Though the Office of Sustainability is located two miles from the heart of campus in the Facilities Services Complex on Sutherland Avenue, the work the office does can be found nearly everywhere on campus.
The sustainability program within the geography department offers both a major and a minor to students and, in partnership with the Office of Sustainability, has become one of the fastest growing programs on campus. Recycling bins in dorm rooms, dorm lobbies, dining halls and academic buildings are the result of years of infrastructure planning and compost bins after football games and academic events signal the office’s commitment to zero waste events.
But there is also green infrastructure, like greenways, rain gardens and bike paths, and sustainable programs such as the Grow Lab, a new campus garden that educates students about food production, and the new permanent Free Store on campus, which provides free, lightly-used clothing, kitchenware and appliances to students.
All of these initiatives are quickly becoming part of the university’s national reputation, with UT designated as a 2021 Green Campus by the Princeton Review. Jay Price, sustainability manager for the Office of Sustainability, said that there is more to be done to cement UT’s status as a sustainable university.
“We need to be leaders in this space,” Price said. “We’re an institution of higher education and we’ve got researchers, top notch researchers, top notch programs, and we need to do our part to allow that to continue sustainably into the future.”
With over 30,000 enrolled students and thousands of faculty and staff on campus every day, the Office of Sustainability oversees the environmental impact of a community the size of a small city.
“We make a big impact with our operations here on campus,” Price said. “We’ve got tons of commuters coming to campus, we’ve got huge buildings, you know, these use a lot of energy, we’re burning a lot of fossil fuels and it’s important for us to minimize our impact ... We all need to act. We’re in a climate crisis right now. We need to do our part.”
Samantha Scalise, a senior recreational therapy major and a member of the office’s Zero Waste Team, didn’t realize until she interned with the office last year how many opportunities it has provided for students, staff and faculty to create less waste.
“I didn’t really know how many things going on, on campus were to divert waste,” Scalise said. “There’s all these places on campus that collect different appliances or different plastic so that it doesn’t have to go to the landfill.”
In addition to recycling in dorms and around campus and compost bins in select locations, there are cardboard bins outside dorms and a public recycling drop-off center on Stephenson Drive, where students can take more specialized items such as plastic bags or used appliances.
Much of the work the Office of Sustainability does is a matter of sorting. Scalise, who lives off campus, has adopted some of these practices into her personal life.
“I have a bunch of bins at my house that I presort and once a week I drive over to the public drop off to take it because my complex doesn’t recycle,” Scalise said.
After material is recycled and taken to the Facilities Services Complex, staff and interns like Scalise go through and sort the material based on its destination facility.
“I didn’t actually realize how many different recycling plants you have to go to recycle every single type of material,” Scalise said.
Since sorting waste requires a good deal of knowledge about what goes where, the Office of Sustainability has taken its role as an educator seriously. Outside of sustainability classes, the office hopes to host an upcoming conference on climate change and even has a sorting game on its website to help the UT community understand where different waste goes.
“It is an education program as well as a physical program,” Scalise said. “We need to teach people how to correctly divert their waste away from the landfill for anything to change. I can recycle every day, but if my neighbor isn’t doing it, then I’m not really offsetting any of the waste.”
For all of the visibility that sustainability programs have on campus, much goes on behind the scenes and is unseen by most students. This is perhaps most true for the rapidly growing compost program on campus.
The compost program picks up several forms of waste that students never interact with, including food scraps and leftovers from dining halls, animal manure from the veterinarian school and wood chips from various landscaping projects.
All of this waste goes to the sprawling compost facility, tucked away in the woods across from the UT Medical Center, where it is placed into 80-foot rows and rotated weekly for five to six months, until it becomes soil-like compost which is then supplied to other facilities across campus.
Wayne Mason, compost operations specialist, said that there is a special recipe for the waste at the facility which is “a dash of food waste with a dash of wood chips and a few leaves here and there” to achieve the right balance of carbon and nitrogen.
The composting program exists mostly out of sight of students, but Mason said the office is trying to change that. A new composting logistics coordinator will work to bring composting into dining halls and dorms, so that students, staff and faculty can have a more direct role in composting. This includes introducing compostable to-go plates and silverware so that all waste can be diverted.
“No one likes sorting their trash when they’re done with that, and it’s the hardest thing to teach people to do,” Mason said. “But if you make it to where the only thing that people are interacting with are compostable items, then you only have to provide compostable bins. So there is no thought process, it kind of goes back to the days of single stream, except that whole single stream is sustainable.”
Mason was a physics major while attending UT, but like many of the students who complete the office’s internship or volunteer for the office, he got hooked on the work and has been doing it ever since.
“Sustainability is kind of a way of life. I call it the sustainability bug, so to speak,” Mason said. “The craziest thing is how addictive that kind of work is, because you’re making an impact, very visually, all day, every day.”
Mason is the only full-time staff member in the composting program, a fact that reflects a broader pattern of student leadership in the Office of Sustainability. He encouraged any student who is interested in environmental activism to become a volunteer or a paid member of the office.
The office has long term goals, including a 20-page master plan with goals to reach 50% waste diversion by 2030 and carbon neutrality by 2061. The office has also created separate color-coded “Sustainability Playbooks” for students, staff, faculty and administrators which are designed help the UT community understand how to lower their negative environmental impact.
The close attention the Office of Sustainability pays to educating students on how to live more sustainably is integral to their role on campus. The staff has come to love their jobs, and they want other people to love it too.
“It’s definitely a passion kind of thing,” Mason said. “People love to do this work.”