“It would be awesome if someday Seton Hill could be on a list of most eco-friendly colleges,” said Danielle Shilling, an early childhood education major at Seton Hill University (SHU).
With that goal in mind, Shilling founded her own student-run environmental club on campus called Leaders for Environmental Awareness and Protection (LEAP) in the fall in 2015.
“I was so astounded that there was no environmental club here. I transferred from UMass, and they are huge there with the environment and being conscious of everything you do,” Shilling said.
“It needs to happen here because we’re a Catholic institution,” said Christine Cusick, who teaches English at SHU and studies eco-criticism. “If we connected it more to our mission, it might help us see why we should be thinking of it.”
As global resources continue to disappear, it’s time for the university and its students to think of new ways to improve environmental practices. In some ways, the work toward improvement has already begun.
Darren Achtzehn, the food service director at SHU, received the 2011 Real Food Award, a national accolade that commends healthy, fair and green food practices at universities.
“Me, being a poor old farm boy just trying to make a living, thought, ‘Why aren’t we using more of the viable land that we have here to produce some of the things that we could use in the dining hall?’”
So, Achtzehn started with a garden. “We didn’t have any money, and we didn’t have any laborers. It was all volunteers and whatever we could gather.” It began as a 10’ x 20’ plot with only 50 tomato plants and 20 pepper plants.
“Now, the garden is 80 feet wide and 53 feet long, so it has since expanded to 400 tomato plants, 200 pepper plants and a bunch of other crops,” Achtzehn said. In the 2015 growing season, the garden produced 4, 468 pounds of tomatoes and other vegetables.
Other environmentally friendly improvements to the dining hall include a growing compost program and high-efficiency dishwashing machines. Achtzehn said he owns 100 grapevines around Westmoreland County and is preparing space to transplant them to campus.
He said he plans to break ground on a potato garden in the spring on the property of the Sisters of Charity. “Our goal is two tons of potatoes to be grown and consumed here, at Caritas and reached into the community to be donated to the food bank,” Achtzehn said.
Achtzehn also initiated a program to test the effect of removing trays from the dining hall. For three weeks, the dish room staff weighed the food waste that students and faculty brought into the dish room. Then, they removed the trays and spent another three weeks measuring food waste.
“It was remarkable. I had no idea what that was going to accumulate,” Achtzehn said. According to Real Food Challenge, Achtzehn reduced waste by 6,152 pounds per semester because students were less likely to take food that they would not eat.
“It’s a brilliant move on their part not to have the trays because people were just wasting,” said Mike Atherton, associate professor of philosophy and advisor for the LEAP club. According to Atherton, the necessary solution to food waste is a food digester, which is a machine that facilitates decomposition of organic waste into natural resources.
According to a TEDTalk by Tristam Stuart, a London-based food waste researcher, the United States wastes nearly half of produced and imported food by throwing it away during factory production, in cosmetic standard evaluations, and after it reaches a table. Food waste becomes an enormous problem because it undermines the expense required to produce the food, including carbon emissions, energy and money.
According to Atherton, a food digester machine transforms organic waste into “methane gas that you can use to cook with, and after a while, it turns into good soil. You could put it around the trees, plants, bushes, whatever you want. Essentially you’re getting all that for free.”
Stuart’s research found that the U.S. has four times as much food as the population needs to feed itself, yet food production throughout the world has increased in accord with the rise in population.
“Farming is one of the top reasons our forests are being depleted,” Shilling said.
A study by Jonathan Foley, director of the Institute on the Environment at the University of Minnesota, found that agriculture has consumed an area of the earth that equals South America and Africa combined. This massive use of land requires extensive use of water, which depletes the earth’s limited supply.
According to John Revington in the World Rainforest Report, 40 percent of the rainforests in Central America “have been cleared or burned down in the last 40 years, mostly for cattle pasture to feed the export market – often for U.S. beef burgers.”
“Being vegan is a huge way that I am eco-friendly,” Shilling said. “My diet doesn’t require as much water, land or processing, and it’s healthier.”
“Food source is connected to economics and sociology. It’s connected to theology, and the arts. It’s all intersections that we don’t always see,” Cusick said.
SHU has a distinctive landscape to protect. According to Atherton, stormwater drainage sites along the first segment of the hill damage the natural landscape by carving gullies. “It takes 400 years to get an inch of topsoil. 400 years, and we’re washing it away,” Atherton said. “What we should do for all of those drainage sites is put in rain gardens.”
Rain gardens, with specific arrangement and plant selection, are designed to catch runoff, prevent pollution and reduce flooding. “The water then goes into the earth, instead of running down to be trapped somewhere.”
“It’s not that expensive, and it’s fairly simple – ditch, gravel, plants to cover,” Atherton said. “And it’s pretty – better than the stupid pile of rocks we’ve got there.”
“There’s a bunch of things we need to talk about on campus,” Atherton said. Ideas for improvements abound, but there are factors that hinder the progress.
“It doesn’t seem to be on the consciousness of a lot of people,” Cusick said. Shilling said finances also play a role in changes on campus.
“If the institution is promoting, as it should and as it must, Catholic social teachings, it has to have stewardship for the earth. Part of that is having to pay somewhere along the line,” Atherton said.
“We can teach people the science behind the environmental crises, but until you begin to shift perception and the values surrounding that, we’re not going to move people to act,” Cusick said. “There has to be a change in our value system and in our priorities.”
“The goal for our club was a little bigger than what we’ve been able to accomplish,” Shilling said. “There’s no student interest, and if there’s no students saying they want this, it isn’t going to happen.”
Cusick, who directs the Honors Program, said that several students have explored recycling as a possible capstone project. “Students would come and realize that there’s no place to recycle, and they’d be upset, understandably.”
According the David Myron, CFO at SHU, the spring 2015 semester resulted in a collection of 8.52 tons of recycled material. As of Nov. 4, this semester’s segment of the program has collected 10.76 tons. “It seems the program is catching on,” Myron said.
“It drives me crazy when I see someone put recyclables in a trash can,” Shilling said. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the United States recycles only 30% of all recyclable material, leaving the other 70% to landfills. “If I could, I would ban water bottles,” Shilling said.
“I’d like to see us find ways to inspire people to think about it and care about it,” Cusick said. That was one of LEAP club’s goals when it was founded in 2009.
“We wanted to get outside, to get people to appreciate nature, to know it, to be a part of it before you try to give them suggestions to take care of it,” Shilling said.
In a dynamic era of technological change, there are hundreds of things that remain to be done to protect the earth, including landscaping improvements, dining hall initiatives, regional education and environmental consciousness. The tasks can become overwhelming. “We can do little things,” Shilling said.
“It makes sense to care for your environment because it cares for you,” Atherton said. “If you want to walk a million miles, it takes a first step.”