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A decade of sustainability and environmentalism on campus

Over the last decade, Mills College has come a long way in promoting sustainability and environmentalism on campus with pro-recycling and waste minimization initiatives.

“We transformed sustainability and environmentalism to more than just recycling and compost, but also to include restoration of our campus, waste minimization, water conservation and promoting a culture of reuse,” said junior Magee Page, a member of the student club Earth Community Organized to Respect, Protect and Sustain the Earth (Earth CORPS).

This chart depicts results from 2010’s Recyclemania Waste Minimization Competition as compared to 2009 results. Mills received 125th place overall in 2010 compared to 116th place in 2009. (Morgan Ross).

Earth CORPS is leading next week’s Earth Week events, including Creek Care Day April 17 and Craft Fair April 22. Recycling on campus has been an important part of Mills sustainability, including the efforts from campus dining services.

According to Operations Manager Roselia Zendejas, dining services first implemented recycling and composting initiatives in 2000.

“We were the test department in sustainability because we were the biggest waste contributors of the program,” said Zendejas, who spoke about how dining services has reduced food waste on campus in the last decade.

Former Recycling Manager Heidi Obermeit, who started working on campus in July 2006, recalled the efforts made by dining services before she started her sustainability work.

“When I started at Mills they were collecting some recycling and compost from the campus, which was mostly back of house material from the food service areas but there wasn’t much in terms of recycling collection from the dorms, office buildings or classrooms,” she said. “Besides the LEED building in the works there was an absence of any other visible sustainability programs beyond recycling and composting.”

Obermeit helped organize the infrastructure of the recycling program, earning grant money for purchase of recycling bins at the Tea Shop and Cafe Suzie. She also focused on creating a recycling group on campus to promote student involvement.

“I would like to see students step up and really make change happen.  Students often don’t realize just how much power they have to make a concrete difference on their campus. If students make their voice heard and push for environmental change they can really have a huge impact on environmental policy at Mills,” she said.

In solidarity in addressing the issue of global warming, President Janet Holmgren signed a National Climate Commitment in June 2007 with more than 300 presidents and chancellors in the U.S. to affirm its commitment of environmental stewardship.

After Obermeit left, Recycling and Sustainability Manager Britta Bullard took over environmental accountability on campus. She helped create the Reuse Depot in 2008, a free, student-run center located in Reinhardt Hall where community members can donate their clothes and school supplies.

Bullard also spoke about the sustainability initiatives Bon Appetit has taken, including the Low Carbon Diet, which decreases the company’s carbon impact by raising awareness of factors that increase carbon dioxide emissions.

“There’s potential to reduce waste and there is potential to have more food grown on campus, to expand our restoration sites that we have been working on along the creek. There is potential to increase our energy efficiency to reduce greenhouse gases,” said Bullard.

Another intitiave in partnership with Bon Appetit was the school’s participation in Recyclemania, which in 2010 reduced waste from 2.67 lbs of compost per person to 0.86 lbs per person by the ninth week of the competition.

“The ultimate goal for Mills is to reach zero waste,” said Bullard, who hopes to push for compost initiatives, especially during school events and clearer recycling bin signage on all bins on campus.

“I feel that we could increase our diversion rate if we could have higher composting and recycling rates,” she said.

She also hopes to encourage a bike culture on campus to lessen student dependency on driving to and from the dining hall and classes.

The sustainability campaign on campus includes restoration of the campus’ creek environment and promotion of water conservation as well.

“Restoring the creek supports biodiversity and healthier ecosystems that, like all living things, depend on clean water,” explained architectural assistant Brian Harrington, who has been working on plans to restore the Leona Creek and its streams by reducing non-native species damaging its ecosystem.

“The creek is one of the few physical elements connecting our grounds to the surrounding landscape and neighborhoods,” he said.

The College has taken on several water-conservation initiatives including waste water systems in the Natural Sciences Building and Graduate School of Business that use rainwater. In addition drought-resistant bush grass has been planted outside the Lorry I. Lokey Building and in the Mills community garden.

“I have only had to water the bush grass in the community garden four times since 2007,” said Garden Coordinator and Sustainability Committee member Christina McWhorter, who grows native flora in the community garden to replace non-native species along Lake Aliso.

“We need to promote behavior where we are consciously using water efficiently and not using it when we don’t need it,” she said.

According to, the College received a B- overall, an A in student involvement — citing the leadership initiatives by EarthCORPS — and an F in endowment transparency, describing how the College would not disclose endowment holdings or its shareholder voting records in 2010.

“The administration needs to be more transparent in its involvement of sustainability and raise awareness of these issues and get more people involved,” Page said.

According to Bullard, the College has made huge improvements in creating a culture that goes beyond sustainability and environmentalism, particularly by building student leadership.

“I feel incredibly lucky to have had the opportunity to work with so many passionate and capable students. Participating in sustainability initiatives on campus not only develops their leadership skills — it also allows them real and significant opportunities to make a difference,” she said.