By Sarah Hayes, A and E Editor
It is hard not to notice the amount of wasted paper and recyclable materials across campus. After seeing trash cans overflowing with junk, it is also hard not to feel that nothing is being done to cut down on waste. But the University of Missouri—St. Louis campus has a secret weapon against the rising threat of rubbish: the UMSL Sustainability Office. Formed in 2013 to help the college reduce its impact on the surrounding environment, the office is hidden away in the Millennium Student Center North Parking Garage.
The office is headed by Katy Mike Smaistrla, the coordinator and sustainability’s top championing staff member at UMSL. She keeps her office hypervisible on campus by connecting with the community at student orientations, club expos, and commuter-specific meetups. The Sustainability Office may be lacking in funds, but if Smaistrla is anything to go by, it is not lacking in enthusiasm or innovation. It was a combination of those two things that made Smaistrla the UMSL sustainability coordinator back in 2003, a position created with the department and one that she has stepped into gladly with both feet, despite some drawbacks such as lack of funding and student awareness.
Her previous experience working on similar projects at the Missouri Botanical Gardens made her an obvious choice for UMSL’s green department. The Sustainability Office has been making many efforts to reduce waste on campus, such as collecting eyeglasses through the Pre-Optometry Club and magazines for an unnamed literary project. They are also working on other projects, such as collecting electronics in a campus-wide e-cycling drive and expanding bike services on campus, but a lack of funding and student interest has, so far, kept these ideas in the planning phase.
They also introduced the G.O.O.S.E. (Good On One Side & Eco-friendly) paper bins. These flat cardboard boxes are located in strategic places around campus where paper is widely printed and abandoned, such as the Library Research common printing areas in the Thomas Jefferson Library. They are places to drop off unwanted printouts that do not use both sides of the sheet for use as scrap paper by others.
UMSL Sustainability’s first annual report can only be accessed via the Wayback Machine, which links to an archived version of the report from September 2015 (a quick link can be found here: https://goo.gl/h7mtzC). In the report, the office lists their goals as covering several focus areas: education; energy and water; food and dining services; green building; procurement;
transportation; and waste. This is followed by a timeline of specific goals, broken down by year and priority level.
Do not expect any more annual reports in the near future; they have been abandoned for a more open, hands-on system. The Sustainability Office has recently switched to a program run by the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE). UMSL now sets its sustainability goals via AASHE’s Sustainability Tracking & Assessment Rating System (STARS), which can be updated on a regular basis. STARS bills itself as a “transparent, self-reporting framework for colleges and universities to measure their sustainability performance,” according to the system website.
According to a 2016 STARS summary snapshot provided by the Sustainability Office, UMSL is currently pursuing or has completed projects related to topics such as campus engagement, public engagement, air and climate operations, and health and wellbeing. Due to the difficulties of working with multiple departments at one time, for the most part, the office is not currently working on anything pertaining to curriculum and research, which would include sustainability curriculum programs, academic research, and support for said research.
Engaging faculty in being mindful of more eco-friendly ideas has been a hard task for Smaistrla. One of the goals set out by AASHE is to introduce and integrate sustainability education into college curriculum. However, because every department works independently and do not always communicate, it is a struggle to figure out what is being taught where and how it fits into AASHE guidelines.
Smaistrla describes each department as a “silo” that rarely talks to other departments, nor do the departments work on an interdisciplinary level. “[UMSL Sustainability hasn’t] done a campus wide survey of all of the faculty to ask ‘are you teaching about or mentioning sustainability in your coursework?’ I know there are faculty out there that are, and any time I come across one I’m always excited, and do whatever I can do to help. I’d love to support those projects that they are asking their students to do, but it’s just hard to find out about it.”
Unfortunately, accessing UMSL’s own full campus STARS report might be hard, since AASHE requires that colleges pay them to put their reports online for consideration. Since the college is already in a budget crunch, and the Sustainability Office is not a high priority for receiving money, the STARS report has been put to the side until proper funds can be obtained, a
song that is becoming an unfortunately familiar one to those who work in Sustainability.
Back at Smaistrla’s office, she relies upon the assistance of student workers, hired through grant money and not the college’s student worker program, to carry out many of the on-campus sustainability projects. This includes weighing waste that is created in the Nosh, setting up recycling bins and Terracycle containers, and reaching out to students during the annual Recyclemania event which emphasizes catching students “green handed” i.e., doing something good for the environment, whether it be riding a bike to school or using a refillable water bottle.
TerraCycle concentrates on turning trash into new items in a process called upcycling, which involves taking what would normally be thrown away and making it something usable. Smaistrla wants students to know that everything they do impacts the planet, even if it is a seemingly small gesture such as throwing a soda bottle in the recycle bin as opposed to a trash bin.
“We need your help,” Smaistrla said. “We’re trying to change a culture, right? Institutions move very, very slowly, so it’s going to take everybody involved. So we need help.”