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Erica Larijani interviews WVU Sustainability Director Traci Knabenshue about recycling on campus, reducing waste, and promoting awareness for a greener WVU.

"WVU Climate Conversations" is a climate change podcast hosted by students in the West Virginia University Fall 2019 Honors book club with a variety of guests. it is produced by WVU Student Media, with music by Duncan Lorimer.


Welcome to WVU’s Climate Conversations podcast. These episodes are student projects from the fall 2019 honors book club under the same title. My name is Katherine Williamson. I'm a teaching professor of physics and astronomy, and this book club was inspired by a Ted talk by climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe. She says that the most important thing you can do to fight climate change is to talk about it. Therefore, the aim of each climate conversation episode is to do just that, to talk about an aspect of climate change and to keep the conversation going.

My name's Erica Larijani. I am a sophomore in the immunology and medical microbiology major at WVU.

[00:00:44] I'm from cross lanes West Virginia, and I'm here with Tracy Navan choose the director of the WVU Office of Sustainability. At first, I wanted to just ask you like how you would define sustainability. Yeah, so I mean, I think the general definition of sustainability is meeting the needs of today without compromising the needs of the future.

[00:01:04] I mean, that's kind of how I define it personally. I think that's kind of the generally accepted definition, but if we're talking about WVU specifically, I think that there's kind of three different things that we think about when we're evaluating sustainability. Projects or programs or processes. Um, and first of course, is the environmental piece of that, the environmental performance or conservation.

[00:01:29] Um, so is it good for the planet? The second one would be fiscal responsibility. So is it good for WBS? Bottom line, if it's a sustainability investment that we're making, are we gonna see. That return on investment fiscally and environmentally. And then is it good socially for our faculty, staff and students who are living, learning and working on campus?

[00:01:50] Um, and that could be anything from indoor air quality to diversity, equity, inclusion, kind of the whole gamut. So we're looking at those three aspects of sustainability when we evaluate projects. And obviously the more that projects have all three, the more likely they are to happen on campus. So since our, the title of our class and this podcast was climate conversations, and we wanted to talk a little bit about what kind of impact you think such a large university, like the BVU can have on the climate.

[00:02:20] Yeah, I'm huge, I think, I think I'm kind of two sides of the coin there. So university. Universities tend to be large energy hogs, um, especially research universities that have health science campuses. So we're big users of energy for all of the activity that goes on, on a college campus, or you know, regional campuses for a university system.

[00:02:43] Um, and then kind of the flip side of that is. Universities are innovators too, right? So we're also the people who should be on the forefront of making climate solutions or solving sustainability challenges, um, making, making the earth a better place to live. So yeah, it's kind of both sides of the coin.

[00:03:01] So yes, we have a huge role to play. What is WVU and the sustainability office currently doing to promote sustainability on campus to promote sustainability on campus? So we do a lot of activity around sustainability on campus, but as far as promoting, we have more work to do. Right now, where we're at with promotion of sustainability is we have a few signature [00:03:23] events that we promote kind of throughout each academic year. Kind of a big one is a good example is the blue and gold mine sale that we hold, um, every spring that's open to the campus community and to the public. And then we also promote, um, a lot of service learning and do a lot of service learning with students throughout the academic year, but promotion outside of recycling bins that are very visible in our campus buildings.

[00:03:51] We aren't doing that great with promotion and it's something that we recognize, and it is something that we're working on. We recently sent out a survey to all students about campus sustainability to kind of check the pulse on where we're at, how aware are they. Of what we're doing on campus and what are the particular sustainability topics that are important to them, and we're using those survey results.

[00:04:17] We had a really good response rate. We're using those solver survey results to shape what we need to do a better job promoting and educating our students about and, and what particularly they want to hear more about. We also have a, a staff version of that story that's outright now that we're encouraging staff and faculty if they want to, to, um, respond to, and then we'll be doing a faculty specific survey as well.

[00:04:41] So we kind of need to see where our campus community's at and then, um, use that to shape up. Several different things. Kind of generally looking at the student results. We heard a lot about our recycling system on campus, so that's something that we're working on a whole communication program with, um, you know, basic information, like what do you, and don't you put in the recycling bin all the way to what is.

