The red Solo cup is ubiquitous on university campuses, from dorms to fraternity houses to sandwich joints. Singer Toby Keith’s hit song about the Solo cup is practically a college anthem.
But there’s a problem with the Solo cup, said Rice University student Rande Patterson. It can’t be recycled.
Traditional Solo cups are made with a kind of plastic that many campuses don’t have the capacity to recycle. By explaining this to students, Patterson hopes to see fewer solo cups in Rice trashcans.
Patterson, an Eco-Rep at Rice, is helping with a project to “instate a simple way for students to buy recyclable plastic cups on campus…to replace the unrecyclable Solo cups that are so commonly utilized by students.”
She said her involvement in Rice’s sustainability efforts supplements coursework for her ecology and evolutionary biology major. But more importantly, it helps her educate her peers about making a positive difference on the planet.
“Sometimes the only thing needed to change a person’s actions is to offer them an alternative,” she said.
Rankings, like that of the Sierra Club, recognize schools like University of California, Irvine, with a recycling rate of more that 70%, and Duke University, which serves local, farm-harvested produce in campus dining halls.
However, some students have big ideas for energy conservation before becoming involved in campus sustainability initiatives.
Stuart Block’s home at the University of Florida is far from the typical fraternity house.
Like most fraternity houses, UF’s chapter of Beta Theta Pi puts a roof over the heads of college men, giving them a place to live and socialize.
Unlike most fraternity houses, that roof is covered in solar panels.
While many communities nationwide are seeing the benefits of going solar, according to a USA TODAY article, Beta was the second fraternity house in the nation to make the switch.
A class project inspired Block, a 21-year-old sustainability studies senior, to convert his fraternity’s energy to solar powered last school year.
By researching his local utility company, Block learned about environmental and financial benefits of solar energy.
“When I looked at Beta’s bills and realized we were paying about $2,500 a month on average for electricity, I quickly realized that there was a great opportunity for us to invest in solar [energy] and lock in our energy rates for the next 25 years,” Block said.
Installing solar panels counteracts energy cost inflation and utility rate increases, he said.
“With renewable energy investments, you typically see extremely high upfront capital costs, and the money trickles back to you over time via savings,” he said.
A $20,000 rebate from Progress Energy and a $10,000 loan from UF’s energy department helped Beta fund the initiative upfront.
Instead of paying the loan back monetarily, the fraternity brothers owe UF a total of 1,000 hours of energy-saving community service over the course of 5 years.
“I only have one more year here, so I really needed the vote and cooperation of the brotherhood,” Block said. “Now we have guys taking charge, helping brothers get involved and we’re working out volunteer schedules to get those hours back as soon as we can.”
Adorned with 44 panels on its roof, Beta’s solar array offsets about 30% of the fraternity’s monthly energy demand.
However, Block said solar panels are only a small part of the conservation initiative and students need to pay more attention to environmental repercussions of their actions.
“It’s really difficult to convince somebody that it’s worthwhile for them to turn off their overhead light and use a lamp, or make sure that your laptop is not plugged in all night if it’s already charged or don’t put your thermostat all the way down to 65 degrees to live in an ice box,” Block said, “especially when they’re more concerned with their classes and social life.”
Block and Patterson agree that the first step is the hardest in campaigning for a change on campus. But, their successes prove that all it takes is an initial idea.
“The moral of the story is talk to people, network and don’t be afraid to talk about what you’re passionate about,” Block said. “If you don’t put yourself out there, you’ll never know if your project is feasible.”
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