Campus sustainability efforts expand over summer

Alana Tornello

Alana Tornello, a member of Princeton's class of 2012, uses a monitoring probe to collect real-time data about the water quality of Washington Road stream. Tornello was one of the participants in the Princeton Environmental Institute's Summer Undergraduate Research Training Program, one of several sustainability initiatives taking place around campus this summer. By analyzing the biological, chemical and physical characteristics of the stream, students in the PEI program could draw conclusions about the stream's health and habitat.

Photo courtesy of Eileen Zerba

Along streams and lakes and inside offices and classrooms, Princeton students, faculty and staff could be found working this summer to help the University meet its long-term sustainability goals.

For four students in the Princeton Environmental Institute's (PEI) Summer Undergraduate Research Training Program, days were spent sampling and analyzing water from the Washington Road stream, which flows into Lake Carnegie. For others, introducing a cell phone recycling program, implementing tray-free dining at Rockefeller and Mathey residential colleges, and launching a sustainability ambassador program were some of the other projects aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions, conserving resources and supporting environmental research and education.

The summer season made the campus a perfect laboratory for students and faculty to conduct research and test new ideas -- one of the key components of the Princeton University Sustainability Plan adopted in 2008.

Led by Eileen Zerba, a senior lecturer in ecology and evolutionary biology at Princeton, undergraduates in the PEI summer program finished collecting baseline measurements before the ecological restoration of the Washington Road stream begins this fall.

"Our principle strategy is to gather baseline data before initiating major University innovations to protect campus water resources and then track the effectiveness of sustainable practices," Zerba said.

This summer's work builds upon PEI's multiyear environmental monitoring program to help improve water quality and ecological balance across campus and within the surrounding Stony Brook-Millstone Watershed.

"Many of the projects connected to the PEI undergraduate Program in Environmental Studies have to do with long-term monitoring -- tracking the impact of the University's land use and sustainable practices on water quality of the regional watershed over the next 10 years," said Zerba, who directs the environmental studies program's laboratories. "Lake Carnegie acts as a natural drainage basin for the campus, so the lake and its tributaries are an important indicator of the environmental impact of campus improvements."

The restoration of the Washington Road stream will involve widening the stream, reducing its existing slope through the use of step pools, reconfiguring the flood plain and placing plantings around the Washington Road valley. The work is aimed at decreasing the velocity of the stream to stop erosion and eliminate the constant deposits of sediment into Lake Carnegie, overall improving water quality of the stream and lake.

During one humid morning, Zerba and her students stood knee-deep in the stream near the corner of Washington and Faculty roads, dipping long probes into the water and netting or hand-picking from rocks macroinvertebrates, which are indicators of water quality. Later on, the summer interns -- rising juniors Garnet Abrams and Alana Tornello, rising sophomore Sarah Bluher and Elon University student Rob Hackett -- brought their samples back to the lab for testing, followed by a discussion of their results. 

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Eileen Zerba (left), a senior lecturer in ecology and evolutionary biology at Princeton, works with PEI staff member Nejma Piagentini (top), Elon University student Rob Hackett (center) and Princeton undergraduate Garnet Abrams to gather samples from the Washington Road stream, which flows into Lake Carnegie. (Photo by Brian Wilson)

"Field studies are often time-consuming and involve travel to distant field locations," Zerba said. "So if you have the resources right in your backyard and can get a number of students involved in the research, it's really a worthwhile endeavor that gives students a great hands-on learning experience with real-life applications."

From their analysis of the biological, chemical and physical characteristics of the stream, students could draw conclusions about the water's health and habitat. For example, students examined nutrient concentrations, and measured dissolved oxygen and water turbidity to determine the health of the water in relation to the diversity of the organisms living in the stream.

They also used the summer to analyze water from Lake Carnegie and study the vegetation around the watershed.

Tornello said she became interested in the summer program after taking Zerba's class "Environmental Challenges and Sustainable Solutions," where students also use the wealth of campus resources to further their studies.

"I was intrigued by the idea of researching solutions to real and ever-present issues within the campus watershed. The convenience and access that we had to these water sources was really wonderful," Tornello said. "My labmates and I were kayaking, wading through mud and occasionally even braving drainage pipes, and yet doing so on the campus that is our home throughout the year."

