Incorporating Sustainability and Environmental Education in Residential Life

Student Staff meeting in South Hall circa 2010. Photo by Jacob Carah.

Today I get the opportunity to present sustainability ideas to the MU Department of Residential Life student staffers. For two years I worked as a community advisor and treasurer in South Hall, and I lived in Mark Twain Hall as a freshman, so I know what residents enjoy in a dorm experience, what mentality many of them have, and also the funds, challenges and opportunities available to staff when planning events, decorating bulletin boards, etc. I’ve identified roughly three levels of commitment that student staff members can aim for in their dorm or residence hall. They’re all reasonable and simple, but some require more time than others. Others save you time! And sometimes money! And since our biggest goal at the university is to educate our students and prepare them for the real world, any extra sustainability effort is contributing to that. So let’s jump in:

Level 1: The Basics

  • “Bring your own cups/bowls/plates/whatever.” Don’t waste money buying plastic or styrofoam kitchenwares that go to the trash after one event. Residents live down the hall. They can grab their own. They might whine at first, but they’ll get used to it because hunger usually conquers laziness. Even better, start this habit early. Freshmen don’t know what to expect from college, so if you start your first day event by telling them to bring their own stuff, they’ll just think that’s what big kids do. Incorporate this into your community plans. Meanwhile, you can use the money you saved on buying more delicious food.
  • Push drying racks. RHA is getting at least one for every residence hall, so if you don’t have one now, you will soon. Read this article to learn about their benefits.
  • Borrow supplies. Just because each hall has enough money to get their own karaoke machine/hot water kettle (South had two)/grill/name any big item you’ll use a couple times a year, doesn’t mean that’s a wise purchase. Lots of resources go into producing that item, and that money could be used for something else. Ask around to see if RAP or another hall has the item you need.
  • Reuse your bulletin board material. This was my favorite trick as a staff member. I kept an Earlybird textbook box under my bed, full of used paper, cut-out letters and some other material. I rarely changed the back butcher board paper. Some months I never had to go to RAP to update my bulletin boards, and it was all in the name of conservation! The result is a punk rock (or, erm, maybe “hobo”) feel to your bulletin boards, which catches more attention than the uniform cutouts anyway.
  • To towel or not to towel.Change from folded napkins to rolled towels. Use unbleached paper, because chlorine can pollute.
  • Promote Mizzou Dashboard. Even if your hall doesn’t have this energy monitoring system, encourage reduced electricity usage around your hall.
  • Be a good example. As a staff member, you’re a role model. You can’t expect residents to change their behavior if you aren’t doing it yourself.

Level 2: Vote with your dollar

Have you heard of the Local Multiplier Effect?  YES! Magazine gives a pretty good overview here. Basically, every time you buy for an event, you have options: Domino’s or Shakespeare’s or Red and Moe or Broadway Brewery. Buffalo Wild Wings or Addison’s. Jimmy John’s or Main Squeeze. Some options give you cheap food. Others give you delicious, locally grown, distinctively “Columbia” meals. I’m no economist, but the chart above seems suited to something like Shakespeare’s. I bet if you bought pizza from the 100% locally sourced Red and Moe, that dollar could get circulated to a farmer who buys from a local hardware store, to pay employees better prices, etc. Clue your residents into Nachos Bianca from Addison’s or the lavendar lemonade from Main Squeeze, and they can wow their friends with their local culinary expertise.

For non-food supplies, try Peace Nook. They have way more than you’d imagine, including paper towels and snack food. The more you spend locally, the bigger impact you have:

I can’t speak for every hall, but the end of each semester, South would have hundreds of dollars left over. Sometimes we blew it on study buck raffle items from WalMart. Ridic. That could have contributed to the local economy!

Level 3: Educational Interactions with the environment in mind

My most memorable EI in Mark Twain was the field trip we took to the MU Power Plant across the street. I learned so much about how they power the campus and what they’re doing to be leaders in energy technology. Hey, do that! Who said an EI always means inviting a professor to come speak in the hall? If you’re fortunate enough to have an adventurous hall, why not tour the power plant, Bradford Farm and its new composting site, MU Campus Dining Services with a talk from chef Eric Cartwright on local produce and nutrition, or even Hudson Hall, which has a ton of LEED-savvy features like repurposed countertops and energy efficient lighting?

You could even take short hikes to local trails!  In less than half a mile, or approximately 7 minutes, Rollins and Bingham area residence can be in Clyde Wilson Memorial Park. Dobbs area residents could be on the MKT trail. Invite a professor or local expert to go on the hike with you to talk about invasive species, stormwater runoff issues or biodiversity. Mike Heimos, the city stormwater educator would love to help your residents with a stream cleanup!  You can contact him at mjheimos[at]gocolumbiamo.com. Spring would be a great time to schedule one of these events.

For the less mobile crowd, invite Mizzou’s Sustainability Peer Outreach (SPROUT) to give a presentation. Former programs have covered energy conservation, local and sustainable food, environmental justice, water rights, and general sustainability tips. To request a program, contact mizzousprout[at]gmail.com.

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