[00:05:06] It's a process of where it goes after you put it in the bin and on down the line of the recycling chain. So we're recognizing that need and actively trying to shape up what is it that we need to do a better job promoting. Yeah, I did. I saw that survey and I completed it too. And I think that recycling was probably the main thing that I've noticed around campus and recycling, you know, is a very visible piece of sustainability, but it's not.

[00:05:33] Anywhere near the breadth of everything that sustainability touches on a college campus. So, you know, while it is the most visible, we want to do a better job to promoting the other things that we do that also have large impacts. Is there one project that your office has done that you're particularly proud of or interested in?

[00:05:49] Yes. So that that one is, it does happen to be recycling related. And we transitioned our campus in 2014 to single stream recycling from a source separated system. And at the same time that we did that, we instituted an empty urine trash model. So before. Um, campus service workers would go into individual office spaces and empty trash cans that they wouldn't empty recycling bins.

[00:06:20] Um, so at the same time that we kind of transition the way that we were doing recycling, we also said, you know, it's going to be individual’s responsibility in their office. This is to take both trash and recycling out to a central location and handle that that way. And then the campus service workers would serve as those kind of larger hallway stations, and that provided multiple benefits for us.

[00:06:44] It made folks in their offices more conscious of what they were throwing away. Um, and it also provided a lot more central locations and convenience for folks to throw away trash and to recycle. But it was not well received initially. Um, a lot of, a lot of staff and faculty were upset about it on campus.

[00:07:08] It was a change, but we felt that it was the best thing for increasing our recycling on campus and using it as. It's kind of a collective responsibility example that we all have to play a role in sustainability to make it happen. We can't just kinda engineer it out in every possible way. So, um, I'm proud that we persevered through that.

[00:07:34] And, you know, there was some. There was a lot of push back, so there was some wavering that that was going to happen, and I'm glad that we persevered because after having the system for a year, it was just kind of part of everyday life on campus and it wasn't an issue anymore. A lot of it you have to kind of parse through what is about.

[00:07:57] The issue and what is just about resistance to change. That was one of, actually the main themes in our course this semester was resistance to change and people having a lot of issues with changing their lifestyle, even if it meant a better outcome for the future. That was something we talked about probably every week because that's one of the main issues with people in climate change is they don't want to change their lifestyle.

[00:08:20] Even if they do see that it is an issue, they still have. Problems changing because I don't want to give up their way of life. Yeah. And I think, you know, part of, along with that is there are several systems that have been set up, commercial systems, you know, businesses that engineer having to think about things out of your daily life.

[00:08:42] Right? So we're just used to that model of. You know it's going to go somewhere or someone's going to take care of it. And I don't have to think about it, but we should be thinking about it. And we need to kind of change that paradigm. And, and I think to a lot of. Individual sustainability habits. So if we have a, a student or any person that's trying to build sustainability more into their daily life, they want to do that.

[00:09:10] It's not that people don't want to do that. It's a lot of times that they don't know how, because they don't know exactly how things work and they haven't really thought about it too much, and that's not their fault. A lot of times it's, it's the way that things have been set up for them. If I can jump in real quick, and this is Catherine.

[00:09:29] This is making me think of one of the books we read. Earth in human hands by an astronomer, planetary scientists, David Grinspoon. And he actually called into our class. We got a chance to talk to him personally, and he kind of along these same lines, he made the point that, you know, all of us sitting in this room right now might be able to come up with a good solution to how we should act, what we should do moving forward.

[00:09:50] And the trouble is getting everyone else on board. And you know, we. I'm a scientist, I'm in the physics and astronomy department. And so I kind of chose books that are, I'm like, I want us to know the science. Right. Um, but then I found, we read two books that were kind of science focused and one that was more personal action focused.

[00:10:07] We kind of found that the talking about the science almost didn't help us cause we just kept coming back to what should we do as people, you know, in society. What policies, what. How do we get people on board? We just kept coming back to that theme and that's really where I think your office is on the front lines is what do we do on campus?

