Seton Hill students take initiative to make campus environmentally-friendly

Pictured above is the garden where SHU students worked for the campus cleanup. Photo courtesy of Darren Achtzehn.

“I think all of us see it every day: when there’s trash on the ground so many people just think that somebody else will pick it up and they just move on and go about their day,” said junior Becca Stewart. “But eventually somebody out of the group has to be that person who decides to pick it up and take two seconds out of their day to make everything better for everybody else. You have to be willing to be the person who’s going to step up and do what needs to be done.”

Stewart was one of 50 people who participated in Seton Hill’s day of service on April 6 in honor of Earth Day. The service project encompassed trash removal at Mammoth Park, Sondra Lettrich Garden, Caritas Garden and SHU campus. On campus alone, students collected over 500 pounds of trash.

Shown above is a day’s worth of harvest from last season. The vegetables are harvested from the garden on Seton Hill’s campus and are used in the dining hall. Photo courtesy of Darren Achtzehn.

The on-campus student volunteers were split into four teams, each one responsible for a section of campus. The teams were then challenged to clean up the most trash in terms of weight. Stewart’s seven person team collected over 200 pounds of trash from the hill above E Lot, winning them each a Visa gift card.

“The clean up day makes you think of the impact that you have on the environment,” said Stewart, who has done community clean up with SHU in the past, volunteering at a site for recycling old tires. “You might not think about it, but if you put your trash in some place that isn’t a trash can, it can spread out to the community. I think an important thing that can help is just for everyone to put their trash where it’s meant to be.”

The idea for the clean up day originated from a Campus Ministry sponsored “I Scream Social,” where students have the opportunity to voice their suggestions on how to improve SHU. From there, Marissa Haynes, the coordinator of service outreach, worked with Peer Ministry to make the idea into reality.

“The event exceeded my expectations. Students were very involved and talked a lot about possible changes when reflecting on their experience,” Haynes said.

The student volunteers suggested adding more trash receptacles in more accessible places around campus, putting covers on the open outdoor bins and buying bigger cans to cut down on the trash that ends up across campus.

“While I wouldn’t necessarily say I’m the best at being environmentally conscious, I think it’s really important for trash to be put where it’s meant to be,” Stewart said. “We’re sharing an environment with other animals that live on the Hill, and eventually something is going to get picked up by groundhogs or birds that will negatively impact the wildlife that live here.”

The campus clean up day is just one part of SHU’s efforts to be a more environmentally conscious school.

Student volunteers help harvest last year’s bean crop in the garden on Seton Hill’s campus. The fruits and vegetables harvested from the garden are used in the dining hall, which helps cut down the carbon needed to bring food to SHU. Photo courtesy of Darren Achtzehn.

Starting in 2009, Darren Achtzehn, the director of food services at SHU, began visiting other universities to develop ideas on how to reduce SHU’s carbon footprint, especially in the dining hall.

“We realized what we needed to change was the culture so that this wouldn’t be something that would go away after people graduated, we wouldn’t keep handing the baton off to the next person,” said Achtzehn, who was put on a committee to do EPA self inspections to see where SHU stood in comparison to other schools. “We focused on the reduce aspect of the recycle triangle, putting together a pledge system for students to sign that they would reduce things like their time in the shower and how much paper they printed. At the involvement fair we gave away an Earth mug, which was a recyclable mug, to every student who signed a pledge form. We thought if we gave away 200 of those we would make an impactful difference; we ended up passing out 470 of those and made a huge impact. That raised an awareness on campus.”

Achtzehn then started a garden, where he and student-volunteers could grow vegetables to use in the dining hall. The farm to table initiative (crops harvested from the garden are served roughly 20 minutes after being brought into the dining hall), as well as buying locally, cut down on carbon used to bring food to SHU.

The garden, which was originally 10 feet wide and 15 feet long and housed just 12 pepper plants and 20 tomatoes, is now 300 feet by 200 feet long. Achtzehn and student volunteers plant a variety of fruits and vegetables that the dining hall serves including 400 pepper plants and 300 tomato plants as well as beets, beans, squash, cucumbers and corn. The herb garden growing on campus provides fresh clippings in-house.

The dining hall uses a competitive reduction process to cut down down on edible scrap waste ends in the kitchen. Each department competes against one another to continue to reduce the amount of food scraps produced. The ends are then used as fertilizer in the flower gardens across campus. The vegetable garden does not receive compost from the dining hall so that the produce grown there remains 100% organic.

The dining hall has also gone trayless and strawless, reducing plastic waste as well as conserving water. Achtzehn introduced reusable to-go containers in 2010. He also switched from styrofoam soup bowls to paper ones, and replaced plastic coffee stirrers with wooden recyclable ones. Achtzehn is currently working on finding an environmentally-friendly and affordable alternative to the styrofoam to-go cups.

Pictured above is the group of students who collected the most trash (200 pounds) during Seton Hill’s campus clean up upon April 6 in honor of Earth Day. Photo courtesy of Marissa Haynes.

“We did a partnership with the Sisters of Charity four years ago to create community gardens with them,” Achtzehn said. “We have a bat house, a small butterfly garden, and this spring is the last of the garden installations, it will be a full butterfly wildflower onset piece to help the butterflies and bees. The potatoes and onions that are grown below-ground in the garden are divided between the Sisters, Seton Hill and the community food bank to create the cycle of giving back.”

Achtzehn has more environmentally-friendly initiatives already in progress. He plans to plant a peach tree orchard on campus to grow fresh peaches for the dining hall and donate to the community. He is also working to transplant Concord grape vines already growing in Westmoreland County on campus to produce grape jelly for the dining hall.

“Students eat about 15-20 pounds of grape jelly a week, so we want to be able to produce that in-house and get a reduction in the amount of sugars and other things to make it a more healthy product,” Achtzehn said.

In the long-term, Achtzehn hopes to use a high dome hoop house to grow hydroponic lettuce. Using hydroponics, which is growing plants in nutrient-rich water instead of soil, the greenhouse could grow 900 heads of lettuce every 55 days. Instead of using domesticate water from a faucet, the water used for the plants will be collected rain off of the high dome. Achtzehn hopes to use primarily solar energy to power the hydroponics system and remain off the grid as much as possible.

What Achtzehn calls “the dream team piece” is to convert the oil used for making french fries in the dining hall to fuel that can run the lawn mowers on campus. The burning of the french fry oil would produce water instead of carbon exhaust, reducing SHU’s use of fossil fuels. It would also, Achtzehn said, smell like popcorn.

“I am horrible at flying colors to say look what we’re doing, look what we’re doing. If somebody come in with an idea and asks ‘Can we do it?,’ absolutely we’ll figure out how to make it happen,” Achtzehn said.

“We only have one Earth, there’s not a back up plan,” Achtzehn said. “It’s like my dad used to always tell me, you take care of the folks you have around you and the tools that you have in this world, it will last you a good long while. But you have to be the person that does that, you have to take care of this. So I see it as my personal mission on campus to at least educate people to the process. There’s only one Earth, this is all we have.”

Published By: Stephen Dumnich

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