Dec 17th, 2021, 08:00 AM

Green Machine

By Jeff Hanrahan
Image Credit: ABES via AUP Engage
A talk with the Advisory Board for Environmental Sustainability on how AUP can be more eco-friendly.

AUP as an institution needs to take a careful look at what it can do to promote environmental sustainability. Our school’s unique situation in which most of the students come from different countries means that many, if not most, students fly here. Even though AUP is small, this reliance on flight as a means of transportation means that the carbon footprint we leave behind is much larger than it should be for a school of our size. Forgoing AUP buying a giant sailboat to ferry students to and from California, the obvious remedy to this problem would seem to be making a section or position at the school to monitor and advise on environmental policy. “We discussed this possibility with President Schenck last May, and she told us that we do not currently have the funding for a staff position,” Prof. Elena Berg, who works with the Advisory Board for Environmental Sustainability (ABES) here on campus, told me via email. President Schenck told me, also via email, “As Prof. Berg and I both understood it, the likelihood of a full-time staff hire into that position is not a priority at the present moment, nor a possibility…”

Thus it falls on the above-mentioned Advisory Board for Environmental Sustainability to handle AUP’s campus sustainability initiatives. ABES is a small organization, and it does not receive any form of official funding. This might change in the future, as the board is only a year old, but for now they don’t have much power to enact change around the school. Of course, we have to keep in mind that they are an advisory board; it does not necessarily fall on them to be the ones to enact change, instead their job is to support environmental initiatives across AUP. “We’re the central hub of different environmental initiatives on campus,” as Alayna Amrein, a student member of ABES, tells me. Doing this without any form of funding or official authority is easier said than done, however.

A big strength of ABES is that it is made up of faculty, professors, and students. “ABES is one of the few organizations that includes professors, faculty, and students. So we can put our brains together — we have a bank of resources and connections that we can pull from,” Clark Marchese, another one of the student members, says. So from a knowledge and connections viewpoint ABES is second to none. Their ability to have vastly differing points of view is definitely a plus, the youthful enthusiasm of students combined with the wisdom and knowledge of professors and faculty is a combination to be envious of.

Still, despite the vast reserves of experience and spunk, without a consistent funding stream ABES can’t do much but offer advice. It would be a huge boon if ABES was actually able to get projects funded, so it could enact meaningful change around the campus. Alayna tells me that some of the ideas for these projects can have annual costs of several thousands of euros while Clark doesn’t want to see people having to work for free in order to maintain AUP's environmental initiatives. The latter is being taken care of, with President Schenck telling me, “We are looking at a student internship attached to the board that would support its efforts, and I’ve offered to fund that through my office.” This is a very generous offer, however, it has to be noted that without ABES itself being funded in the first place there can’t be much change enacted by an internship. You can hire the best carpenter in the world but it doesn’t mean much if you don’t buy them any wood.

Despite this, ABES is still effecting change throughout the school. Clark is currently spearheading a project that will allow the Amex to compost its food waste. “Well, composting is honestly not an accurate name for what it’s become,” Clark says, “it started out being actual composting with like, literally having a big bucket of rotting food always on campus.” Fortunately for those of us at AUP with noses this idea has evolved, now the goal is to provide a third party with the Amex’s food waste and let them turn it into compost. It might sound like a cop-out, but there are very good reasons why AUP shouldn’t attempt composing itself. For starters the composting company in mind, Les Alchimistes, are a proven composter, their website states that they work with names such as Burger King, Sodexo, Franprix, and AUP favorite Shakespeare and Company, among dozens of others. While letting food rot into dirt to supply it with nutrients might seem like a pretty simple task, there is an art to composting and in situations like these it's best to let the pros handle it. 

Les Alchimistes, the company Clark is approaching for AUP's composting needs. Image Credit: Les Alchimistes

Even worse, there is the dreaded French bureaucracy to deal with. “It was a bit challenging to find anyone to pick up our compost if we were to actually create it here on campus ourselves, because there’s a lot of health regulations,” Clark says. “For example, if someone wanted to collect our compost and sell it, they couldn’t be sure that we adhere to all of the all of the regulations. So that’s why they like to just collect the food waste and compost themselves.”

The only problem with this initiative is that it had to be done by a student. This is not to diminish Clark’s hard work, but rather to highlight how AUP has relied on a student’s voluntary time to further their environmental initiatives. In this case, however, this isn’t just an initiative. In February 2020, France directed that by 31 December 2023 all waste producers must sort out and recover bio waste, i.e. compost.

