4th year undergrad and Sustainability Director, University of Colorado Student Union

Dan Omasta, 21 years old, is currently a senior undergraduate student at the University of Colorado at Boulder, double-majoring in Political Science and Environmental Studies.  In the past few years, Dan has worked as the chapter president for CoPIRG Student Chapters and the Vice-President of the Legislative Council for the University of Colorado Student Union (UCSU).  His passion for the environment and sustainability has led him to co-found Beyond Organic Farm (a student-run 40-acre farm in Boulder County) in the Summer of 2009.  Dan is currently the Sustainability Director for UCSU, where he works with the Environmental Center, students, and administration on a daily basis to implement progressive sustainability programs that significantly reduce the University’s ecological footprint.  His latest work has been with the CU Board of Regents to craft system-wide sustainability policies that further climate neutrality throughout the State of Colorado.

How did you become interested in sustainability, and how did that interest ultimately lead you to CU and to your current position as Sustainability Director?

I was born and raised in Colorado. I’ve been hiking, backpacking and fishing across the state since I was three years old, and so the environment and outdoors are very special to me.

Coming into college, I started to do work with CoPIRG (Colorado Public Interest Research Group) on their climate change campaign. This enabled me to go to Washington, DC and learn about a lot of the climate bills and work with a lot of our policy makers in Washington to craft the best policies possible. I don’t know if I had much weight as a student, but the expirience really influenced me to continue my work in government and campus policy.  From there, I ran for office and became the vice president of the legislative council on campus. I passed a few environmental policies and now I’m the Sustainability Director for the student government. I have a long history of working with the environment.

What are your main responsibilities as Sustainability Director?

My main responsibility is helping others make a difference. In terms of sustainability, it’s my job to get people the resources – whether it’s information or financial incentives – to do the positive work they want to do. On a typical day, I’m working with the Board of Regents to craft system-wide sustainability policies. At the same time, I could be helping a student group to create posters or flyers to promote a speaker on campus.

Is this a paid position?

Yes. It is paid through the student government, which is funded by student fees.

In describing your typical day, you neglected to mention your coursework. Your last hour is probably a great example of the balancing act you must have to perform. You just came from a press conference related to green audits for rental properties off campus, you have to do this interview with me, and then you have to get to a class by Noon. How do you balance the demands of that position with your coursework?

I’m lucky enough to be able to study two majors that follow in line with my job. Faculty is generally supportive if I have to miss class for an event. If I need help on a policy, I might use what I’ve worked on in a class to mold my actions as the Sustainability Director. In terms of time management, it’s hour-by-hour, probably from 9 a.m. – 6 p.m. But it’s well worth it.

Can you tell me a little bit about the culture at CU and how it has impacted campus sustainability?

The guiding sustainability principles have evolved out of the culture here at CU. We founded the Environmental  Center as students in 1970, before the Environmental Protection Agency was even created. We launched one of the first recycling centers in the country in 1976. There’s a long history of environmental stewardship here at CU. That continues today. We are about to release our plan to be carbon neutral by 2050.

Right now is an amazing time to be on this campus. So much is being done around sustainability, whether it’s building renovations, transportation upgrades, the CU Bike programs, etc.  The culture of sustainability is widespread here on campus.

What role does the Environmental Center play in furthering the University’s movement toward sustainability?

The Environmental Center plays a crucial role. They run our recycling programs, and Live Green programs. They do most of the campus education around sustainability. They handle transportation and energy policies. They’ve become the center for sustainability on campus. That’s not to detract from all of the other agencies – facilities management, transportation, housing, etc. – who have made a big impact on campus, but the EnvironmentalCenter seems to be the key leader in all of these activities.

It seems like there is so much going on at CU with regards to sustainability. You mentioned plans to go carbon neutral by 2050. I read that the campus is striving towards zero waste by 2012. Is the management of all of these sustainability-related activities handled by one central body/place, or is it dispersed throughout the campus?

