Office of Sustainability (many/most of the schools at AASHE do – and it would be hard to argue that we’re among them). The answer was no, with a certain activist bonus that we have a lot of bureaucracy (particularly compared to the plethora of smaller schools, I’m sure), and a Board of Trustees with a certain amount of fossil fuel represented.


And, to finish, a list of things Pitt might think about doing, based on presentations, conversations, and suggestions:

  • Getting the Green Fee actually implemented as a dedicated funding source
  • Create a gen ed sustainability course (I’m poking at this one)
  • Working with professors to develop a day of susty material for a course or two
  • Hold our leaders responsible for following through on things (how, I’m not sure – leave comments)
  • Educate staff and faculty members as well as students
  • Define some objectives, if not actually setting goals – students could do this regardless
  • Employ more communications people – it’s really hard for all the leaders to find time to write about everything that’s going on, and it would create some great green jobs. This might require an OoS, but we could also
  • Use courses like journalism to pair students with groups that could use reporting – just give them a place to write and a class project that gives them credit. I’m happy to make the accounts on here – and if anyone has ideas for a Pitt news partnership with PE, I’m all ears.
  • Similarly, we should figure out what we know and what we don’t know about Pitt’s demographics – and we should give some sociology classes some projects to figure out the rest. (I’m a big fan of having class projects be useful)
  •  Adding deliverables to [book club] discussions – that’s identifying things people can do at the end of educational discussions. It’s a note on modern times from the social media discussion.
  • Write skeleton proposals for FM for larger ideas, so that we can show a more thought out process and some costs/benefits
  • Create an annual sustainability report for Pitt (unless we have one?). Might require an OoS, but I bet we could figure out a way to do it.
  • Add a form for ‘My idea to improve Pitt is…’ to PE or the Green Fund (I’ll work on this, it’s just a matter of making the form)
  • Ban bottled water, or deincentivize it – Muhlenberg simply made students pay for it with on-campus meals, rather than having it be free (like soda).
Of course, there are more ideas – and you can add them to the comments, or on the forums! If anyone has questions or comments about AASHE (or wants to write their own post), have at.
Oct 102011

So I’m at the AASHE (American Association for Sustainability in Higher Education) conference in downtown Pittsburgh, and there is so much to write about that I’m going to have to do a bunch of posts as things progress. I missed the student section yesterday (but some of the other authors were there), so everything I’m writing about is from Monday onwards.

For this post:

Sessions attended:

Strategic Mobility Planning @ UC Irvine
Thoughts: The major focus here was on using monetary incentives – shifts in permit costs, or subsidized public transit – to decrease total person-miles and reduce the overall carbon footprint of the community. They’re not as concerned with cost/benefit allocation, it seems, as it costs them a million and saves the community $31M, none of which comes back. The major takeaways were that you shouldn’t spend money as rewards, but rather as incentives – and that monitoring things is a really good idea – they do surveys every year.

I’m always depressed at talks about the ACUPCC, because they’re always clear that schools of all types are committing to it, regardless of funding, and it makes me wish Pitt would do so – and makes me wonder who needs educating.
The keynote itself was by the president of UC Riverside, and it was quite good, particularly when he talked about the motivation for why we do this and invoked limits to growth, a need for less consumerism, and didn’t talk about financial constraints – I’m sure they’re there, but they’re not important enough to not act. That’s key.
The session finished with the announcement of a campaign to have schools invest a billion dollars into revolving green investment projects. It would be awesome for Pitt to participate (I’d even take the green fund if it actually existed), by I won’t get my hopes up.

Community Outreach
Two talks – one based on survey results from a school in Ohio with a consistent 20% who are uninterested in learning anything about susty, and one from two professors on how to use social media to promote efforts. Lots of ideas, mainly that communication is good, period. I wonder whether it’s more important to get that last 25% interested in susty, or to get more of the 75% who are somewhat receptive into the active groups. I also wonder what the results of their surveys would be at Pitt.
Also some discussion of the book The Nature of College and the federal howto.gov, and lots of other tools – and a consensus that G.+ is not really designed for these sorts of efforts, which I’d ok.

I ended up with a list of post topics that I’ll try to write or have others write later, but also a list of things Pitt could/should do from different discussions. That list (just from this morning) will be posted at the end of the conference in a slightly refined form.

To end on an optimistic note, I was getting lunch when I ended up in a conversation with the susty coordinator from Muhlenberg, and came out of it feeling like we were doing a pretty good job at Pitt, particularly on the student efforts side. A nice counterpoint to always feeling depressed that the administration moves so slowly.