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‘Green Officers’ Regarded as Role Models on Sustainability

Soon after becoming sustainability coordinator for Meredith College last year, Laura Fieselman donated her office trash can to a colleague as incentive to recycle. That left Fieselman stashing paper waste in her desk drawer and disposing of her own garbage piece by piece.


Fieselman insists the loss of her own trash can is not a hardship. She doesn’t mind walking three doors down the hall to the break room to throw away lunch scraps and used paper towels. She also believes campus constituencies will more likely adopt conservation-minded practices if she proves, through day-to-day example, that they are not overly difficult.


She and other “green officers” at U.S. colleges agree that the nature of their jobs makes them de facto role models for environmental responsibility. Consequently, they regularly make sacrifices to avoid appearing hypocritical. 


University of Texas-San Antonio energy manager Robert Rodriguez now receives seven print magazine and professional journal subscriptions by e-mail (see Rodriguez in video). But before assuming that job, he consumed all of them as hard-copy publications, spending hours at a time reading while nursing a cup of coffee, tearing out the occasional article, and liberally running his highlighter through interesting parts.


Some situations are minor embarrassments.


Rodriguez recalls that he once – while traveling to a sustainability meeting in Maryland – rented a car at the airport. Conference officials offered parking permits to the crowd of 300 attendees – and Rodriguez was one of only four people sheepishly coming forward. “Everyone in the room looked at me like, ‘What’s this guy thinking?’ ” he said.


Cars present dilemmas for green officers. Those interviewed by Diverse say their jobs require them to commute. Their duties include, but are not limited to, conducting in-person examinations of campus facilities and grounds as well as meeting with administrators to demonstrate earth-friendly ideas. When Dr. Mary Ellen Mallia broke her ankle earlier this year, she carpooled with a co-worker to her job as director of environmental sustainability at the University of Albany until recovering. But her work hours are unpredictable. And she often drops off and picks up her daughter from school. So Mallia cannot justify a permanent carpool.


Barbara Weist of the University of Puget Sound sums up the overall professional challenge this way: “The more environmental awareness I create on campus, the more I notice my own behavior.”


The university’s web manager, Weist is a key member of the school’s sustainability advisory committee. She has dragged an occasional trash bag behind her on campus sifting the garbage for aluminum cans she takes home to recycle with her own cans.


At Meredith, Fieselman says her lack of a trash can results in the custodial staff replacing one less plastic bag daily.


Furthermore, several of her colleagues have followed suit in disposing of their trash cans, a move she jokingly describes as “saving the world one bag at a time.”   


Organizers of the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education annual conference urge attendees to take similar measures. Bring your own tote bags. Don’t distribute paper handouts; e-mail materials instead.


At last year’s AASHE gathering, conference-goers discarded items into bins marked “recyclable” and “compostable.” Then, behind-the-scenes volunteers manually sorted everything to ensure the highest purity level.


Back on campus, co-workers tease green officers for compulsive habits like policing thermostats as if their lives depend on it. But some environmental enemies still linger.


Rodriguez, who has been UTSA energy manager since 2002, leaves styrofoam cups untouched, despite they’re not being biodegradable. He realizes that coercing staff, faculty and students to use only mugs and refillable bottles would make them fight him much harder over thermostat settings.


That’s a battle, Rodriguez believes, not worth fighting. “Some things you can’t win.” 



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