[00:10:26] Yeah. I think when we ask ourselves that question too, is it, it has to come from everywhere for us to address it, which isn't the easy answer because it would be great if we could narrow it down and say, okay, well it's this corporation or this particular place that isn't doing a good job with sustainability.

[00:10:47] But it's not that simple. Um, and you know, I hate to harp on recycling, but I'll use it as an example. Right now, globally, the recycling industry is in crisis and everyone is looking for. Whose responsibility is it to fix this or to figure this out or transition into a better global recycling system. And a lot of times it goes back and forth between, well, it's an individual's responsibility to.

[00:11:18] Recycle the proper way to know everything. But then a lot of what we throw away or recycle is packaging, right? So you get to a lot of argument about, well, if this wasn't manufactured or packaged in such a way, I would be able to recycle it. So it's the. Company that's making this product, it's their responsibility to use better packaging or to take back that package when I've used that particular product.

[00:11:44] But you get into that kind of push and pull of whose responsibility is, and I think it's everybody's responsibility, but again, you know, like you said, Catherine, it's, you can kind of get into that conundrum about that. Yeah. I think that's one of the most difficult things about climate change and just all of that in general is because we have a hard time coming to a consensus on what we should do, why, who's responsible for it?

[00:12:10] But it is something we need to deal with now because it's just going to continue to get worse. So it's really good that we have people like you working in sustainability to try and at least come up with something we can do. Even if it's not a full solution, it's still very beneficial. Can you think of anything that an individual student on WVU campus can do to promote sustainability or just be a little less damaging to the environment and their own lives?

[00:12:36] Yeah, I mean, if we're, if we're talking locally about our specific campus, I think there's a few things that are big for our students. Um, I'll talk about using public transportation or walking or bicycling, um, where you're going.

[00:12:56] The PRT as, as painful as some of the transition has been with the computer system on the BRT. It is a great public transportation tool. Um, and you know, the decision to save the PRT as it was, was made based on a lot of. Transportation issues that we have in the city of Morgan town. So if we didn't have the PRT operating and moving our faculty, staff and students from place to place on campus every day, we would need about.

[00:13:28] 40 buses on city streets to make up for that transportation volume. So it's a great tool for moving between downtown and Evans Dale and moving around, um, where the PRT services. So, um, I would say. Take public transportation or walk when you can. I mean, there's a lot of data out there too about vehicle trips and a lot, a lot of vehicle trips are made within two miles of your residence.

[00:13:56] What can you do to minimize those vehicle trips to kind of. Bundle your errands and your classes or what you're doing throughout your daily routine to, um, reduce how much you're driving. Um, particularly to on, on that topic on the university side, something that we haven't yet touched but we're getting ready to is fleet vehicles on campus.

[00:14:19] Um, our camp, we own over 500 vehicles, um, at WVU and. Vehicles cause a lot of emissions. So we're going to be instituting a fleet management policy and starting to look at do all of these vehicles we have even need to be vehicles. Could they be electric golf cart type vehicles? A lot of them don't travel very far each day.

[00:14:44] Um, can we have less. Vehicles, all those sorts of things. So that, that's a big one for students and for what we're doing to operate the university. I think another one is, um, using less throwaway disposables. So simple things like bringing a reusable coffee mug or using reusable water bottle, which I do see a lot of our students doing.

[00:15:06] Um, and we have a student group right now who is mapping all of our bottle filling stations on campus so that we can provide information that allows. Students to practice that habit. Um, so thinking about the disposables that you use on a daily basis, and how can you kind of engineer those out of your life as much as possible.

[00:15:27] And then I think another one is, um, think about your energy use. You know, if. For, if we're talking about on-campus students, they don't have a whole lot of control over the energy use in their dorm rooms. For a lot of our buildings, the way that our dorms are set up, um, but we have a high percentage of off campus students.

[00:15:48] So think about how you're using energy in your apartment or your house in Morgan town, and how, how can you reduce that or be a little bit more conscious of what you're using. Hi, this is Catherine again. I know that your office, Tracy, has been working on, um, reducing Styrofoam on campus as well. Maybe you could talk a little bit about that.

