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The Ongoing Project of Sustainability at SLU

Courtesy of University Communications
Written by Claire Mendes

St. Lawrence University advertises itself as having embraced sustainability as a core value. It does so, according to the Office of Sustainability page, through working to implement projects to fulfill the goals in its Climate Action Plan, sustainability planning, and attempts to utilize renewable energy, among others. According to its news site, 65 percent of the electricity St. Lawrence uses is certified renewable wind energy, and it receives hydroelectric power through a dam in partnership with Gravity Renewables.

Currently, the Office is launching a new compost program for students in collaboration with Facilities Operations. St. Lawrence also received a ranking of “silver” from the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE) following its rating from the Sustainability Tracking, Assessment, and Rating System (STARS). Ryan Kmetz, Assistant Director of Sustainability and Energy Management and the sole member of the Office of Sustainability, sat down with The Hill News to discuss these recent developments.

Compost has been a part of SLU for the past few years: there are bins at the Pub, Dana composts food waste, and students could in the past request to have their own bins in their rooms. Kmetz says they received so many of these latter requests that they decided to implement a more universal system throughout the dorms.

With the new system, there will be a large, green, 33-gallon compost barrel in each dorm’s recycling center, as well as the Johnson Grab and Go Cafe. The contents of those bins will be taken to the current compost area, which is by the stables.

The SLU composting operation is not industrial, so it isn’t able to break down certain products, such as the paper cups from the Pub (which are still recyclable), but it can take all fruit and vegetables, as well as coffee filters, tea bags, and other food products that break down more easily. The compost is eventually used on campus, mainly on the athletic fields, and is available for use by local community members.

Different environmental groups on campus have expressed excitement about the compost initiative. Hogan Dwyer ’19, a member of DivestSLU, says they will be working to encourage the student body to participate once it launches. Bridget Ireland ’18, Environmental Conservation Chair for Thelmo, also praised the plan, but stressed the need for students to be conscientious about how they use it.

In addition to heading the compost initiative, Kmetz also submitted SLU’s sustainability information to STARS, leading to its silver rating. SLU first participated in 2013, under Kmetz’s predecessor: the position was vacant for about a year and a half before he began in early 2017. It received silver then as well, but Kmetz says the system’s standards have since changed and are now a little more comprehensive.

STARS is an online system where universities report on a variety of factors that contribute to sustainability. According to the site, of the registered universities, 11.7 percent achieved a bronze rating, 51.3 percent got silver, 32 percent received gold, and just 1 percent (three universities) were awarded platinum.

Having received silver, SLU is in the majority, and Kmetz notes that the school was about 10 points away from being at a gold level. SLU’s highest-performing categories included coordination and planning, diversity and affordability, and academic research.

One might ask how categories like diversity relate to sustainability. Kmetz explains, “Sustainability broadly looks at environment, economy, and social background,” because it might mean something different to different people. “If you’re growing up in Manhattan, you might not have any experience whatsoever with farming, where, say, if you grew up on a farm in Maine, you’re going to have an idea,” he gives as an example, pointing out that conversely an urbanite might be worried about things a farmer wouldn’t think twice about.

He says this applies to all different identity categories. To be able to form a comprehensive approach, he says, it’s important to be inclusive and have people bringing different backgrounds and experiences to the table.

The University’s lowest-performing categories included food and dining, transportation, water, waste, and investment and finance. Kmetz explains that for some of the categories, such as food and dining, there were issues in adapting to changes in what information the new STARS system required, which they’re working on moving forward.

SLU received a zero for the category of investment and finance, as the school has not done anything to date that would have qualified in the categories, so they identified as “not pursuing.”

DivestSLU has been petitioning the Board of Trustees to divest the school’s endowment from top fossil fuel holding companies since 2016. Dwyer says the group maintains that the Board of Trustees is making a mistake. “Divestment is the right thing to do financially and ethically,” he says.

Both Dwyer and Ireland agree that the award is a starting point that should serve as encouragement to continue to improve sustainability on campus, not a sign that we can plateau.

Ireland also adds that in order to see more changes, more students need to express their support. “If [the administration] doesn’t see that a certain number of students are willing to take the initiative and actually work towards projects, they’re not going to push them,” she says. “As a student body, we need to show that we actually do care and work up from there.”

About the author

Claire Mendes