On Veterans Day, when classes were adjourned and many buildings were dark, three environmentally conscious students gathered shortly after 2 p.m. in an aromatic corner of the Student Union Memorial Center basement to weigh kitchen garbage.
Lesley Ash, sustainability director for the Associated Students of the University of Arizona, found their quarry: a garbage can whose lid bore the warning: ASUA Compost, Do Not Touch. Inside were assorted kitchen scraps with a dusting of coffee grounds.
Alex Harris, a sophomore chemical engineering student, hoisted the can onto a scale and Jennifer Tobin, a senior chemical engineering student, read it off: 109 pounds.
The exercise, "a waste audit," was repeated at 9 p.m. After about three weeks of weighing the offerings, the students will have an idea of the amount of compost volume and the capacity of the composter they'll need to buy to begin a student-run composting program. Ash said the projection was that the various Student Union kitchens would produce two tons of compostable food waste a day. This day was especially light because of the holiday.
"We would divert several hundred tons of waste annually," said Ash, a veterinary science senior. She said estimates were that the program could save the University almost $80,000 a year in tipping fees. A small percentage of the compost will be used on campus and the rest will be sold in bulk for bioremediation purposes at the mines or to consumers, she said.
The composting program is just one of eight groups working under the banner of sustainability for the ASUA. Participation has soared from a year ago, Ash said. Her composting group has grown to eight students, each working fours hours a week, from largely just herself a year ago.
This year, more than 50 students have joined the sustainability program as interns – receiving some sort of academic credit – compared to 15 active volunteers a year ago, she said. In fact, there's a waiting list.
The response has been gratifying. "Part of it is to make a measurable difference on campus," Ash said, "but what really drives me is to see students who didn't know about environmental sustainability at the end of the day say, ‘Oh my gosh, I really can make a difference.' It's really cool to see that switch in a student."
In addition to the composting project, the ASUA sustainability program has seven other teams: General Sustainability, Sage Fund, Education/Outreach, Athletics, Garden in the Desert, Solar Dorm Initiative and Earth Day.
The Solar Dorm group is working to install a cogeneration, solar and hot water system on the roof of Posada San Pedro. "We hope to set up live energy monitoring so it would be a good comparative study," Ash said. "From a practical standpoint, we're hoping to save students money" in lower dorm costs.
The Garden in the Desert group was expected to break ground in November for a demonstration and productive garden of native plants at Udall Plaza, Ash said. "The idea is to expand to a larger productive garden where the produce grown would be sold to the Student Union, which would in turn generate compost in a closed-loop cycle," she said.
The General Sustainability group has taken "this really interesting direction," she said. One of their projects is to develop a multilayer interactive map of sustainability elements on campus. "We could give input to campus planners." Students tracked bicycle thefts, mapped high-theft areas and recommended changes to combat theft. "People will ride bikes, hopefully, if there's less of a probability that they will be stolen," Ash said.
The General Sustainability group will also map water flow from campus roofs to identify sites for water harvesting.
The Sage Fund is staffed by interns, Ash explained, but provides seed money to campus sustainability programs independent of the ASUA. The fund was set up that way so that it would not be impeded by a less sustainability-minded ASUA administration, she said.
"Ideally the purpose is the grant cycle, where not just students but faculty can apply for a grant or loan that involved sustainability." The money comes from fundraising, teamed up with the alumni foundation and UA Cares. They're seeking other partnerships as well. "We're seeing where this leads."
The Athletics team has taken on the challenge of trying to establish the carbon footprint of the athletics program.
Education/Outreach is working with elementary and junior high schools near the campus to develop a sustainability curriculum. The group has produced sustainable fashion shows called "Project Greenway," which feature recycled and used clothing to demonstrate "you can be sustainable and be fashionable at the same time," Ash said. "Actually, some of the recycled clothing looked pretty cool."
Ash said she hopes the increasing student involvement signals a change in culture. "It's bringing to a peak in recognition that this is important," she said, "and that ideally it won't regress but it will become second nature." She said a significant number of freshmen have become involved. "They have very original ideas."