It’s School to Be Green

Sustainability on local university campuses

Stanford University: Angela Kwok of the Green Living Council tosses a banana peel into the compost bin.

Photograph by Lane Johnson

Ever since the hippie days of the 1960s, college campuses have been a hub of environmental activism and eco-consciousness. Now that the notion of sustainability has grown to encompass all areas of life—from food to fashion to energy and more—Bay Area colleges are bustling with innovative projects and events. Here’s a look at some of the latest green initiatives from San Jose State University, Santa Clara University, and Stanford University.

Over 98 percent of Stanford’s students live on its sprawling campus, which translates into an enormous amount of energy use. Stanford’s Office of Sustainability oversees efforts to curb this usage, including retrofitting buildings, updating water heating systems in residences, and distributing compact fluorescent light bulbs to students. In addition, the office publishes yearly guidelines for sustainable living and green event planning. Through its Green Fund program, it supports student projects such as the Stanford Solar and Wind Energy Project, in which students assess the feasibility of solar and wind energy projects both on campus and in the surrounding community.

On the student-run side, Stanford’s Green Living Council (GLC) helps organize the Conservation Cup, a contest in which dorms compete against each other to save energy and water. It also launched SEED (Spreading Everyday Environmentalism in Dorms) projects, including the implementation of shower timers, laundry racks, and hand towels in campus dormitories.

“The goal of these projects is to make the development of sustainable behavior easier,” says Angela Kwok, one of GLC’s co-presidents.

At nearby Santa Clara University, a highly successful 10-week residence hall “energy challenge” took place in the winter of 2010 to 2011. Each dormitory competed against its historical energy usage based on past utility bills.

“We saved over 85,000 kilowatt hours,” says Lindsey Cromwell Kalkbrenner, Director of Santa Clara University’s Office of Sustainability. “That’s enough to power our fitness center for six weeks.”

Also in 2011, San Jose State University introduced a new energy audit program called “Green Wave.”

“It is a class open to all majors, where students are trained to conduct energy audits on campus in department offices and dorms, as well as in residential locations off campus,” says Candice Carbonell, Director of the Environmental Resource Center. “The program was a success and there is a long list of people who want their homes and offices audited next year.” 

Sustainability is shaking up bland cafeteria food and late-night pizza at college campuses, too. At San Jose State University, students held a Locavore Food and Garden Fair in May 2011 to promote eating local produce.

At Santa Clara University, all utensils available on campus are now either reusable or compostable, all food service areas have compost bins, and the school has recently begun offering “eco-trays”—reusable meal containers that create zero waste. To encourage students to eat healthier and live sustainably even while living off campus, the college’s “Living Green in the Neighborhood” project awards students with a box of locally grown, organic vegetables in return for points earned by completing tasks such as reducing energy usage or going for a hike.

Stanford Dining, which has won several awards for its sustainability programs, continues to be one of the national leaders in green dining. The company, which manages 30 different dining facilities on campus, operates student-run campus gardens and the Stanford Community Farm, which grows fresh, organic produce for campus dining halls and kitchens. Stanford Dining also holds yearly events such as the Climate Conscious Food Week, in which students are educated about and encouraged to meet goals such as reducing meat intake.

“Sustainability is one of Stanford Dining’s most important initiatives,” says Head Dining Ambassador Brianna Pang.

While many college students might be content with heading to class in pajamas and an old sweatshirt, others have higher aspirations. At Santa Clara University, students put on their first-ever eco-fashion show this February, showcasing designs constructed out of recycled materials, including newspapers and pillowcases.

At Stanford, the Sustainable Fashion Show (SFS) has become a campus mainstay. In January 2011, the event was featured in the New York Times for its innovative work in showcasing wearable clothing made with renewable materials and ethical manufacturing standards, as well as creative displays of vintage and recycled products.

SFS Coordinator Irys Kornbluth says, “Our goal this year was to demonstrate how stylish vintage and sustainable clothing can be to a large student audience. We want to spread awareness of waste and labor issues in the fashion industry.”

Suzanne Stathatos, a Stanford student who has modeled for SFS for the past two years, has found the experience extremely rewarding.

“By modeling in SFS...I’ve become much more knowledgeable about and active in sustainable movements in the Bay Area,” Stathatos says. “I’ve started combining my interests in fashion and journalism. It has also encouraged me to change my own shopping habits.”

At San Jose State, the Solar Energy Engineering Club recently completed a solar water heating system feasibility analysis for San Jose’s fire stations, according to the club’s president, Colin Wang.

“We gathered information by conducting site assessments and interviews of the firemen,” Wang says. “The analysis showed that at five of the 26 fire stations in San Jose, it would be feasible to have solar water heating systems installed.” Additional data is being collected to measure the project’s cost effectiveness.

Similarly, students at Stanford University are applying their academic savvy to the betterment of the planet. The most famous example is the Stanford Solar Car Project, in which an entirely student-run group designs and builds a solar car to enter into the international World Solar Challenge. The project’s most recent car design, known as Xenith, was unveiled in August 2011. Additional green projects are instigated by the student group Engineers for a Sustainable World (ESW), which organizes projects, courses, talks, and events centered on sustainability.

“We want to get students together not just to learn, but to pursue their interests, to excel, and [to] actually do hands-on activities,” says Marcos Vidal, the group’s treasurer.

In 2011, ESW members designed a class that allowed students to work on a micro-hydro (small-scale dam) project in collaboration with an organization in Peru. In a classroom setting, the students figured out how to build the dam and connect it to the national electrical grid. The actual dam is currently under construction in rural Peru.

Noticing that trash from faculty offices consisted largely of paper, the Office of Sustainability at Santa Clara University devised an ingenious plan. Recycling bins were moved into individual faculty offices, while trash cans were located farther away in a central area, making it easy for faculty to recycle but harder to discard trash. The switch was widely welcomed, and has been combined with the elimination of plastic trash liners and the standardization of a 1:1 ratio for all waste and recycling containers.

Meanwhile, recycling efforts at Stanford University have focused more on preventing items such as usable clothes, electronics, and other personal items from entering landfills. Described as a “giant swap/exchange/giveaway/free shopping spree,” the second annual “Green Free Store” operated over two days in June 2011 to enable the trading of goods among students moving out of dorms, as well as to reduce the amount of trash generated during the busy year-end period.

With the intention of offering a more long-term solution to clothing recycling, in May 2011 the Clothes Loop, a free used clothing store, and Union Underground Art and Sustainability Collective opened in the basement of the student union building.

“The goal of Clothes Loop and Union Underground is [to] facilitate the exchange of free items within the Stanford community,” says co-founder Iberia Zafira. “Within a few weeks leading up to the opening, we received over 100 donations and work from over 25 student artists.”

Zafira was supported by the new Stanford Undergraduate Sustainability Scholars program, which is co-directed by Stanford Lecturer Mark Feldman. Feldman, who also runs a new sustainability blog at, hopes that his efforts can “increase visibility and thoughtful conversations surrounding sustainability issues,” as well as provide a place to showcase projects, writing, art, events, and other eco-minded content.