We’ve all received emails from Lehigh’s Office of Sustainability (OOS); we’ve walked past posters advertising Campus Race to Zero Waste and countless other sustainable initiatives on campus. Do you open those emails? Do you read those posters? I didn’t think so.
Last fall, the OOS sent out the Sustainability Culture Survey to assess sentiment towards sustainable action on campus. They sent three subsequent emails reminding students, faculty and staff to complete it. They even gave incentives, promising to donate $150 to a non-profit for a 25 percent response rate and $250 for a 40 percent rate. They got a 12 percent response rate.
More recently, I sent out a survey of my own attempting to assess knowledge on general sustainability topics.
I promoted this form in every way I knew how: from social media and word of mouth to Slack channels and GroupMe chats. I even sent it to all of my professors to promote in their classes.
Out of the hundreds of people who saw my simple form, I didn’t even get enough responses for the data to be included in this article.
Despite the tepid reaction to both of these forms, I’m hesitant to jump to the conclusion that Lehigh students don’t care about sustainability.
In my time here at Lehigh so far, I have been exposed to a wide range of people who care deeply about this issue and want to see real change. Maybe we just have the medium wrong.
Do busy college students really want to fill out yet another Google form?
Julia Patridge, ‘22, event coordinator for the Eco-Rep Leadership Program, has a different approach.
To Patridge, people become more receptive to the idea of sustainability the more they see other people interacting with it.
“That’s the whole point of Eco-Reps — to help people change their behaviors — how they interact with the world and what they do day-to-day to make their lives more sustainable,” Patridge said.
This philosophy manifests itself in the events and issues on which Patridge and the rest of Eco-Reps choose to focus.
According to Patridge, Eco-Reps for residence halls fill out weekly checklists and collect data to measure different sources of students’ carbon footprints, whether that is contaminated recycling or lights left on. They use this data to create targeted campaigns for their hall that educate students on tangible ways to live more sustainably.
As a result of these personalized programs, Patridge has seen first-year students become more receptive to sustainable living ideas as the semester progresses; ditching packs of plastic water bottles for reusable ones and caring more about what and how they recycle.
The question now for sustainable leaders on campus is if an actionable approach will effectively reach a campus-wide audience.
This is being tried right now in the form of the previously mentioned Campus Race to Zero Waste (CR2ZW) campaign.
CR2ZW is a national competition among colleges and universities intended to reduce waste and increase sustainability awareness. Thus far in the campaign, Lehigh has held a clothing drive for its Swap Shop and Rathbone has participated in Zero Waste Week, among other waste-free events.
Have these events worked to foster a greater understanding of sustainability? It’s hard to say.
Lehigh students are given an increasing number of opportunities to make a positive impact on campus. However, the primary methods of informing the community are still emails and memos that are only read by journalism majors writing columns about sustainability.
This means that the onus is on us to spread the message further. Direct action begets direct action, and CR2ZW is not close to being done yet.
There are more events planned in the upcoming weeks to further integrate sustainability into our campus life, ranging from a used athletic shoe drive, to a reusable cup day at The Grind, to the annual Trashion Show at the STEPS Atrium.
If you care about these issues at all or if you just want Lehigh to win yet another sustainable national competition, I highly encourage everyone reading this to participate in these events and show the community that we care.
There will always be the backlash that clothing drives won’t make a difference if agricultural and oil companies continue to pollute with reckless abandon. And while that is true, this is the world that we live in, and the fact that we cannot change it overnight should not be a reason to give up. A zero-waste Lehigh is just the first step in creating a cultural consciousness that can help real people, in Bethlehem and beyond.