Nestled in a corner on the ground floor of the SSB is the home of the Campus Environmental Center, UT’s first major environmentally-focused student organization. What started in 2002 as a grassroots, student-run effort to supply recycling in departments, offices and classrooms has expanded into a sponsored student organization, unique in its opportunities for individual students to gain work experience while improving sustainability efforts at UT. The mission of the Campus Environmental Center is to empower The University of Texas at Austin community to reduce its negative environmental impacts and to foster a genuine culture of sustainability on campus through collaborative and constructive means. In working towards this mission, CEC not only serves as a voice for students on environmental issues — on and off campus — but also has the ear of supportive UT staff and administration through its situation under Facilities Services, as well as the resources to act.
At the Campus Environmental Center, we run projects that make a difference, embracing that think global, act local mindset. Currently, almost 20 students are employed by CEC to manage its various programs. From a garage-sale event called Trash to Treasure that diverts waste from the landfill to the Microfarm and Concho Community Garden that grow organic, local food for students and the community, from the 350,000 loblolly pines growing at the UT Tree Nursery to reforest Bastrop to the Green Events consulting program that helps organizations reduce their environmental impacts at events, CEC members spend the semester highlighting an issue whose importance and implications are often woefully overlooked on this campus and in our country.
It should be no secret by now that Central Texas (and really much of the western United States) is in a water crisis, resulting in severe droughts and massive aquifer depletion without adequate recharge rates. This is not just an environmental issue, but a social and economic one as well. The environment impacts everything. Our concerns as students and as citizens directly link back to the health of our surroundings, and what we do as a campus now will directly affect what we hope to do later. Thankfully, UT boasts an impressive irrigation system that has saved millions of gallons of water since its installation in 2011, the year of the Bastrop fire and one of the worst periods of drought — a drought not yet over — in Texas’ history. Such efforts by students and the University to reduce our environmental impacts are laudable and should be a source of Longhorn pride, and yet they receive very little attention and publicity.
The student body and the University both need to continue collaborating to promote environmentally-friendly practices. We need to improve infrastructure and safety for biking and other alternative transportation options, to expand composting, electronics recycling and other waste-reduction facilities, and to support programs that successfully engage students in these efforts, such as the Green Fee. Next time you walk across campus, take note of the composting bins in the Union, the xeriscaping outside the Harry Ransom Center, the Orange Bike Project bike rentals. The direct result of a mere $5 fee taken out of each student’s semester tuition, these projects are proposed, funded and implemented by students for the betterment of the University. These projects have proven their benefits time and again, and CEC or other UT departments have adopted many of them to ensure their continued execution and success over the years. The Green Fee will be up for renewal during student body elections in the spring, and it is critical to improving sustainability at UT that students approve the fee once again.
The problem is that most students do not know about the Green Fee, the irrigation system, the waste-reduction efforts in the stadium, the great strides DHFS has taken in sustainability; nor do they know about the work still yet to be done, their rights to a healthier environment or programs and ordinances within the city of Austin. The Universal Recycling Ordinance, in effect since 2012, is a prime example of this. The ordinance mandates that apartment complexes and office building provide easy access to recycling facilities, yet many students, especially in West Campus, do not have any way to recycle in their apartments, a direct violation of the URO. With most of these violations going unreported due to a lack of awareness among the student body, the massive environmental footprint of West Campus will continue to cast shadows on progress made by the city and by UT so far. (Students can call 3-1-1 to report URO non-compliance issues.)
If there is one thing that CEC has demonstrated, it’s that when students care about their environment and are supported with the tools to put thoughts into action, tangible change occurs. CEC programs, Green Fee projects and research initiatives are daily proof. The power of students to be environmental stewards has yet to be fully harnessed, and we as a student body and a university must do more to increase environmental efficiency and education on and off campus, to encourage student engagement and to take pride in our accomplishments thus far.
Kachelmeyer is a Plan II, geography and international relations senior from Sugar Land. She is the director of the CEC. She served last year as the editor of the Cactus yearbook, which, like the Texan, is a property of Texas Student Media.