[00:16:10] I know with the Hatfield’s renovation, I've only been there once, but it looks like there's a lot, there's, you know, metal cutlery, I think. Is that true? Yup. Yeah. And, um, you know, actual plates and cups. Can you talk a little bit more about that transition and how you think that's going and what you see moving forward?

[00:16:27] Yeah. Um, we, we want to eventually get to a place where we're not using any Styrofoam on campus. Um, we do have some Styrofoam still in a few pockets of campus, particularly Evansville crossing, which I hear from students a lot about, um, we're working to. Say bye bye to Styrofoam. Um, the reason that Styrofoam is still used anywhere today is because it's cheaper.

[00:16:52] It's about 50% cheaper than any other disposable product that you're going to use. So that's still a significant challenge to eliminating Styrofoam anywhere you're talking about. But, um, we're working on it and yeah, in a lot of our locations on campus. We have eliminated using Styrofoam, but there are still disposables there that are plastic, so they're recyclable plastic.

[00:17:17] Um, but we're trying to transition those from that petroleum-based plastic to a sugar cane-based product. So those disposables would be. Uh, fiber basically that, um, would be compostable, although we don't yet compost on campus. Um, but certainly have less of an impact than number one pet plastic. Um, and then the other thing, um, we have particular challenges with a few of the franchises we have on campus, particularly Chick-Filet who uses Styrofoam cups.

[00:17:50] Um, and we're working on, um, we've approached them a couple of times and asked them to stop doing that. And so far, they've refused, but we're not giving up on that front. Um, and working on reducing that. Use as well. So I think it's, it's a phased in approach. We were not, um, saying as of whatever date Styrofoam has gone, but it's kind of a, okay, let's move from Styrofoam to something recyclable.

[00:18:14] Let's move from something recyclable to this fiber-based product. And then wherever possible, like you said, go, where can we use real plates and real silverware and those sorts of things. Yeah. In the physics department, we've had some meetings this semester of how can we be more sustainable as a department, and we used to have Styrofoam cups for our coffee and then we moved to compostable.

[00:18:38] Um, although we don't compost, so I guess at least we're not putting microplastics in the ocean, but it's still not super environmentally friendly. Um, and now there's a push in our department to just, just yesterday our department chair told me that he's just going to buy mugs for every single person in the department, and that's actually cheaper than continually buying.

[00:18:59] Disposable products throughout the entire year, and so simple. I'm kind of like, why didn't we think of that before? You know? You know, we've just gotten used to that convenience of being able to toss it away rather than just clean your coffee cup or something like that. Can you speak more a little bit about [00:19:14] compost compostable stuff rather than recyclable stuff. What do we need to be compost? What do we need to move to at least compostable stuff on campus? I think I read that there's no compost facility in all of West Virginia. Can you maybe speak a little bit like, I'm not very educated on all of that? Can you just.

[00:19:30] Maybe help me understand. Yeah, that's true. So there, there are no commercial composting facilities in the state of West Virginia that accept food waste. There are some that handle landscape type waste only. Um, but nothing that handles food. Um. The closest one I think we've found is North of Pittsburgh.

[00:19:52] So that becomes a challenge. Um, it, it causes more missions to truck that compostable waste to Pittsburgh. Then, you know, it doesn't meet the, the goals of what, what we'd like to do. But composting is an ongoing discussion on campus. The challenges with composting here are it does take a lot of capital to start a composting program [00:20:13] that would pick up food waste and other compostable ways from locations on campus. You need labor, you need trucks, you need a site. That site has to be prepped specifically to be able to handle that compost. Then you also need labor to, um, maintain whatever. Compost, um, method you've chosen, whether that's a traditional pile and turn type commerce compost, that's a big pile.

[00:20:40] Or if it's, um, equipment, there's different equipment you can use for composting. So I think those are the challenges I think that we will get there. Um. And it's something that our dining services group is very open to. We've done a few waste audits to kind of quantify, okay, how much volume of food waste do we have from kitchen operations, where they're prepping the food and the dining hall situations where the students are actually consuming food.

[00:21:10] So we do have an idea of that um, we do do. Landscape composting on this campus. So when our roads and grounds group is out and about. Maintaining our exterior parts of campus. They do, um, take that compost to the university farm, but it's the landscape waste only at this point. But yeah. You know, I think as far as disposables go, it would be great to have already looked at all those areas and have what we need to still be disposable, set up as compostable.

