May 2013

Greening Together

Student, faculty, and staff collaboration fosters sustainability at Bryn Mawr.

By Alyssa Banotai


A little more than one year ago, LED bulbs were installed in the 168 light fixtures in the Thomas Great Hall Chandelier. In the past, bulbs would have to be changed two or three times a year, and almost immediately there would be more burned-out bulbs. It is hoped that the LED bulbs will last several years before having to be replaced again. Photo by Roy Groething.

Award ceremonies demand cameras, action, and lights—especially lights. All of those elements were in ample supply this January when Bryn Mawr President Jane McAuliffe handed out commendations to the College’s electricians to celebrate the one-year anniversary of replacing the 168 lights in Thomas Great Hall’s chandelier with LED bulbs. More lights flashed as Sustainability Leadership Group Intern Lee McClenon ’14 screwed in a specially designed bulb above the pool table in Brecon Hall to make the dormitory the first all-LED building on Bryn Mawr’s campus. The bulbs, designed by David Shiller, an activist turned sustainable lighting consultant who worked with College electricians, are energy-efficient, yet produce the equivalent of a 160-watt bulb. Bryn Mawr is the first place in the world to use the design.

“They say that necessity is the mother of invention, and this is the true product of invention and innovation,” McAuliffe told ceremony attendees. “We start at Brecon but we don’t stop.”

To several attendees, the January ceremony served as a larger celebration of the formal and informal campus sustainability efforts that began when student volunteers started the first campus recycling campaign in the early 1980s. After a series of quiet but ongoing efforts throughout the next two decades, Bryn Mawr’s formal embrace of sustainability came through its role as a signatory to the American College & University Presidents’ Climate Commitment, signed by President Nancy Vickers in 2007. On campus, Vickers formed the College Sustainability Committee, chaired by Chief Administrative Officer Jerry Berenson. In 2011, McAuliffe signed Bryn Mawr’s Climate Action Plan, which called for a 10-percent reduction of the College’s carbon footprint. To implement the plan, she formed the current Sustainability Leadership Group (SLG), chaired by Mathematics Professor Victor Donnay and composed of student, faculty, staff, and administration representatives.

The SLG decided that 4 or 5 percent of the proposed reduction would come from building usage—reducing building hours, and urging that computers be shut down and devices unplugged at the end of the day. Two percent of the reduction would come from current technology changes—upgrading motors and drives to more efficient models based on cost-benefit analysis. An additional 2-percent reduction was to come from then-undetermined new technology, which, in Bryn Mawr’s case, turned out to be lighting.

“We’ve been very aggressively pursuing LED lighting in the past year with help from students,” says James McGaffin, associate director of Facilities Services for Project Management and Energy. The remaining carbon reduction was to result from individual behavioral change.

The SLG focused on reaching these goals through academic cooperation and collaboration from students and faculty. “Our committee is serving as a conduit to the faculty and students by saying, ‘Here are a range of sustainability projects that our committee is interested in and that we’d appreciate your help in analyzing,’” says Donnay. One of the results of this approach was the partnership forged with the admissions department by students in the fall 2012 environmental studies program for their senior seminar project, a campus sustainability tour for prospective students that debuted this year. Berenson credits the successes of the group to its prioritization of academic collaborations with students and faculty.

“In many of the ways we have found to reduce most of our use of energy, to reduce our carbon footprint, we have connected with students taking courses related to sustainability issues, and the students have really done the research and found ways that we can reduce the amount of energy we’re using on campus,” he says.


The Greens Community Garden was started in 2010 by BMC Greens, a student organization with the goal of promoting environmental awareness and inspiring environmental action in the Bryn Mawr community. Photo by Thom Carroll.

