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How Green is the college? Time the showers.

post #1 of 7
Thread Starter 

Check out this great feature in today's NYTimes on the Green movement going on in colleges around the country, from small private to community to large public schools.


From ecological design to more careful consumption, there are tons of good tips in here to reduce one's footprint on a daily basis.  Some are hilarious, like pasting a photo of someone on the ceiling above your shower (to reduce your desired length of shower because it's just uncomfortable to feel like someone's watching, ha!) to unplugging the fridge...don't know if I could swing that one.



How Green Is the College? Time the Showers


OBERLIN, Ohio — Lucas Brown, a junior at Oberlin College here, was still wet from the shower the other morning as he entered his score on the neon green message board next to the bathroom sink: Three minutes, according to the plastic hourglass timer inside the shower. Two minutes faster than the morning before. One minute faster than two of his housemates.

Mr. Brown, a 21-year-old economics major, recalled the marathon runner who lived in the house last semester, saying: “He came out of the shower one morning and yelled out: ‘Two minutes 18 seconds. Beat that, Lucas!’ ”

Another of Mr. Brown’s seven housemates, Becky Bob-Waksberg, racked up the morning’s longest shower: Eight minutes. The house cuts Ms. Bob-Waksberg slack, Mr. Brown said, because of her thick, curly hair, which takes longer to shampoo.

So it goes at Oberlin’s new sustainability house — SEED, for Student Experiment in Ecological Design — a microcosm of a growing sustainability movement on campuses nationwide, from small liberal arts colleges like Oberlin and Middlebury, in Vermont, to Lansing Community College in Michigan, to Morehouse in Atlanta, to public universities like the University of New Hampshire.

While previous generations focused on recycling and cleaning up rivers, these students want to combat global warming by figuring out ways to reduce carbon emissions in their own lives, starting with their own colleges. They also view the environment as broadly connected with social and economic issues, and their concerns include the displacement of low-income families after Hurricane Katrina and the creation of “green collar” jobs in places like the South Bronx.

The mission is serious and yet, like life at the Oberlin house, it blends idealism, hands-on practicality, laid-back community and fun.

“It’s not about telling people, ‘You have to do this, you have to do that,’ ” Mr. Brown said. “It’s about fitting sustainability into our own lives.” And hoping, he added, “that a friend will come over, recognize that it’s fun, start doing it, and then a friend of theirs will start doing it.”

With their professors as collaborators, and with their own technological and political savvy, students are persuading administrators to switch to fossil-free fuel on campus — Middlebury is building an $11 million wood-chip-powered plant, part of its goal of becoming carbon neutral by 2016 — serve locally grown food in dining halls and make hybrid cars available for shared transportation when, say, the distance is too far to bike and there is no bus. Students are planting organic gardens and competing in dorm energy-use Olympics. At Oberlin last year, some students in the winning dorm did not shower for two weeks, officials said.

“This is a generation that is watching the world come undone,” said David Orr, a professor of environmental studies at Oberlin. Projects like the Oberlin house, he said, are “helping them understand how to stitch the world together again.”

Dr. Orr’s course in ecological design became the incubator for the house when Mr. Brown and the two other founders of SEED, Kathleen Keating and Amanda Medress, enrolled in it last spring. They had done research on sustainability houses at Middlebury, Brown and Tufts, and had persuaded the college to turn over an aging, drafty two-story house. But before they could move in, they needed to make the house energy efficient.

The class studied water and energy use, insulation, heating and cooling, and financing. Nathan Engstrom, Oberlin’s sustainability coordinator — an essential position on many campuses these days — gave advice. John Petersen, the college’s environmental studies director, checked out the house’s wiring.

The college spent $40,000 to renovate the house over the summer, bringing it up to safety code. Mr. Brown used the carpentry skills he had learned from his father to pitch in on weatherizing.

The students moved in last September. “We sat down and had a meeting — ‘O.K., what next?’ ” Mr. Brown recalled. “We didn’t know what it meant to have a sustainable house.”

That first night, amid confusion about who was home and who was out, they left the lights on. “We said, ‘Oh, no, we just had a terrible first day,’ ” Mr. Brown said. “ ‘We’re leaving lights on everywhere.’ ”

All year they studied together in the living room at night so they would not have to turn on lights in the other rooms. They mastered worm composting, lowered the thermostat — keeping it at 60 degrees for most of the winter and piling on blankets — and unplugged appliances. There is no television, but no one seems to consider that a hardship.

“You have the rest of your life to watch TV,” Ms. Keating said.

The unplugging of the refrigerator was not so easy. The house is divided in two, and each half has a kitchen. With everyone eating meals at a nearby student-run co-op, a decision was made to save energy by disconnecting the refrigerator and appliances in one kitchen. But which one?

“The fridge was kind of controversial,” Ms. Bob-Waksberg said. “We kind of had a little feud going on for a while. We talked it out.”

