Universities are buzzing with young adults passionate about protecting the planet, and student environmental organizations direct all that energy into action.

They launch recycling initiatives and run organic farms. Or they’re out and about among peers, touting such eco-friendly practices as buying local, preparing vegan dishes, and installing water-saving devices on faucets.

Student projects promoting sustainability are usually quite effective because they’re fueled by young adults who are enthusiastic, persistent, and innovative, according to Talia Haller, director and founder of the Green Greek Representative Program at the University of Washington in Seattle.

“Students are very hardworking,” Haller says. “We are so excited to apply what we’re learning to real-world experience. It poises us for success in a lot of ways.”

Green Greeks

University of Washington Green Greek representatives. Photo supplied by Talia Haller

The Green Greek program is a network of representatives from sororities and fraternities at UW who devise and implement planet-friendly practices in their houses.

While pitching their eco-friendly ideas, Green Greek reps emphasize financial impact as well as environmental benefits, Haller says. Decision-makers tend to be more motivated to launch a fresh sustainability program if there are monetary incentives. A Green Greek project at a UW fraternity, for example, involved equipping the house with several strategically placed recycling and composting bins and switching to products that support the effort, such as disposable utensils that are composted instead of tossed into the trash. A robust emphasis on composting and recycling reduces the amount of garbage, which saves the fraternity money on pick-up fees, Haller explains.

Other projects led by Green Greek reps include a fraternity installing water-saving aerators on sink and shower faucets, and a sorority agreeing to ban personal mini-refrigerators, which also offered safety benefits to the building.

Sustainable Farming

Burning Kumquat student-run farm at Washington University in St. Louis. Photo supplied by Jeremy Pomerantz

Students at various universities, including Washington University in St. Louis, run their own farms, often with an emphasis on organic fruits and vegetables.

“We believe in sharing the joy of freshly picked vegetables with the world,” states the website for the university’s urban garden with an intriguing name.

Burning Kumquat is a showcase for promoting locally grown produce and sustainable urban agriculture. The garden uses water-efficient drip irrigation and compost, says organization co-president Jeremy Pomerantz, who is a junior studying geochemistry. Some university departments contribute coffee grounds and other appropriate discards to the compost bins, he says.

In addition to offering tours of the garden, students from Burning Kumquat set up a folding table on campus and sell lettuce and other freshly picked fruits and vegetables. Some of the harvest is sold to the student dining service.

“I think it’s good for people to understand what they eat and what’s needed to produce the food,” Pomerantz says.

Burning Kumquat’s environmental focus also includes such activities as screening films and leading a bike tour of local urban farms.

Plastic Bag Recycling

Bag and plastic wrap recycling program at University of Wisconsin – Green Bay. Photo: University of Wisconsin – Green Bay

Thousands of discarded garbage bags, package wrapping, and other unwanted plastic film are the focus of a student recycling project at the University of Wisconsin – Green Bay.

Square bins with bright yellow lids provide a handy option on campus for students and staff to dispose of the environmentally objectionable plastic.

So far, the program has racked up more than 3,800 pounds of discards, which is the equivalent of about 350,000 plastic supermarket bags, says John D. Arendt, director of the Environmental Management & Business Institute at the university.

Arendt is an informal advisor to the recycling effort, which his institute launched as part of a student internship program. The Public and Environmental Affairs Council, a student organization, subsequently took over the project.

The students package the plastic into bales, which are sold to a firm that incorporates recycled wood and recycled plastic film into decking material.

Arendt said he appreciates the potential of environmentally focused students. “They’re fantastic,” he says. “The energy is incredible.”

EcoReps in Residence Halls

EcoReps program at the University of Rochester. Photo: Josephine Foong

EcoReps at the University of Rochester in New York includes freshmen selected to serve as sustainability leaders in the residence halls where they live. They provide fellow residents with information about recycling and organize activities that inspire sustainable practices, such as vegan cooking demonstrations, field trips to a local market, and trivia games with an educational theme.

“Every year for move-in, the EcoReps assist in Box Breakdown, which ensures all of the boxes and Styrofoam used for moving is collected and recycled,” says Patricia Van Valkenburgh, director of the program and a junior majoring in environmental studies.

EcoReps are required to take a class focusing on sustainability and leadership, she says. Previous experience is not a requirement. “What we’re looking for are people passionate about the environment,” she says.

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By Patti Roth

Patti began her writing career as a staff writer for the South Florida Sun Sentinel. Still based in Florida, Patti serves as editor for Fort Lauderdale on the Cheap. She regularly writes about environmental, home improvement, education, recycling, art, architecture, wildlife, travel and pet topics.