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Self-imposed fees support campus sustainability efforts

Originally posted in UCLA Today
By Harry Mok, UC Office of the President

reggae eventEvery Memorial Day weekend, 20,000 people converge under the warm Southern California sun at UCLA for two days of concerts at the JazzReggae Festival. It takes a lot of water and water bottles to keep all those music fans hydrated, which can lead to quite a mess after the last song is performed.

The festival is one of the largest events on campus every year, and the students who organize it have made it a goal to minimize its environmental impact. With help from a $4 fee that UCLA students impose on themselves each quarter to support green initiatives, the festival was able to divert 70 percent of waste generated from its 2010 event away from landfills by selling reusable water bottles, providing water refilling stations and setting up recycling and composting stations.

UCLA students aren't the only ones willing to put their greenbacks behind the green movement. Students at seven University of California campuses have voted to charge themselves extra fees, usually less than $10 apiece each quarter or semester, to create The Green Initiative Funds and similar initiatives to support sustainability practices.

The Green Initiative Funds (TGIF) at five UC campuses give grants to programs originated by students, staff or faculty that promote such practices as energy efficiency and water conservation or provide educational outreach about sustainability. The funds have distributed about $3 million in grants since the first such program was approved at UC Santa Barbara in 2006. UCLA, UC Berkeley, UC Irvine and UC San Diego also have TGIF programs. Students at UC Riverside and UC Santa Cruz approved green funds earmarked for specific sustainability programs. (UC policy mandates that a third of student fees collected be utilized for financial aid.)

"Students realize that being sustainable is the way of the future, they know it's kind of inescapable and they know this is the right way to go," said Kevin Schlunegger, sustainability commissioner of the Associated Students of UC Irvine. "We have no other alternative but to be green in the 21st century."

Students at about 96 universities across the country have approved fees to support sustainability on their campuses, according to the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education.

Small fees, big payoff

Even as costs for tuition rise at many universities, students are willing to pay to support sustainability fees because making their campuses green is a priority, said Niles Barnes, projects coordinator for the association.

The first student-financed green fee was passed at the University of Colorado at Boulder in 1973, and the sustainability movement itself is rooted in activism on college campuses. Students were instrumental in pushing for things such as recycling programs that are now routine at many universities, Barnes said.

"Students see that they can help to make changes happen on a large scale," Barnes said, noting that while many of the fees are small, "add it up, and it's a fairly large amount of money, and students can have input in how it's spent."

Students at UC Irvine passed a $3.50 per quarter TGIF fee in 2009. It raises about $110,000 per year, and the first round of grants is going to 26 projects this year, with the largest being a student-run sustainable community garden and the installation of 417 low-flow showerheads in first-year student dorms this summer. Neither project could have happened without TGIF, Schlunegger said.

"The cost for our TGIF is $3.50, which is less than the price of a cup of coffee at Starbucks," Schlunegger said. "It is quite nominal and not that expensive. The return on that investment is quite large."

UCLA's TGIF
raises about $200,000 per year and has funded 73 projects since 2008. A $10,000 TGIF grant in 2010 helped UCLA JazzReggae organizers buy the aluminum reusable water bottles sold to attendees, install water-refilling, recycling and composting stations, and provide a subsidy to food vendors to use compostable utensils. The reusable bottles and water filling stations kept an estimated 5,000 disposable plastic bottles of water from being consumed and thrown away by concert attendees, said Michelle Horak, director of sustainability for the JazzReggae Festival.

"Especially in a university setting, there's a moral obligation that we all feel to keep the festival as green and sustainable as possible," Horak said.

An $18,000 grant for this year's 25th annual JazzReggae festival furthered last year's effort with an additional water filling station, sustainable portable toilets and additional capacity at an sustainability education tent to house more organizations doing outreach.

"A lot of it is raising awareness to show how to make a big event like this sustainable," Horak said. "Hopefully, some of that transfers to people attending the festival."

At UC Santa Barbara, more than $774,000 in grants has been given out since 2006. Students collectively contribute about $180,000 per year to the fund that has supported more than 40 projects, from water spigots to encourage reusable bottle use to building a wind turbine as part of a renewable energy research project.

The short implementation time on many of the funded projects demonstrates their impact and keeps students interested in supporting them, said Jasmine Syed, sustainability coordinator and TGIF grants manager at UC Santa Barbara.

"They see where their money is going in a very tangible way," Syed said.

At UC Berkeley, about $250,000 a year in TGIF money is available; more than $950,000 has been given out since the first grants were awarded in 2008, the most of any UC with a TGIF.

Habitat restoration

strawberry creek

One grantee is the volunteer effort to restore the natural habitat along Strawberry Creek, which runs through the Berkeley campus. It has received two TGIF grants for a native plant nursery and the hiring of student leadership coordinators to organize volunteers.

The area of the creek where the campus meets downtown Berkeley once had been overgrown with invasive species of vegetation. In 1987, a restoration plan was enacted, and volunteers have worked to clear and maintain the area. The effort got a big boost with a TGIF grant in 2008 and one this year, said Tim Pine, an environmental protection specialist with the Office of Environment, Health and Safety at UC Berkeley.

"The money was so instrumental and that really accelerated our good work out there," Pine said.

planting seedlings

The plants from the nursery are being transplanted along the creek, and the volunteer effort has grown over the past few years to include programs for school children from Berkeley, making it an educational tool that showcases the restoration of an urban watershed, Pine said.

"It's been a vibrant and quickly growing effort to take back campus land," Pine said. "What better place to do it than on an internationally renowned public university.

Keeping bike wheels rolling

Another UCLA program that's been helped by TGIF money is the campus Bike Library, which offers quarter-long checkouts to students for $35. Launched in fall 2010, the program has been a hit, and all 50 of the library's bikes were rented out after the first week of the spring quarter, according to Mike King, a planning and policy analyst for the UCLA Transportation Department who helped write the proposal for the $26,000 TGIF grant.

The library helped UCLA be recognized as a bicycle-friendly campus by the League of American Bicyclists and augments campus transportation and climate-action plans that call for increasing bike ridership, King said. The library plans to add 40 more bikes for the fall quarter.

"Especially since a lot of students live within the surrounding community, a bicycle is an ideal mode of transportation," King said.

At UC Riverside, a student fee of $2.50 per quarter approved last year for a Green Campus Action Plan is funding the installation of solar panels on the Highlander Union Building and a parking lot, internships for students interested in working on environmental issues and, similar to TGIF, grants to student organizations for projects promoting sustainability.

The fee was kept as low as possible and would fund a solar project, something that would appeal to a broader spectrum of students, said Andres Cuervos, a recent UC Riverside graduate who wrote and directed the Green Campus Action Plan legislation while a student.

It showed students that the fund was "not just something abstract. Solar panels are something students would immediately grasp and want," Cuervos said.

Students at UC Santa Cruz passed three green fees in the spring of 2010. One pays for sustainable food initiatives, another funds student internships, jobs and programming in the Campus Sustainability Office, and the third was a renewable energy measure that redirects money from a fee passed in 2006 to projects to reduce the campus's carbon footprint. A 2003 fee established the Campus Sustainability Council, which provides funding to registered student organizations to promote green initiatives.

"The fact that students decided to tax themselves in these difficult economic times so that they could learn more about sustainable food systems is remarkable," said Patricia Allen, director of the Center for Agroecology & Sustainable Food Systems, which coordinates food programs funded by the campus green fee. "It demonstrates how hungry students are for knowledge and experience in food systems and how central sustainability is to UC Santa Cruz."