Typically, the responsibility has been dispersed throughout the campus. Over the past few years, since CU signed on to the American College and university Presidents’ Climate Commitment, everyone has had to come together and work on this big plan. A Chancellor’s Committee has evolved out of that comittment, which is a combination of students, faculty, staff and administration officials, as well as experts from research centers around the state. A lot of the big scale sustainability initiatives, like building renovations, will be handled through that committee. But the Environmental Center will still remain the center for recycling operations, zero waste and student outreach.

Are you a member of that Chancellor’s Committee?

Yes, as the Sustainability Director, I have a seat on that committee.

What are your thoughts about the power and role of students in the sustainability movement on college campuses?

The sustainability movement is centered on cultural awareness and knowledge of the important issues that our planet faces today. The college setting is the perfect opportunity for student to gain these important perspectives. Going back to the creation of the Environmental Center and our recycling program, it was students who came together in coordination with faculty and staff to address some of the pressing issues they saw in the 1970s. When they first started their recycling program, they made their own crates, and they’d pick up all of those in the classrooms and take them to the recycling center themselves. Since then, recycling centers have become almost mainstream on college campuses.

Students have the opportunity to craft programs and policies on a campus level, where they can then be expanded to cities and governments around the country and perhaps around the world. A CU law professor, Charles Wilkinson, describes the three generations in America as: settling, resource extraction and learning to live sustainably. It’s our generation that’s going to have to come to bat in terms of dealing with climate change and energy shortages. It’s crucial that we learn today how to shape our behaviors and perspectives to deal with these challenges.

Do you think most freshmen come to school prepared to tackle the challenge of sustainability?

I think that the number of freshmen who are aware of the issues and prepared to tackle those big problems is increasing. We definitely still see a lot of misinformation or apathy towards climate and sustainability from students coming in from all over the country. This gives us an opportunity to engage the country as a whole as we start changing behaviors.

An example is our EcoStar Challenge, where dorms compete against one another to see who can reduce the most amount of energy and water use. We also have Eco-Leaders, students in the dorms who work to educate their peers on the importance, and simplicity, changing light bulbs, turning off lights, reducing waste and recycling. CU is really focusing on freshmen and putting a message out to incoming freshmen that on this campus, sustainability is a key objective and we want to work with everyone as a community to further our goals.

Do the Eco-Star Challenge and the designation of dorm Eco-Leaders parallel the University’s Green Office Certification and designation of Eco-leaders within departments?

Yes, it is mirrored by the Green Office Certification and Eco-Leaders in departments. We don’t ask anything of students that we don’t ask of ourselves as staff members.

What percentage of CU students participate efforts to make the campus more sustainable?

In a way, every student on campus participates because as a whole, we purchase wind credits, and we purchase bus passes.

Tell me more about the wind credits and bus pass?

In 1991, students voted to purchase a bus pass. This was a partnership with RTD and the City of Boulder, along with CU. Students get discounted rates on the pass because we can purchase as a whole. That bus pass was reaffirmed last spring. Students voted to keep it as a student fee. Through the pass, students are obviously driving less. In 2002, students voted to offset all of the energy use in the three buildings paid for buy student fees with wind credits.

When you were talking about the role of students in the sustainability movement, you said that students on campus have an opportunity to craft programs and policies that can be expanded beyond the campus. Have there been any programs or policies that you’ve been instrumental in crafting that have been implemented and then expanded beyond the campus?

There are two examples of far-reaching impact. I was a part of one of them. The one I’m working on right now is system-wide sustainability policies through our Board of Regents. We’re asking our Regents to craft a set of sustainability goals to meet our Governor’s Executive Order,  to institute LEED building standards for all new buildings and renovations, and to provide resources and support to all of our campuses who are pushing for carbon neutrality. The goal is to have this policy modeled by other universities and by towns and city governments who will then be provided a model that shows the economic, social and environmental benefits of broad sustainability policies.