The funding for this is coming from an unusual source as well, “We basically had an angel investor, Tim Rogers at admissions, who agreed to give us 2,000 euros and the cost of the project is about 1,700 euros a year,” says Clark. A project like this should not have to rely on a donation from admissions to get off the ground, especially because, again, it will be required by law soon.

In essence a student at AUP has done most of the legwork in setting up compliance infrastructure with French law, yet another reason why there should be a dedicated staff position to handle environmental affairs. While Clark’s — and ABES’ — work in this matter is admirable, it should not have to fall to a volunteer body to ensure that the law is being followed in regards to environmental policy; this should be something that a permanent staff member is overseeing.

As the years go on this will only grow more and more necessary. The European Union has shown itself to be committed in regards to environmental sustainability, and we can only expect there to be more and more regulations in regards to this matter. Waiting until the last minute to either make a hire or fund an environmental board will only make things difficult down the line. If it weren’t for ABES compost project we would already be quite behind on that matter. Clark told me it has already taken two and a half years to make the current levels of progress (the work was originally started by an AUP student named Jasmine, when they graduated Clark took up the mantle) and from the sounds of the current progress by the time it’s completed AUP will likely only have a year or less before the deadline. That sounds like a lot of time remaining, but in terms of bureaucracy, it’s cutting things pretty close.

Besides the composting initiative, what else is ABES working on? Alayna tells me there’s two other projects, both dealing with recycling. The first is a way to educate the people of AUP on what to throw out in the different bins around campus (pro tip: cardboard does not go in the “Paper” bin). Second is recycled printer paper.

An example of the new signage for bins around campus, these bad boys drop next semester. Image Credit: ABES via AUP Engage.

The Communications Office is working on the bins, “they’re trying to get better signage for the bins. So our role in that is, every time they send us an update we say, ‘Here’s what we’d tweak, here’s what we would add,” says Alayna. A fairly straightforward project, unfortunately the same cannot be said about the recycled printer paper. “It has so many more hurdles than you would think!” Alayna says, laughing. “I wish you were at our last meeting because the mundane conversation we had about the whiteness level of paper was just hilarious, like we talked about it for 45 minutes.” The “whiteness level” has to do with the fact that recycled paper is a little bit more tan/brown colored than non-recycled paper and there is some concern that students/professors might not like this. As a personal note, I don’t think I’ve had to hand in a physical paper since lockdown started, with all my classes just asking for written papers in a digital form. This also only applies to the normal printer paper, so photography students will still have their shiny white photo paper.

To summarize, ABES is currently working on three major projects, composting Amex food waste, alerting people what does and doesn’t go in the different bins around campus, and trying to implement recycled paper. This is on top of the advisory work that ABES does, so when we view it like that we can see that ABES has a lot on their plate for a six-person organization that has to beg for funding. 

It’s come up and time and time again in this article, but it must be pressed upon that without funding ABES has a very limited set of options that they can pursue. We as students need to make enough noise so that this changes. Currently the full yearly tuition costs of just three students (there are currently 1,000 undergrads) could nearly pay a six-figure salary, more than fair compensation for a full-time position. Not every student pays this full cost, as there is financial aid, but even if we say that every student gets half-off their tuition AUP is still pulling nearly 15 million euros per year in tuition costs alone. It seems incorrect, then, that there is a lack of money and better to say that money is simply being used for other purposes.

For full disclosure, I requested a copy of the AUP budget but am still awaiting a reply from Accounting, so I cannot say how much money is actually left over to spend. I will update the story if I do get a response. Regardless, these figures highlight that attracting even a few more students to the school could potentially fully fund an environmental program.

The students in particular need to come together and talk about if a full-time staff position for environmental sustainability is something that they want bad enough. ABES, for all the good they have done, haven’t done a great job of communicating their struggle to the campus at large. In fact, that is the whole reason this article was written, as part of a project for one of my classes to spread awareness of ABES. Hopefully around the time this article is published you, the reader, notice a bunch more posters and advertisements for this small but important organization all over AUP. By realizing that there is a board dedicated to helping AUP become more sustainable, the student body can demand change. 

The current senior class, which I am a part of, has just voted for their senior gift to AUP to be funding environmental and sustainability initiatives on campus. Clearly this is something the student body wants, and ABES will continue to fight for it. Towards the end of our interview, Alayna talked about hope for the future, “The beauty of ABES is that, for so long, there has been a grassroots movement amongst students in particular, to get things going… if AUP keeps hearing from students, I think there is some hope that things will start to get moving.”

Inspired to get involved with campus environmentalism? Check out these ABES-provided resources for the best ways to get your voice heard! Image Credit: ABES via AUP Engage
A previous version of this story had the figure for all students paying half-off tuition at 50 million euros. This was due to a calculation error, the actual figure would be 15 million euros.