The Academic Approach

Donnay uses sustainability as a link between his curriculum, including principles of calculus and mathematical modeling, and real-world environmental issues. Students currently use the solar panels on Cambrian Row to analyze energy output and will soon be analyzing the outcomes of Brecon’s switch to an all-LED dorm. After a previous study that calculated the savings in water, detergent, and food if trays were eliminated from the dining halls, Dining Services went trayless. “Sustainability can be a lens to look at almost any topic,” Donnay says. “Given the serious challenges the world is facing, it’s not enough to simply understand the issues; we have to act and take action. Our students are these powerful, motivated, creative women who want to make a difference in the world, and they’re exactly the type of group who can use this knowledge that we’re sharing with them and then figure out how to apply it to positive action.”

The recent introduction of a Tri-Co environmental studies minor—2013 will be the third graduating class that could opt for that course of study—has added a more multidisciplinary academic approach to sustainable issues on campus, a deliberate design of the curriculum, according to Associate Professor of Growth and Structure of Cities and Director of Environmental Studies Ellen Stroud. “We end up having a much more robust conversation because we are very self-consciously having scientists and mathematicians and political scientists and biologists and policymakers and novelists and poets and philosophers and city planners and economists and anthropologists all developing a shared vocabulary and sharing skills with each other,” she says.

With climate change as a driver, Stroud believes environmental issues will play a critical role in American political discussions and that the complex, environmentally focused projects undertaken by Bryn Mawr Environmental Studies students will provide valuable skill sets in science, policymaking, mathematics, economics, and social justice advocacy. “Environmental problems are framed frequently as being too complex to be solved,” she says. “Learning how to understand the complexity of environmental problems and how to tackle them, even if the solutions seem daunting or even potentially out of immediate reach, are, I think, incredibly important skills.”

Caring about green issues on a college campus certainly isn’t a new phenomenon, but in McClenon’s view, the wide-ranging and intensive research projects undertaken by Bryn Mawr students have added an unusual complexity. “The way the students in our environmental studies minor engage is on a level greater than just measuring the amount of acid rain, for example,” she says. “We go into what are the social, political, and scientific causes of acid rain; where do they come from; and how can we attack the problem. Our thinking gets a little deeper because Bryn Mawr is a liberal arts institution that values creative and critical thinking.”

In the 2011–12 academic year, Donnay partnered with Carola Hein, a professor in the Growth and Structure of Cities Department, and Term Professor of Education Jody Cohen, to teach the 360° Program Course Cluster “Perspectives on Sustainability,” which included a Praxis component that resulted in a range of sustainability-related projects. Several of the projects are now implemented on Bryn Mawr’s campus, and include a study on the reduction of takeout containers in the dining halls (meal plans now limit takeout to five meals per week), the implementation of conservation mode in several campus buildings, and work with off-campus partners within the community.

Alisha Park ’13, an anthropology major and a recycling co-head, is writing her thesis on the interaction between the institutions, faculty, staff, and student environmental groups within the Tri-Co. Park, along with fellow recycling co-head Johanna Gauthier ’13, worked in partnership with the Facilities Department and residential students to develop a conservation-hours program in the dorms. The program, based on extensive student surveying and research, reduces heating or cooling in the dorms during the off-peak hours of 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. to save energy. “The collaboration between Facilities and professors has led me to realize I am capable of taking on a larger role surrounding the issues of sustainability,” Park said.

The recycling co-heads aided McClenon with education efforts on the recent implementation of single-stream recycling in the dorms. Gauthier, Park, and McClenon helped to publicize an official College sustainability logo that adorns the traditional lantern with a green hue and cyclical arrows derived from the universal recycling logo. Stickers with the logo are placed throughout dorms to remind students to adhere to an “energy diet” of unplugging unused electronics and chargers, turning off lights, and recycling.

Partnering with Facilities

At the heart of most of the major sustainability initiatives on campus has been Bryn Mawr’s Facilities Department. The LED lighting changes resulted in three years of bulb life in rooms on campus that are open for long periods of time. The department monitors the results of the switch to LED and noticed a subtle but important change. “We’re not seeing a great savings from all of these LED changes, but they have offset the increase in all of the technological things that plug into your room,” McGaffin explains. “And what our lighting has been able to do is negate that.”

