Students' Campus Sustainability Plan Starts with Recycling
DANIEL PEREZ | November 26, 2013 | UNIVERSITY COMMUNICATIONS
Members of UTEP's U-Sustain chapter, who come from various
departments around campus, plan to pilot several green initiatives
that will save the University money and generate revenue.
Photo by Laura Trejo / UTEP News Service
An enterprising cadre of UTEP students has spent about nine months "talking trash" with University officials to promote enhanced environmental stewardship on campus while generating revenue at the same time.
The U-Sustain Chapter, an interdisciplinary group made up of about 20 undergraduate and doctoral students, has proposed several "green" initiatives and has begun to implement them at The University of Texas at El Paso. The group's first pilot project, the Miner Recycling System (MRS), will streamline recycling opportunities starting in December in the Business Administration Building and the Physical Plant complex. In January 2014, the Union buildings and the El Paso Natural Gas Conference Center will be added.
The MRS had a soft launch during Recycling Week, which finished Nov. 20. Its goal was to promote the benefits of recycling. The University Green Fund, which provides funding for campus sustainability projects from student fees, approved almost $36,000 in startup funds for the development of this project last March and July.
The group expects to take its recycling plan campuswide during the next several years and is optimistic it can create revenue by spring 2014, saving the University approximately $72,000 in annual waste disposal costs after its plan is fully implemented. Other ideas in the wings include participation in a regional bike-sharing program and a student bus sub-system as part of the City of El Paso's Sun Metro line. The group's vision is to make UTEP a leader among institutions of higher education when it comes to sustainability.
"The main reasons that we are doing this are to help UTEP become a Tier One university, leave a mark as students, help the campus environment and turn a profit if possible," said Mario Salomon, one of the project's leaders who recently graduated with his master's in systems engineering. He said the students, who come from the fields of engineering, science and liberal arts, are gaining real-world experience as they work on issues to enhance the University. "We believe that our systems (recycling, bike share and the student bus routes), if implemented, will greatly benefit future generations in multiple ways."
Salomon and the U-Sustain Chapter got their start working under Jorge Villalobos, Ph.D., director of facilities services. Villalobos said he liked the students' tenacity and enthusiasm as they developed their concepts.
"The best part of attending a university is the optimism that gives you unlimited energy," Villalobos said. "[The students] have faith in their projects and don't get bogged down in the bureaucratic challenges. Young people just do it. You have to foster that kind of thinking."
The MRS team researched how to collect and where to sell the recycled materials. Some of the students explained their recycling plan with a PowerPoint presentation in the Research Institute for Manufacturing and Engineering Systems (RIMES) Lab in the Engineering Building. They said proper training and resources should enhance campus recycling.
Juan Carlos Armenta, a systems engineering graduate student and MRS project manager, said Recycling Week was part of the team's marketing plan to educate the Miner Nation about what can and can't be recycled, and the accessibility of the color-coded bins – black for waste, red for aluminum, green for paper and blue for plastic. The student team will follow the daily recycle output and look for trends, especially in areas where recycling goals are not being reached. He said the initial response to the team's plans has been positive.
"We want to make money off (recyclables)," Armenta said. "If we embrace this process, UTEP will be happy and the environment will be happy. If people don't have the right mentality, we'll try to help them see how they can incorporate (recycling) into their daily activities. There is no reason to not recycle."
He said his team has calculated the amount of trash the University produces and factored in that the University is charged $150,000 annually to haul it away. Based on the team's preliminary figures, its plan could save the University $72,786 and create a revenue stream of $42,000 by 2016 as the project matures. The money would be reinvested into campus sustainability projects.
Robert Nachtmann, D.B.A., dean of the College of Business Administration, agreed to participate in the pilot program because he understands that the level of recycling on campus must improve and believes the MRS plan is a step in the right direction, said Ken Locke, the college's administrative officer.
Locke said the success of the MRS plan is tied to human participation, the fluxuating commodity markets and the fees associated with the collection, storage and preparation of the recycled materials.
"It will take a concerted effort on everyone's part to make it work," Locke said. "I hope the project meets all expectations."
Gary Williams, Ph.D., director of UTEP's Center for Research Entrepreneurship and Innovative Enterprises, said he encouraged the students to pursue their market research into recycling, look for solutions where necessary, and remember that failure is a learning tool that will help them as they go forward in academics and industry.
"It was fun to see the students come together," he said. "They worked hard and continue to work hard."
Meanwhile, other U-Sustain members continue to pursue a bike-share program for the University. They are working with the El Paso-based Camino Real Regional Mobility Authority (CRRMA) and its professional consultants to determine the best sites for eight bicycle stations around campus and the Downtown El Paso area. The program, which should be operational in late spring 2014, will allow people to "rent" the bikes for hours or days.
"It's refreshing to see students so engaged and interested in their community," said Raymond Telles, executive director of the CRRMA. "Their work will have a big impact on this community."