[00:21:42] So when we get a program started, boom, we're already ready with that stuff. You mentioned the dining halls at WVU, do anything with extra food that's leftover or does it just get thrown away? Um, so we have been monitoring that food waste. We did a waste audit in 2012 we did another one in 2017 and we saw the amount of.

[00:22:03] Leftover food between those two waste audits went down significantly. So I think part of that's due to word is doing a better job of not over making batches of food that we need for dining halls and retail dining on campus. But the answer is yes. Um, the food ways that we do have, there's a student organization called the food recovery network that we partner with and when possible, we donate food to them and then they transport it out to partner organizations.

[00:22:36] Um, my office also runs a small-scale gleaning program that's in the fall. And what gleaning is, is it's harvesting, um, produce out of farmer's fields that would otherwise. Be wasted that what other why's not get harvested. So we have taken students out there at the end of the growing season, harvested what's left in the field, and then given that to the campus food recovery network to take to their partner organizations.

[00:23:05] And we've taken some of it to the rack. So that's another thing that we kind of do that's, you know, not waste coming from campus, but is, you know, reducing food waste. That is really awesome that you all do that. I have a question. Um, is there anything, maybe your office doesn't do this, but is there anything about, you know, buildings and just where we get our energy from?

[00:23:28] What, what are the discussions like, um, regarding, I don't know, installation of solar panels or hydro power, or what is your perspective on, on that for WVU? With our buildings? Yeah. So there are some things that we do do already. Build it on the building side, we do build to lead equivalent standards. So lead is a certification from the U S green building council, and it stands for leadership in energy and environmental design.

[00:23:57] Um, so we build to those standards. So that includes things like, um, making sure you have energy efficient heating and air conditioning systems, things like low flow. Toilets and sinks, um, energy efficient lighting, all those sort of building systems that you have. So right now we're building a new business and economics building, and we're renovating Hodges hall, which is a classroom building.

[00:24:24] And both of those buildings, we're looking at how can we build energy efficiency into these buildings? Another thing that we do on the energy side is called performance contracting. And we've been doing that since about 2006 on campus. And basically that's kind of an energy audit model where, um, a third party goes through all of our existing buildings and makes a laundry list of recommendations.

[00:24:49] You know, you're. Heating system is really old, you should replace it with a more energy efficient one. You should change all the lighting in the building, that kind of same energy saving techniques. And then the university decides which ones we want done. And then that third party actually, um, contracts that takes care of upgrading those buildings.

[00:25:11] And then we use the savings from that to pay for the project. So it's also kind of a funding mechanism to make improvements to the building without going out and getting a loan or a bond. Um, that's been really successful for us. Um, since 2006, it's saved us about $20 million in energy costs and, um, avoided about 360 million pounds of greenhouse gases.

[00:25:39] Being admitted to that, to the atmosphere. So those have been really accessible energy, um, projects for us. We are installing the first solar panels on campus, on the roof of the law school. It'll be a small portion of the roof. It will not power the whole building by any means, but it will offset some of the, the energy that that building is using.

[00:26:02] But yeah, I think WVU is open to. Any and all sources of energy. We do have some significant legal challenges in the state of West Virginia. There are certain, um, models of buying power that are just not legal. There are some legislators trying to change some of those models, and I think we'll get there.

[00:26:22] But we're behind other States for sure on, um, promoting and incentivizing and encouraging renewable energy. Thank you, Tracy. Thank you. I think, um, a lot of what you said was really informative. It really tied into what we talked about in our class. So I think it was really interesting to hear it from someone that knows a lot about it.

[00:26:41] So thank you. Thank you, Erica. And I just want to say I'm glad that there are. Climate solutions, conversations happening, and I want to make sure that students keep having those conversations because you guys have the vision. You guys unfortunately have the, the continued responsibility to make sure that we live in a more sustainable world and have a more sustainable future.

[00:27:06] So I'm happy to hear that there are conversations like this happening. I want to listen to all the other podcast episodes so. Thanks for having me. Thanks.