In conducting its savings analysis, Bryn Mawr uses peer schools (residential liberal arts colleges) to compare overall savings results. Based on that data, Berenson is pleased with the economic returns on the energy initiatives. “We spend on average, per student, about the same amount of money, but we’re in a high-cost area, so we actually use less energy on average than our peer group does, so it has paid off,” he says.

The Facilities Department frequently partners with students who provide research on several sustainable initiatives: exploring the feasibility and cost benefits of single-stream recycling (now in its second year of implementation at the College), using the utility savings resulting from front-load washers to stop charging students for laundry, composting food waste from Dining Services, and exploring non-carbon-based energy sources. “We’re constantly looking not only from our facilities point of view but also from our academic point of view, and there’s no idea that we think is too radical to at least try and pursue,” McGaffin says.

Ed Harman, assistant director of Facilities Services for Ground Operations, worked with an environmental studies class to develop an on-campus tree tour with an accompanying website. Each tree on campus is tagged with a QR code that links back to the tree’s “biography” on the tour website.

Environmental Health and Safety Officer Don Abramowitz conducted an analysis for a partnership between Dining Services and the student-led Sustainable Food Committee on the use of compostable takeout containers instead of Styrofoam. “He calculated that the mass of a biodegradable container when incinerated actually causes a larger carbon footprint than foam,” says Bernie Chung-Templeton, executive director of Bi-Co Dining Services. “We went back to Styrofoam with the blessing of the Sustainable Food Committee.”

Green groups on campus such as the Greens and the Earth Justice League, as well as Self Governance Association committees Sustainable Foods and Green Ambassadors, play an important role in the success of many of the sustainability initiatives. “I am consistently impressed by how well Bryn Mawr students are able to organize and make change, and I am proud and honored to be able to collaborate with many of them,” said Michaela Olson ’15, president of the BMC Greens. “The more we can know about our environmental impact, the better equipped we are to combat climate change and other pressing issues and concerns.”

McClenon notices an active interest in sustainability even from those students not currently in activist positions on campus and says, “I think there’s a general sense among my generation that this is our issue; this is what we need to start caring about, and we need to make real changes.”

What Does Bryn Mawr Recycle?

In addition to the newly implemented single-stream recycling process for paper, cardboard, plastic, metal, and glass, the College also recycles a wide variety of other materials. Environmental Health and Safety Officer Donald Abramowitz compiled the complete list.

Fluorescent light bulbs, both the long tubes and compact bulbs
The total length of 4-foot-long bulbs the College recycles each year totals more than a mile.

Fluorescent light ballasts

Rechargeable batteries Recycled yearly totals equal about four 5-gallon pails plus several hundred pounds of lead-acid batteries.

Motor oil from stationary emergency generators About 100 gallons of oil are recycled annually.

Refrigerants from air conditioning and cooling devices

Scrap metal This can range from old plumbing pipes to metal furniture. It’s all separated, collected separately from the general trash stream, and sent to a reclamation facility.

Tech trash IT collects used computers, monitors, laptops, telephones, keyboards, printers, fax machines, and electronic-based scientific equipment. Approximately 12,000 pounds of electronic recyclables are shipped from the College each year.

Ink-jet printer cartridges

Sustainability Web Resources

Environmental Sustainability at Bryn Mawr College: main sustainability website and blog for the Sustainability Leadership Group.

360° Perspectives on Sustainability: information about the 360° Course Cluster devoted to sustainability issues.

Bryn Mawr College Climate Action Plan: signed by President Jane McAuliffe, it calls for a ten percent reduction in the College’s carbon footprint.

Tri-Co Environmental Studies Minor: information on curriculum, faculty, courses, and events.

Bryn Mawr College Greens: students for environmental responsibility and action.

Bryn Mawr College Solar Panel Output: track the environmental benefits from the solar panels on Cambrian Row.

Bryn Mawr College Tree Tour: developed by environmental studies students in partnership with Facilities, a “biography” of campus trees.