Zeroing In

In recent months, a walk across the leafy Bates College campus has required running a gauntlet of busy construction sites from the new student housing on College Street along Alumni Walk to the new dining Commons. The visual impact of all this development on the campus is obvious and immediate, but what is less readily apparent is the fact that as Bates grows, so does its impact on the environment.

Over the past two years, however, the College has made a renewed commitment to achieving what might best be called a Sustainable Bates. Without a great deal of fanfare, various policies, projects, and programs aimed at conserving energy, reducing waste, minimizing the production of greenhouse gases, and raising the green consciousness on campus have been coming together.

At Bates, a renewed push is on to conserve energy, reduce waste, and minimize the production of greenhouse gases.

These environmental initiatives coalesced in February 2007 when President Elaine Tuttle Hansen signed the American College & University Presidents Climate Commitment, pledging Bates to work toward the goal of so-called carbon neutrality. A concerted effort is thus now under way to reduce institutional emissions so that, despite all the growth, Bates will no longer contribute to the increase of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

“It’s overwhelming, because it’s everything,” says Julie Rosenbach, the former EPA official hired in 2006 to become Bates’ first full-time environmental coordinator. “It’s energy use, water use, recycling, making policy changes, making behavioral changes. But the first change is being a center for information, just telling the story.”

In the wake of signing the Climate Commitment, President Hansen empaneled a new Committee on Environmental Responsibility to implement the presidents’ pledge. “We’re going to spend the next year coming up with a road map for achieving carbon neutrality,” says Rosenbach, whose full-time position at Bates was the key recommendation of an Environmental Task Force convened by Hansen in 2005.

For any college involved in the Climate Commitment, the first step on the road toward carbon neutrality is completing a greenhouse-gas emissions inventory. The Bates inventory estimates that in 2006 the College generated 19,971 metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent (MTCDE) from all sources. (See “Go Figures,” page 9.)

One of the surprising findings of the inventory is that student travel (10,828 MTCDE) is the largest single contributor to the College’s emissions, essentially doubling Bates’ impact on the environment. By its very nature as an international institution, Bates requires students to travel to and from Maine from all over the world. It should be noted, however, that in an effort to be thoroughly responsible, Bates also factored in the impact of study-abroad air travel (2,466 MTCDE), something many colleges do not count.

On the other hand, Bates dramatically lowered the impact of its electricity use in December 2005 when it entered into a five-year contract with Constellation NewEnergy to purchase green electricity generated by a 50-50 mix of small hydroelectric and biomass plants. As a result, emissions from purchased electricity dropped from a high of 5,662 MTCDE in 2000 to just 155 MTCDE in 2006.

“Putting sustainability at the forefront of what the College does is really important,” says Professor of Physics John Smedley, chair of the 2005 Environmental Task Force and a member of the new Committee on Environmental Responsibility. “The green electricity purchase was a big step.”

The degree to which sustainability is a collaborative effort at Bates should not be underestimated. Students, faculty, staff, and administration all seem to be on the same page when it comes to the need to take action now. For instance, Jack Murphy ’08 of Ballston Spa, N.Y., was one of the students who founded the Bates Environmental Action Movement (BEAM) in January 2007. Murphy and his fellow student activists gathered 600 signatures on a petition urging President Hansen to sign the ACUP Climate Commitment — only to find that she had already done so.

“I got an e-mail over the break that she had signed it,” Murphy recalls. “Not only had she signed, but she had joined the Leadership Circle. She’s really on board.” (In fact, Hansen is the only NESCAC president in the leadership group helping to advance the initiative.)

“What we signed onto was trying,” explains Terry Beckmann, treasurer and vice president for finance and administration. “I don’t think anyone knows how to achieve absolute carbon neutrality or how to measure it, but it’s the right thing for the environment and for the College. We need to be doing things today that last in perpetuity. We are doing our part for the future.”

“Climate change is the issue of our generation,” agrees Murphy. Addressing it will require “a diverse set of options. No one silver bullet is going to save us.”

Bates, in fact, has a long history of doing the right thing in terms of environmental initiatives. In 1970s, for example, the College installed 64 solar panels atop Chase Hall to preheat water for Dining Services; a similar setup was atop Merrill Gymnasium for years. Since dismantled, neither system realized much financial benefit to the College, says Treasurer Emeritus Bernie Carpenter. But that didn’t diminish their importance. “The fact that people knew Bates cared about the environment was the major benefit,” he says.

In 1984, a private firm in partnership with Bates constructed a wood-chip-fired steam cogeneration facility on campus. It was supposed to heat the campus and create electricity for sale. Perhaps because Bates was ahead of the technology curve, it never worked quite right and was eventually replaced with a conventional oil-fired unit.

Bates Dining Services, which now keeps more than 80 percent of its waste out of local landfills, has been nationally recognized since the 1990s as an institutional leader in sustainability, its recycling program singled out by the EPA for best practices.

Changing human behavior on a broad scale might be the biggest challenge, as the student body has been slow to embrace best practices, such as recycling. When Dining Services recently sought to eliminate paper from the waste stream by distributing returnable travel mugs instead of paper cups for take-out beverages, the mugs landed all over campus — except back at Dining Services. But resistance will be met with persistence, says Rosenbach. “We believe this program will ultimately be successful.”

And though Bates actively participates in the national collegiate Recyclemania program, Bates students have room to improve. In the 2007 Recyclemania competition, Bates students recycled an average of 11.98 pounds of trash per person, placing last among NESCAC colleges.

That said, student interest in environmental action is at an all-time high at Bates. Popular demand led the College to sanction two environmental theme houses on campus this year (Bates theme houses are not permanent but come and go annually depending on student interest). The hope is that these green houses, which will be heated with B20 biodiesel fuel, will serve as incubators for sustainable practices. “The students will begin using a multitude of sustainable products this year, like dual-flush toilets,” reports Erin Foster Zsiga, assistant dean of students.

Among other new environmental initiatives at Bates are:

• a bicycle co-op, enabling students to purchase keys to the locks on 10 new bicycles purchased for communal use;

• a Zipcar program, affording rental use of two Toyota Prius cars to students and employees, potentially replacing the equivalent of 40 privately owned vehicles;

• the purchase of three GEM electric utility vehicles, piloting a movement to replace gas-powered golf carts used by Facility Services staff.

“It’s the best that you can do — progress, not perfection,” says environmental coordinator Julie Rosenbach of the road to carbon neutrality.

And, finally, what about those brand-new buildings on campus — the new student housing and the landmark new Commons? How green are they?

Well, from recycled and Forest Steward Council–certified wood to occupancy sensors for lighting, they are being built to Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design green building standards. Though LEED standards will become the norm for new construction on campus, Bates is not seeking LEED certification status for its latest additions. “We don’t want the time, energy, and cost” of certification, explains Beckmann. “We want the concepts and principles.”

And Bates Environmental Action Movement co-founder Jack Murphy endorses this pragmatic approach to sustainability in words that could serve as the motto of a Sustainable Bates.

“It is more important to do it,” Murphy says, “than it is to be able to say you did it.”

Edgar Allen Beem is a freelance writer who lives in Yarmouth, Maine. His stories have recently appeared in Down East, The Boston Globe Magazine, and Yankee Magazine, among other publications.