We were both a lot younger when I started teaching at the University of Colorado 46 years ago. Now we are both older—and greener.
The Environmental Center celebrates its 50th anniversary today—Earth Day—as the nation’s first student-led environmental center, founded on the first Earth Day in 1970.
The Environmental Center is of course not the place, but the people. Generations of students have carried forward CU’s environmental legacy. Because of them, CU Boulder was also the first university to launch a student-led campus recycling program (1976), purchase renewable energy credits (2000), fuel campus buses with biodiesel (2003) and provide students with a comprehensive bus pass (1991).
Similarly, students have been critical partners, both with the administration and individual departments, to engage in several cross-campus initiatives. These include launching the nation’s first NCAA Division 1 zero-waste stadium program in Ralphie’s Green Stampede (2008), achieving the title of the Sierra Club’s No. 1 greenest school (2009), and attaining carbon neutrality for student-run buildings (2012) and athletics facilities (2016)—another first—through the purchase of offsets.
And yet the beginnings of this extraordinary timeline were quite humble. In 1976, my second year on campus, student volunteers tried something new. They salvaged wood from CU scrap to build recycling collection containers, placed them all around campus and collected cans, bottles, and papers.
These days, our recycling operations are state of the art. Students now partner with Facilities Management to operate an advanced recycling system—and we are moving toward a zero-waste system campuswide.
Students determined our path, but our ethos of sustainability predates that first Earth Day in 1970 by nearly half a century.
- The site of our Mountain Research Station above Nederland was established a hundred years ago this year. Today we are consistently ranked No. 1 or No. 2 in the world in geosciences.
- The National Snow and Ice Data Center, the world’s leading center for global sea ice data and analysis, has roots going back to 1957.
- The Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences began in 1967 and continues to yield research vital to understanding the Earth and our relationship with the planet.
Our legacy has only become richer over time. With the combined efforts of students, faculty and staff we continue to be sustainability leaders in research, operations and engagement.
In research, we are developing sustainable building materials and control systems, high-performance renewable-energy storage batteries, bio-derived fuels, and consumer-friendly ultraviolet water disinfection, to name a few of our projects. Our Research & Innovation Office and Renewable and Sustainable Energy Institute are helping CU researchers commercially deploy next-generation energy solutions.
In operations, we now have 28 LEED-certified buildings using 25% to 40% less energy than traditional buildings. We are integrating compost collections into all campus buildings by summer 2022. Our Green Labs program, one of the first five in the nation, has recorded remarkable energy and water conservation, and solid and hazardous waste reduction in 10 years.
Universities model their programs for societal impact and engagement. CU Boulder was a founding member of the University Climate Change Coalition of 20 leading North American universities in 2018 dedicated to accelerating society’s transition to a low-carbon future.
I am certain tomorrow’s students will continue the legacy of leadership bequeathed to us by Environmental Center students. We continue to see more incoming students select CU because of our green heritage. In a 2017 survey, 92% of students said it’s important that CU Boulder has a strong commitment to environmental sustainability and 40% said they chose CU Boulder in part because of its sustainability reputation.
The Environmental Center’s leadership, impact and innovation over the last half century have put CU in the vanguard of green campuses globally.
Happy Birthday Environmental Center. Fifty years old and just entering your prime!