Now that the weather is warm, the residents of the house like to barbecue. Oberlin’s president, Marvin Krislov, dropped by with his young daughter a few weeks ago for burgers and grilled corn. Offering the ritual tour, the students demonstrated how they caught their shower and sink water in buckets and reused it to flush their low-flow toilet, a budget model improvised with a couple of salvaged bricks in the tank.

“He was using us to chastise his daughter for leaving lights on and the water running,” Mr. Brown said.

The bathroom is the showstopper on the tour. Besides the hourglass timer — Mr. Brown pointed out that it was called a shower coach and cost $3 online — the shower’s energy-saving motivational accessories include a picture of former Senator John Edwards of North Carolina plastered to the ceiling.

That was Ms. Bob-Waksberg’s idea. No one wants to linger in the shower with someone staring down from the ceiling, she said.

“You could also look at it another way,” she said, “that John Edwards is encouraging me to take a shorter shower.”

Why Mr. Edwards? “He had the strongest global warming policies of any of the candidates,” Mr. Brown said.

Ms. Bob-Waksberg, a religion studies major from California, was one of 25 students who applied to live in the house. With the house’s three founders looking for nonenvironmental studies types for diversity, Ms. Bob-Waksberg’s major, along with her confession that her environmental work had amounted to “various weed-pulling, clean-up-the-bay projects” back in high school, made her a shoo-in.

“We kind of roped Becky into sustainability,” Mr. Brown said.

Ms. Bob-Waksberg, along with Mr. Brown and carloads of other students, went to New Orleans to help after Hurricane Katrina. She will return to the city this summer to teach.

By next fall, the house’s 24-hour energy-use monitoring system will be fully up and running. Every turn of the faucet, every switch of a light, will be recorded, room by room.

The house, with its mismatched secondhand furniture, comic book posters and bicycles parked in the living room, is a popular meeting place for environmentally conscious student groups. Ms. Bob-Waksberg’s quirky, hand-printed signs (on recycled cardboard) admonish visitors to turn off lights and unplug appliances. The sign next to Mr. Brown’s electric keyboard in the living room says: “The music was beautiful. Now go do your homework and don’t forget to unplug me.”

“My keyboard,” Mr. Brown said, “is one of my indulgences.”

He confessed to another one. Sometimes, he said, “on a Friday after a long week of finals, I have to have a bath and a beer.”

What about the shower timer? He laughed, sheepishly.

“I hide it on the floor,” he said.


Edited by lola - Tue, 27 May 2008 21:25:50 GMT

Edited by lola - Tue, 27 May 2008 21:26:55 GMT
post #2 of 7

So I haven't gotten a chance to read through the whole article...but two things.


a) hilarious to post a picture of someone in your shower!

b) Becky Bob-Waksberg definitely went to my high school.  Also...hilarious.

post #3 of 7
Thread Starter 

 Haha seriously?  That is amazing.  She definitely has a memorable last name!

post #4 of 7

 I don't know how much slack the 8 minute shower girl deserves...she can always turn the water off while she's sudsing up!  And if she's so committed to reducing shower time that she puts a picture of John Edwards up, but she STILL needs 5 more minutes than her male counterparts- maybe it's time she think about donating her hair!  Less hair = quicker wash time AND less shampoo and conditioner needed. 

Edited by nitedreamer - Sun, 01 Jun 2008 06:20:46 GMT
post #5 of 7
Thread Starter 

 Wow, that would be major commitment to chop off your hair!  Do you know people who've done that? Hardcore.

post #6 of 7

I don't know of anyone who's specifically had a haircut to help the environment.  But I have thought about the sizable reduction in shampoo I need after getting a big haircut.  And if she blow dries her hair, cutting some off will reduce the amount of time she needs with a hair drier.  (I always let mine air dry, but I suspect I am in the minority.)


I am assuming (possibly wrongly) that she was quite long hair.  I doubt she would shave her head, that's not what I meant.  But if she's going all out to save the Earth, as suggested by putting John Edwards in the shower, cutting her hair chin length would help too.

post #7 of 7

Speaking of how green college is-


Today I stopped in the University of MN's dining area (which has different fast food places that use disposable packaging), and saw that they have an organic waste collection to go with their other recycling receptacles.  In addition to collecting food scraps, they were able to take napkins and some paper products (like the Chinese place's paper plates, but not their take out boxes- maybe because it's coated paper?).  Too bad all take away restaurants don't collect their organics...this might be related to the U having a contract with the collector mentioned here, since they are in Hennepin county.


It's a shame though that they don't use reusable dishes and have dish washing machines- at my undergraduate school, unless you were getting food to go, it wouldn't be on disposable dishes.  A big school like the U really should be leading the way in environmental sustainability. 



The U does have some good stuff going on though- separated recycling bins all over, they have drop boxes for batteries, and the University housing co-op we live in has an organic gardening patch for residents to use.

So- to those who are in school or have been recently, have children at college (or even k-12), etc- what steps has your institution taken towards being more environmentally friendly?

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