University of Utah pushes to become more sustainable

Watch Myron Willson, Director of Office of Sustainability at the University of Utah, talk about sustainability.

Story and multimedia by JENNA LEVETAN

With the help of the Office of Sustainability, the University of Utah is taking on major efforts to become more sustainable and carbon neutral.  Despite the falling economy, the budget for the Office of Sustainability is staying concrete and student projects have been expanding.

The Office of Sustainability is an on-campus program that is looking to help improve sustainable efforts. The office has been up and running since October 2007 and is located in the Annex building.

Over the last three years the sustainability staff has been working on promoting responsible practices and encouraging students to think green and adopt more eco-friendly behaviors. They want students to ask themselves if they are living beyond their ecological means. In other words, are you consuming more natural resources than nature can regenerate?

The sustainability office has also been mapping out a strategic plan for enhanced campus sustainability with anticipated cost savings and external funding opportunities.

The Office of Sustainability may seem like a program in danger of budget cuts, but because the office is funded by several different sources they are standing strong. The main base of funding comes from the health science campus, academic affairs and the facilities management program. The secondary source of funding comes from students. Every student gives the office $2.50 each semester in their tuition for a total of $150,000 a year.

The Office of Sustainability director, Myron Willson knows students don’t typically support these fees, but believes in the long run it will actually save students money.

“We are starting to see a difference,” Willson said. “We have energy saving programs, we have sponsored undergraduates for research opportunities, we are getting more and more students applying for funding to do their research or to do projects that they are interested in on campus. So I think people will start to see more evidence in the coming year.”

For the most part, budgeting priorities usually are given to projects that will help with green house gas reduction. However, they are willing to re-direct priorities when it comes to student ideas.

“This is an educational institute,” Willson said. “So when opportunities come up to work with students and curriculum to make a difference, there are programs and efforts that we do that may not have a direct or measurable impact, but long term it will grow support.”

With that money they are also sponsoring graduate students to do environmental research.

Getting students to become more sustainable has been easier for the office because the idea of being green has become somewhat trendy. The environmental studies program has been at the University of Utah since 1994, much before it was cool to be concerned with climate change. Since then it has been getting more popular every year.  According to University records, five years ago there were only 150 declared majors and today there are 265.

John Pruitt is a junior at the University of Utah and decided to become an environmental study major because he wants to make an economic impact.

“I’m interested in saving energy,” said Pruitt. “It could be argued economically, but I also look at it as being more efficient. All money starts from energy and it makes sense to be involved around it, and some may rub off on me more so in that field.”

Student involvement is increasing outside of the environmental study major as well. According to the University’s Recycling Coordinator Joshua James, being involved is as easy as knowing what the difference is between the black and blue garbage cans.  “With our poor economy students are doing more and more to help save them money,” James said. “With recycling increases, we have saved about $60,000 on trash dumping fees.”

The money that is saved from the trash dumping fees goes back into the recycling program and facilities management fund.

The university has evaluated virtually every aspect and mapped a path to a sustainable campus by doing everything from organic gardens, to recycling, to building energy and providing shuttles. While the economy continues to rise the campus is becoming more eco-friendly with changes the students can see.