Green goes to school

Times Staff Writer

SHYLA RAGHAV is being put to the test. She’s trying to explain to fellow UC Irvine students that air fresheners are chemicals pressed onto tree-shaped cardboard, whereas tropical plants clean the air naturally. But she keeps getting interrupted. The guys next door are hooting over three cranked-up TV sets tuned to football and tossing their Coke cans and polystyrene fast-food containers toward a trash can in the hall.

“Taking care of the planet is a global issue, but it starts with the individual,” Raghav says, standing in a demonstration dorm room lined with carefully selected products: the energy-efficient, the biodegradable, the sustainable. Unlike the guys’ room next door, there isn’t an electricity-sucking appliance, off-gassing polyester beanbag chair or synthetic sheet in sight.

As the college-bound prepare to live away from home for the first time, campus crusaders for green living are trying to influence not only what is purchased in the back-to-school buying frenzy, but also how students go about their daily lives.


Raghav and others in the statewide Green Campus Program are pushing the benefits of vegetable-based laundry detergent, thermoelectric mini refrigerators and remanufactured printer ink cartridges. They’re replacing inefficient incandescent bulbs with compact fluorescent lamps. They’re organizing residence hall competitions to see who can save the most water and energy, and they’re promoting Earth Day rallies and Waste Awareness Week.

“We can’t continue to have a hotel mentality where every light is left on because we’re not paying the bills,” says Raghav, 21, who graduated in June with a bachelor’s degree in applied ecology and international studies and will start this fall in Yale’s environmental management master’s program.

No matter where students go to school, the reality is that many will be spending the next year in aging residence halls and university apartments that are as eco-savvy as the average SUV. Woe is the student looking for a little environmental consciousness, let alone style. The mission of Raghav and her cohorts: to inject a little green into every corner of their world.

Her team took a cue from UC Berkeley, where students outfitted their spaces with green products and give tours to incoming students.

Raghav’s group took a standard Irvine dorm room -- a two-bed box built in 1965 -- and spent 100 hours setting it up with hemp towels, organic cotton sheets, a reusable elephant grass shopping basket and bed frames made of recycled train tracks. Each item is tagged with a price and where to buy it, and no source is farther than a 10-minute bike ride.

Such student campaigns are signs of larger changes ahead. Some schools have already built apartments with low-flow shower heads, low-VOC paints, carpeting made from reused materials, even solar-heated pools. Others lag behind. It’s one thing to install motion sensors that automatically turn off lights in a 40-year-old building; it’s another thing to construct a new hall with high-efficiency heating and cooling units that shut off when windows open.


“Students challenged us to think more green,” says UC Santa Barbara Chancellor Henry T. Yang, who hosted a statewide sustainability conference in June. UCSB, like Cal Poly San Luis Obispo and some other California campuses, is building residence halls designed to maximize natural ventilation rather than rely on air conditioning. Dual-flush toilets and other green features are expected to help the projects earn the coveted Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, or LEED, certification from the U.S. Green Building Council.

Next week, students at Pitzer College in Claremont will start moving into new dorms with garden rooftops and photovoltaic panels. New LEED-certified housing will soon replace all the old dorms on campus, officials say, and rooms will be cleaned only with green products.

But at what inconvenience to students? None, says Joel Neel, facilities associate director for Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, which is completing a 2,670-bed LEED-certified apartment complex. “It will be absolutely invisible to students that they are living in a green building unless they want to learn about it,” Neel says, adding that construction waste was recycled and 450 trees were planted on acres that were devoted to agricultural storage sheds, a blacksmith workshop and cattle feed lots.


ON a visit to Santa Barbara, UC Santa Cruz student Lauren Mills notices her sister campus’ drought-tolerant native grasses, water-filtering bio swales surrounding student housing and the freeway of bike paths. Then she sees the new green buildings and shakes her head.

“Our campus has come a long way in getting students interested and involved in conservation,” says Mills, who served as coordinator of her campus’ Green Campus Program, a nonprofit initiative funded by utilities companies. But then she adds, “I hear about what Santa Barbara and other campuses are doing and I get green envy.”

She remembers moving into a Santa Cruz dorm four years ago loaded with polyester sheets, an energy-guzzling TV/DVD player and knickknacks that were destined for a landfill.


“I was thinking economically, not environmentally,” says Mills, who changed her major from computer engineering to environmental studies after taking a class on freshwater policies around the world. “It was an awakening,” she says.

Unlike the back-to-the-land hippies of the 1960s, “students today want to make our urban areas better, and they’re starting with their own halls and by asking campus dining facilities to support local farmers,” says Michael M’Gonigle, a founder of Greenpeace International, eco-research chairman of environmental law and policy at the University of Victoria in Canada, and coauthor of “Planet U: Sustaining the World, Reinventing the University.”

“Who would want to ignore the size and reach of these students?” M’Gonigle asks.

This is, after all, a generation accustomed to seeing trash sorted into glass, paper and plastic recycling bins. Sustainability is a growing concern on campuses, says UC Davis grad student Jonathan Woolley, who leads the California Student Sustainability Coalition.

“All you have to do is look at the number of student bodies who’ve chosen to raise their own fees to fund green initiatives,” he says, noting that it “costs students money they don’t have but saves the campus resources in the long run.”