The second example is Folsom Field, our zero waste football stadium – the first one in the country. Already, we’re working with the City of Denver and Coors Field and Invesco Field to implement the same type of system in those professional stadiums. In addition to that, Frito Lay is changing their [packaging] from the type of material you can only throw away to compostable material so they can continue to sell their product in our stadium. This is an example of how we’re changing the entire consumption system in the U.S. just by changing our own behaviors here at home. We started the program last year. It was really a partnership between the athletic department, the recycling crews and the Environmental Center, so I can’t take credit for the program. There have been so many people who have played such a big role. I volunteer every game. I sort trash until 12:30 at night, but that’s really my biggest role in that program.

The zero waste stadium is certainly one indication of why your campus scored so highly (10 out of 10) in the category of waste management in the Sierra Club’s recent “Cool Schools” listing of “eco-enlightened” U.S. universities. You also scored highly in transportation. Can you tell me more about what is being done in those two areas?

Like I said, Folsom Field is the first zero waste sports stadium in the world. We have taken out all of the trash cans. We have now expanded that to our entire athletic department, so every sporting event on this campus is zero waste. In addition to that, the student government and the Environmental Center are teaming up to create a zero waste office program that will then expand to our cost centers and other departments on campus. The student government has also taken it upon themselves to pass legislation that mandates that all student fee funded events on campus are zero waste.

As a campus as a whole, we’re still working to the Governor’s Executive Order of 20% reduction in waste by 2012. We’re pushing for zero waste by that date so hopefully we will exceed that dramatically. The Chancellor has implemented a sustainable action team just focused on paper reduction and waste management. Everyone is coming together to find out ways to reduce waste across the campus.

What about transportation?

In addition to the bus pass, we have an excellent bike program where students can check out bikes free of charge just by using their buff cards. That program is now being expanded to a few other campuses in the CU system.

We have a Ski Bus on campus that brings students up to the mountains so we reduce a lot of the traffic on I-70 and we allow our students to “sleep to the slopes.” This helps them have a positive impact and still do the things they love.

We’re also instituting a new policy over the next few years [whereby] freshmen cannot bring their cars the first year. So we’re reducing parking spaces and providing a lot of disincentives to drive here in Boulder. But it’s important to recognize that we’re able to do that because the City of Boulder, where the campus is located, already has such a good public transportation system.

One area in the Sierra Club’s “Cool Schools” listing in which your school did not rank so highly was in energy. You scored a three out of 10. How is the school addressing energy?

For a long time, our facilities management people have been replacing windows and insulating buildings. Our administration just approved installation of solar panels on three more buildings. We’re definitely making efforts to reduce energy use and increase our use of alternative energy sources.

But the fact of the matter is that we have a $27 million light bill on this campus. We need to bring that down significantly. A problem that’s going to contribute to that is that part of our campus master plan is to double the size of our campus footprint in 20 years. With all of these new buildings, we’re going to see a significant rise in energy use. That three score is important because we’re already behind in that category, and now that we’re going to be expanding our campus significantly, we need to take serious action around alternative energy use and conservation. CU is in an area where we get a significant amount of wind and sun. We need to make sure we invest heavily in those areas instead of having to continually exploit fossil fuels as the way to power this campus.

One of the areas of great interest to our readers is landscape ecology and green infrastructure. I would imagine, given the campus location, that you are in an ecologically rich area. What is the school doing to preserve and enhance its natural resources on campus?

The University does try very hard to minimize resource use on the campus and maximize every opportunity we have to conserve resources. For example, we reduced water significantly by switching from sprinklers to ditch irrigation. That came out of facilities management working with our grounds crew.

We find every way to use and reuse resources on this campus, especially water. We have a co-generation plant, so when we’re producing electricity, we’re also producing steam. It’s important that we capture that steam to heat our buildings and not just release it into the atmosphere and waste it. The administration has passed policies that mandate that architects and consultants present strategies for effective resource conservation in the building planning process.

What about enhancing biodiversity on campus?

