Saint Louis University

From the Spring 2012 issue of Universitas

By Anne Marie Apollo-Noel
Video by Michelle Peltier

Sustainability isn't a trend in Bulgaria. It isn't even a word, notes Saint Louis University graduate student Michael Vladkov (Cook '11), who sometimes struggles to explain to family and friends what he is studying in the United States. But you don't need to name something to live it.

Before sustainability became the American buzzword of choice, SLU constructed a Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED)-certified building on campus. Likewise, on his small family farm, two decades before he would enter a master's program here focused on sustainability, Vladkov was raised on the idea of being good to the land.

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So what is sustainability? More than simply being "green" or "eco-friendly," sustainable practices cross almost every discipline, allowing people to do more with less. At the grocery store, it's using your own cloth bags thousands of times, instead of using thousands of disposable bags once. It is architects designing buildings that use less energy, engineers building smarter electronics and farmers producing more food with fewer resources.

Most visibly at SLU, it's a unique degree-granting program. The Center for Sustainability at Saint Louis University -- seeded with a $5 million grant in 2010 from the locally based Alberici Foundation and assisted by a $2 million grant from Thailand's Banpu Public Co. Ltd. and two Banpu executives who are SLU alumni -- has 31 students from around the world, including Vladkov. Seventeen will graduate with a master of sustainability degree this spring.

More than 200 other courses at the University touch on sustainability, from a sustainable food systems curriculum offered by the department of nutrition and dietetics to a certificate from the John Cook School of Business in sustainable business practices.

Sustainability doesn't just bridge schools at SLU -- it crosses departments, too.

The University partners with RideFinders to help students, faculty and staff members build or find carpools. New construction projects devote at least 50 percent of their landscaping to native Missouri plants. New computers are evaluated through the Electronic Product Environmental Assessment Tool, which helps purchasers choose greener appliances. A golf cart topped with a solar panel sits outside Litteken Hall. (View the video above to see how well this solar-powered golf cart performs.)

It's good for the earth, but good for the bottom line, too. Changing to more energy-efficient lighting methods, using organic fertilizers in flower beds and athletic fields, and moving to comingled recycling might not sound like much, but every effort means dollars saved.

"The future of sustainability at SLU has enormous opportunity, and much can be accomplished if sustainability becomes a strategic area of focus for the institution and resources are dedicated toward these efforts," said Kathleen Brady (A&S '76), SLU's vice president for facilities services and chief sustainability officer.

Consider this: A simple switch in the type of light bulb used at SLU's Medical Center decreased its electricity usage by more than 370,000 kilowatt hours. That translates to an annual savings of nearly $25,000. Local energy provider Ameren gave SLU the same amount in rebates for making the upgrades. New lighting also went into parking lots, offices and banquet rooms across campus -- including replacing every T-12 fluorescent light bulb with a T-8 fluorescent bulb, which is more energy efficient and lasts longer.

Sustainable projects have been going on for years at SLU, said Brandon Verhoff, project analyst for SLU's division of facilities services. "Many are not visible because the facilities division has done a good job of integrating these initiatives in a non-invasive way, saving the University money and resources," he said.

Sustainability also reaches out on a grassroots level to the people most acutely aware of SLU's use of resources -- the University's students and staff.

In the residence halls, students act as "VPs of sustainability," and meet with the University's facilities staff in an effort to get both students and SLU faculty and staff to recycle more and waste less. The Student Government Association has a newsletter about sustainability, and engineering students developed a green hotel room at Water Tower Inn.

This spring, both SLU's trash and its recycling will be weighed by Waste Management for a nationwide intercollegiate competition called "Recyclemania" to see which buildings are diverting the most recyclables per capita and which are "repeat offenders" for producing too much trash. Increased recycling has decreased waste expenses at SLU by 15 percent in three years, Verhoff said.

At 8:30 a.m. on a recent morning, students, custodians and SLU staff from facilities, food services and the residential halls listened as Angie Ingenthron, the campus' liaison from Waste Management, explained what can -- and can't -- be recycled on a college campus.

  • Pizza boxes coated with melted cheese? Yes.
  • Soup cans, glass containers or plastic bottles? Yes, just do a quick rinse.
  • Paper of all types? Yes.
  • Aluminum cans, water bottles and liters of soda? Yes -- and they're worth more than you think.

Dream Machines, automated and energy-efficient receptacles that collect used beverage containers, came to campus as a joint project between Waste Management and Pepsi. Proceeds benefit disabled veterans.

Removing the bottles and cans from the waste stream is one goal (only one third of plastic bottles nationwide are recycled now), Ingenthron explained, but recycling alone is only one aspect of sustainability.

When Vladkov, the sustainability master's student, goes home to Bulgaria, he tries to explain sustainability using real-world examples. Sustainability saves water and makes products more efficient, he said.

For an illustration, he looks no further than his work in America. While he completes his graduate studies at SLU, Vladkov does research at Monsanto on the company's use of resources. Agriculture consumes more fresh water worldwide than any other industry. By 2030, Monsanto plans to cut its use of natural resources like water by a third while doubling yields of key crops.

Increasingly, the shareholders of global companies are demanding smarter growth, he said.

With undergraduate degrees in math and economics from SLU, Vladkov hopes an expertise in sustainability -- and the money it can save companies -- will give him an edge over his competition. "If they haven't figured it out yet, that that's what employers are looking for, they will soon realize it," he said.

For more information about SLU's sustainability academic programs and operations, visit