February 1, 2007

Becker Pushes Sustainability

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Sustainability has become a buzzword at Cornell, and groups throughout campus are focusing on how they can make a difference. One place where a movement for sustainability has emerged is the Carl Becker House.

“The whole effort is to make Becker House a ‘beacon of sustainability’ on the West Campus,” said Arvind Chandrasekar grad, one of the graduate resident fellows at Becker. “I really want Becker House to set a blazing trend for others to follow. I’ve been doing my best to inculcate a sense of environmental friendliness amongst the undergraduate community.”

Chandrasekar is part of a sustainability effort that promotes environmental consciousness around the world. At Becker House, sustainability efforts had already begun before Chandrasekar arrived as a GRF. Eileen Hughes, the executive chef at Becker House, said that Becker has been composting since it opened.

“All the food scraps that are generated when food gets prepared, plus all the leftovers from all the students who eat [in the dining hall], go into this big container,” Chandrasekar said, describing the long-standing sustainability efforts at Becker. “Most dining areas compost. Things like napkins most dining areas don’t want to put in the compost pile because they see it as messy, but in Becker we even take the napkins and compost them. I’m not aware of other dorms or residences that push sustainability as much as we do.”

Hughes added that the House has a Somat machine: “What it does is it grinds up all the leftover foodstuffs from the customers’ plates and makes it sort of a mealy, dried out, compostable garbage which gets picked up every day by the university.”

The composting material that is picked up is then taken to a composting facility on Game Farm Road, according to Chandrasekar. The main use of this facility is to compost manure produced by the farm animals on campus. However, when food scraps and paper are added to this, they are turnedinto compost, which is much more sustainable than having them sit in a landfill. The compost produced is then sold as a soil-enhancing agent.

One issue that had not been solved by Becker’s composting, however, was the fate of the newspapers that students left on the dining hall tables. Before Chandrasekar became a GRF, they were simply thrown away, according to Hughes. She added that she also used to have to pay for a company to come and dispose of the used cooking oil. To find a way to recycle the oil and cut down on waste, Chandrasekar contacted a local farmer and arranged for the farmer to pick up all of the used fried oil free of charge.

“We are not only saving money, but we are also being friendly to the environment because the farmer is using the oil to heat his home. Otherwise, he would have used natural gas or other methods,” Chandrasekar added.

“Arvind arranged it, and I was all for it, and the same happened with the newspapers,” Hughes said. “He contacted me about getting a recycle bin for it, I contacted facilities, and then facilities arranged for newspaper and recycle cans.”

Now all paper, including newspaper, gets recycled in the dining halls by the dining hall workers who clean the tables. Efforts have also begun to expand into the halls with GRFs such as Chandrasekar leading by example. Chandrasekar said that he urges residents to separate recyclables from other garbage and also maintains worm-composting bins of his own.

“People should definitely sort their trash and make sure they recycle paper, plastic, glass, and metal. That’s a big thing, actually, that I don’t see students doing even in Becker House,” Chandrasekar pointed out. “There has to be a big change in people’s attitudes to not consume enough and not waste energy. A simple thing like turning a switch off when leaving the room can go a long way.”

Chandrasekar also has more ideas in mind for the future, such as investing in printers that can print on both sides to save paper and finding ways to purchase local food that has been obtained through more sustainable agricultural methods.

He stressed that there are still a lot of improvements to be made. Although Becker itself had been built according to the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design guidelines, a lot of energy is still being wasted.

There are many improvements to be made outside Becker as well. According to the Sustainable Endowments Institute’s College Sustainability Report Card, Cornell only earned a B-. Out of the 100 colleges surveyed, 22 schools received grades in the B-range. Only 4 schools, Harvard University, Stanford University, Dartmouth College and Williams College, received the maximum grade, which was an A.

“Why can’t we be as good as Harvard? It sucks,” Chandrasekar said.

He said he believes that “we should be doing much more in recycling and green building” but also expressed his dismay and surprise at the F’s Cornell received in endowment transparency and shareholder engagement. In his five years at Cornell, he always believed that the University spoke openly about its operations, but, according to the Sustainability Report Card, this is not so.

“Undergrads are the future of this country and it saddens me that students of this caliber, the best students from this country and around the world, don’t understand the importance of natural resources,” Chandrasekar said. “You have to use them properly or else it’s like a domino effect. Things are connected in nature. You may not realize it now, but the things you do today will affect the world in unseen ways a few decades from today.”