We’re continually using more xeriscaping practices and we’re starting to focus more on native trees and plants that don’t require as much water use. We stopped using herbicides and pesticides a long time ago. It’s important that we bring a lot of native species that have already evolved to combat many of the typical infestations of diseases that may come to plants in the area. We also just started a one-acre campus garden. Hopefully that garden will be to provide the dorms and our dining services with a diverse amount of food. The Environmental Center is going to be working closely with the Environmental Studies department to educate students on the importance of biodiversity in agriculture and give them the opportunity to practice that first-hand.

Do you foresee the campus ultimately being able to supply its own food?

Long-term, I think the University will be working with local farmers around the state of Colorado to form co-ops. We really don’t have the space available in our plans to be able to grow all of our own food on campus. Food is a big deal. The university is already working with local farms. This summer, students co-founded Beyond Organic Farm,  a 22-acre student-run farm located 10 minutes from campus. Students are recruiting their peers from all over the campus to work on providing local, organic food to the University and to businesses around the Boulder area.

Working towards sustainability undoubtedly requires a great deal of communication/outreach/education to all members of the campus community. Is there a particular sector that you’ve found to be the most challenging to reach?

I am fortunate to be able to work on a campus where a good number of the communities easily come together around sustainability for whatever reason – whether it’s economics, social justice, or environmental benefits.

Probably the community most difficult to reach out to has been the Greek community, which is an important group because they have large buildings for communal living. Just overcoming the stigma that people focused on sustainability are just hippies or environmentalists trying to save the trees and the polar bears is something we’re really working on. I touch on the benefits of social justice and cost savings as other incentives. We’re working with members of the Greek community to reach out to everyone in the houses and get them involved in the zero waste football games.

Our current student body president, who is also a member of Kappa Sigma, just led an initiative in that fraternity to install solar panels on their house. This will save them tens of thousands of dollars over the coming years in energy bills alone. So there is a shift in terms of getting the Greek community involved. Kappa Sigma Solar Panels.png

What do you think have been the most effective tools in creating that shift?

Peer-to-peer contact has been extremely important. We’ve reached out to leaders in each house, just as we’ve reached out to freshmen in the dorm. We have provided these leaders with the resources and information for them to encourage their members to shift their behaviors, even on simple behaviors like turning off the light and recycling. That awareness campaign has really been effective in starting the conversation. From there, we have expanded recycling programs, in coordination with the City of Boulder, to all of the fraternities and sororities. We just did a big ask from the director of the athletic department and our student government for the Greek system to provide volunteers to the zero waste football events. So we’re really trying to build this community and incorporate them in awareness campaigns and more sustainable actions.

In your role as Sustainability Director, or simply in your role as Dan, have you had any opportunities to travel to, share information with, and/or learn from campuses that you see as models for sustainability?

Absolutely. I’ve been fortunate enough to attend the Power Shift Conference in 2007 and 2009. Power Shift 2007 was the largest student conference on climate change, with over 5,000 students from every district in the U.S. then, in 2009, there were roughly 11,000 students who attended. At these conferences, we’re attending panels and workshops and discussing new ideas and working together to overcome common problems we see on our campuses. The creation of our campus farm actually evolved out of conversations from the Power Shift 2009 conversations. I have a good number of friends at other universities like U.C. Berkeley, with whom I compete on a day to day level to see who can get the most accomplished.

Who do you see as innovators in the campus sustainability movement?

There are a number of schools I’ve been impressed with. There are a number of Ivy League schools. The California system always comes to mind. Smaller colleges like Middlebury are always pushing barriers. In the issue of Sierra Magazine in which the Cool Schools rankings were published,  it was really interesting to see all of the different projects that students are working on. From the graduates installing solar panels and leading agricultural revolutions to information campaigns and campus bike programs, students are doing a lot! There are a good number of universities that really inspire me to do the work that I do. I know that what I do at CU is part of a larger movement. Really, it’s the combination of what all campuses in this country are doing that is going to prepare our generation of students to go out into the world and make a difference.

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