These days, you hear a lot about 'being green.' Schools, businesses, homeowners, and students are all trying to conserve and demonstrate sustainability through measurable results.
Olin is not to be left behind with this critical global initiative. I spoke with Assistant Director of Facilities Andy DeMelia about actions the college is taking to become more energy-efficient and to do what we can to be good stewards of our earth.
To my surprise, he mentioned that today Olin uses 40% less energy than we did in 2006. In the 6 years since Olin reached full capacity for the first time, we have achieved that reduction with participation from all parts of the community. From the top, the administration has made investments in capital improvement projects such as putting combustion controls on boilers and installing drives that level the load on the college's HVAC systems. The building and maintenance staff has installed occupancy sensors linked to our lights and exchanged old light fixtures with new LED versions. And as on many college campuses, we have all become more conscious of turning off lights and computers, and unplugging appliances and lamps over vacations - all adding to reduced usage of our precious energy resources.
And the changes aren't just electrical. Rather than throwing away uneaten food, all leftovers in the Olin dining hall are placed on the conveyor belt, then are ground up and washed away to become grey water, which is wastewater generated from domestic activities such as laundry, dishwashing, and bathing. It is then processed by the MWRA facility at Deer Island in Boston Harbor.
In addition, Facilities has almost completely eliminated the use of chemicals in cleaning processes (the exception being bathrooms, due to more stringent regulations). Instead, all hard surfaces are washed with electrically activated water, which still manages to kill germs and viruses, but without the use of chemical cleaners that can harm the environment.
Other notable projects over this last year have been composting and beekeeping. Instead of being thrown out, all the pre-consumer waste from the dining hall (the parts of food that aren't cooked like lettuce heads, peeling from carrots or potatoes, etc.) is now carted down to Parcel B once a week by student volunteers. There they are tossed into a growing pile of compost. The project is using red worms to break down 4,000 lb. of food waste per semester, which is then used to fertilize landscaping projects around campus. One of these is a small garden in Parcel B.
As for the bees, Parcel B is also currently home to 9 hives and 7 nuclei, for a total of 16 colonies, tended to by Professor Ben Linder and the 'Parcel Bees' (students who take Ben's co-curricular). Spring 2012 marked the beginning of the project's fourth year.
The group wastes nothing. They harvest the honey, as well as some of the wax that is removed annually to help prevent diseases in the hives.
The students used the honey as a sugar substitute in cookies, learning how honey differs from granulated sugar physically and chemically (shown above on the left). Then they filtered the wax that was removed from the hives and molded it into homemade candles (shown above on the right).
This last year with the help of '07 alumna Christie Lee, the students have created a honey CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) project. Christie helped found and run the CSA, and also thought up the name 'Parcel Bees' for both the co-curricular and the CSA. There are currently 30 other alumni who purchase shares at the beginning of the season to collect their honey at the end. The funds made are funneled back in to support and maintain the co-curricular. This way, students learn to keep the bees as well as how to meet the challenge of harvesting a product for monetary gain. For more information about the CSA, visit their blog.
This last spring, the Parcel Bees crew planted an area of high-nectar clover to help increase the bees' honey production. The clover will better attract and nourish the already thriving bees. It was planted as part of the Flower Field project, the first step in a plan which aims to return 1.5 acres of land on campus to natural habitat, reduce mowing, provide homes for animals, and provide a food source for other pollinators besides the bees.
The bees have done so well, in fact, that in the last year Olin College and the Parcel Bees gave 2 hives to the Needham Community Farm so they could be used to cross-pollinate some of the crops, as well as for community educational classes and activities. The students help to maintain these hives throughout the year.
And there's more! When they graduated, Olin's Class of 2007 left a gift fund to the college that was specifically earmarked for sustainability endeavors. So far, the fund has been used to aid a new club on campus - the Research of Electric Vehicles at Olin Club (REVO) - to meet their goal of constructing their own electric vehicle in the next 2 years.
The '07 Fund also supports a solar panel project. The solar panels, currently located behind the dorms, are the first permanent renewable energy source on campus. The project aims to generate data on photovoltaic performance on campus in order to inform larger future renewable energy projects, provide a working system for use in classes and projects, and provide opportunities for fun solar-powered activities, such as all-solar movie nights, and to raise awareness about and promote renewable energy. There are also plans for a collaborative around the installation with the Needham elementary school.
One last project worth noting is a pilot Living Lab, which was the vision of Senior James Regulinski. While not a greenhouse per se, the goal of this Living Lab is to provide students with an education in working with living technology powered by sunlight to transform the materials, methods and systems students study as part of engineering to be inherently more sustainable and consistent with life.
When asked what impact he thought these initiatives have had, and will have, on the college overall, Mr. DeMelia shared with me the three major impacts of sustainability.
1. Financial - The college has saved money on energy usage that can now be used elsewhere to improve the campus, academics, and student life.
2. Social - Not only is conservation the right thing to do, but it attracts the kind of students who care about the welfare of the college and of the world at large. The efforts on campus have also led to a strengthened alliance with the town of Needham and the Greening Needham Collaborative, culminating in the college receiving an award from the Needham Chamber of commerce for its efforts. The college has even received a merit award from the EPA for these programs!
3. Environmental - Perhaps most importantly, we need to make a positive impact on the environment wherever we can in order to preserve our earth's natural resources.
Olin is still, by every metric, a new school. This means that it was built with a better understanding of certain methods of conservation and sustainability than others, but we have found there is still so much we can do in this area. Now that we've been around for a decade, we can't help but ask - what will we look like 10 years from now?
Check back later in the summer when we'll talk to the 2 students interns working on these and other sustainability initiatives around campus!