Other sustainability projects on campus this summer included:

Cell phone recycling. Members of the campus community may now recycle their cell phones for free through a project managed by the Ecology Representatives (Eco-Reps) student organization under the direction of the Office of Sustainability. Students, faculty and staff may discard old phones at the cell phone recycling bin located on the 100 level of the Frist Campus Center. The Eco-Reps collect phones and send them to the Wireless Alliance, based in Boulder, Colo. The company refurbishes, reuses or smelt down phones for metals and plastics. According to the company, all processing is handled in the United States in facilities regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency.

Sustainability tray-less dining

A worker from South Jersey Metal installs a new conveyer belt system at the servery for the Rockefeller and Mathey college dining halls to accommodate tray-free dining. Dining Services will eliminate trays in all six undergraduate dining halls by next summer to save water, reduce food waste and avoid carbon dioxide emissions. (Photo by Brian Wilson)

Tray-free dining. As part of Dining Services' continued "green" efforts, the servery at the Rockefeller and Mathey college dining halls was renovated to accommodate tray-free dining. Dining Services beginning in the spring 2009 semester converted Forbes and Butler-Wilson dining halls to tray-free, and all six dining halls will become tray-free next summer with the renovation of Whitman dining hall. By eliminating trays in all undergraduate dining halls, Dining Services expects to save approximately 55,760 gallons of water per year. The change also has the potential to reduce food waste by up to 30 percent and avoid more than 23 metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions. The Center for Jewish Life and the Graduate College also will eliminate trays as part of the University's Sustainability Plan.

Dillon Pool UV treatment system. The facilities and athletics departments installed an ultraviolet (UV) treatment system in Dillon Pool, which is expected to become operational this fall. UV systems are more environmentally friendly than traditional chemical disinfectants because they use ultraviolet light to kill pathogens in the water, reducing the amount of chlorine needed. The UV system also eliminates chloramines that result from chlorine combining with ammonia or organic nitrogen compounds in the water, which can irritate swimmers' eyes and cause respiratory problems.

As part of PEI's sustainability monitoring project (and supported by the High Meadows Foundation), Zerba and her students will analyze the UV treatment system's environmental effects, such as the indoor air quality in Dillon Pool.

"It is exciting to see the collaborations between athletics, facilities and the Princeton Environmental Institute by utilizing an athletic facility as a real-world laboratory," said Greg Paczkowski, aquatics coordinator in the Department of Athletics. "We are eager to see the results and hope to see a positive benefit on both the environment as well as the swimmers using Dillon Pool."

Sustainability ambassador program. The Office of Sustainability launched an ambassador program, through which designated staff will help shepherd sustainable practices within individual offices. The program has started with a one-year pilot in the Department of Facilities, with 15 staff members serving as environmental advocates.

"Right now, we end up missing a lot of the grassroots changes that are happening in offices on a daily basis," Princeton's Sustainability Manager Shana Weber said. "Either people don't think their activities are significant, or they don't connect what they're doing with sustainability. Among other activities, the ambassadors will help listen for those kinds of stories and help funnel them back to us so we can collect the information centrally and share it with the community. I think of the ambassadors as agents of culture change, and their enthusiasm is contagious."

Weber said she already is seeing the newly appointed ambassadors embrace their roles as educators and collaborators who can help implement new ideas in their own department or program offices. The Office of Sustainability will provide training for the staff ambassadors with the help of students who currently are engaged in environmental efforts on campus.

"This program is a model for growing sustainability leadership in all professional areas and engaging the creative energies of our immensely talented community members," Weber said, adding that she hopes the program will expand to departments across campus.

Student Environmental Communications Network. For the third summer in a row, the Office of Sustainability has managed a summer course in which students learn to produce videos and podcasts focused on sustainable topics. Three students -- rising senior Chris Hipser, rising sophomore Christina Campodonico and class of 2010 graduate Jarlath Bryne Rodgers -- spent a month writing, filming and editing a video series called "Did You Know?" to bring attention to sustainability initiatives on campus. The videos, which are posted on the Office of Sustainability website, feature topics such as open spaces in the Princeton area, the University organic garden, "green" buildings and the campus U-Bikes program, which rehabilitates abandoned bikes on campus and rents them to students.

These projects and more sustainability efforts are expected to be featured at a sustainability open house on Tuesday, Nov. 16, in Chancellor Green Rotunda.