From Donation Drives to Rain Barrels, Elmira College Students Drive Sustainability on Campus

Sustainability is a strategic focus in Elmira College’s developing 2023-2028 Strategic Plan. The College’s work in that area has already begun, led by a campuswide Sustainability Committee and the inaugural cohort of Sustainability Leaders. The Sustainability Leaders – one student from each class – were selected from a pool of applicants and will each receive a Sustainability Scholarship. With the campus as a canvas for their ideas, the students spent the 2022-2023 academic year designing meaningful projects to implement, often taking the lead in figuring out how they would accomplish their goals.

Alexis Barnes '26, a Nursing major, was the first to implement her plan. Since her idea didn’t require funding, Barnes moved quickly and organized a Move-Out Day Donation Drive at the end of the 2022-2023 academic year. The goal of the Drive was to salvage clothing, furniture, and other small items that otherwise would have been thrown out as students packed up to leave campus.

With the help of Campus Security, Barnes organized 20 donation sites around campus. The Facilities team picked up the contents of the bins and placed them in a central location where The Salvation Army could come and pick everything up.

“It would not have been possible to do this without their help. I’m so grateful!” she exclaimed.

Barnes was surprised by how much was donated in the week leading up to the official move-out day.

“The day before the final move-out day, the majority of the 20 boxes were overflowing with donations, and I was able to fill eight trash bags full of materials to donate early to make room in the bins for the official move-out day,” said Barnes.

Her inspiration came from videos of students from other colleges and universities during their move-out days. The students found used items still in good shape and took them out of the trash.

“Before this, I didn’t realize people threw out so many items that could be reused by others,” she said.

A primary motivation for Barnes is to keep items out of landfills. Her secondary motivation is to support the local community. That’s why she donated the items to The Salvation Army.

Barnes hopes to get students more involved next year and make the donation drive an annual feature, with donations going to additional community organizations.

Ashton Craver ’25, a Nursing Major, readied to implement his plan, a rain barrel at the Sustainability House, when he returned in August for his junior year. The house serves as a testing ground for the Leaders and is a place where they can research best practices that might get implemented elsewhere on campus. It’s also an ideal spot for a rain barrel since it sits close to the campus’s community garden.

“Dr. Billingsley and his students in the Garden Club can use the collected water from the rain barrel,” explained Craver. “That will take a load off EC’s water bills and related expenses.”

While the Sustainability House provides an ideal location for the first barrel, Craver and the Sustainability Committee hope to approve more barrel placements and further reduce the College’s water costs.

“We need water for a variety of things,” he said. “It’s not potable (drinkable), but it can help water the plants around campus. Anywhere there is a gutter system we can implement a barrel for low cost.”

Grace Whiffen ’24, an Environmental Science major, began tracking energy use at the Sustainability House to get a baseline and test efficiencies, such as swapping in LED lighting and motion detectors. She plans to use the data to make the case that, while these types of measures can require initial investments, the long-term energy savings compensate for the more costly equipment.

So far, her research indicates that using LED lightbulbs could reduce energy use by 75%. Her next steps involve purchasing lights and motion detectors for the Sustainability House. She’ll then measure the energy savings while determining the best makes and models for campus use.

Josh Campbell, Director of Facility Operations and a Sustainability Committee member, eagerly offered to share his data with Whiffen. His team has been systematically replacing older fluorescent bulbs with LED lights and has completely converted the Murray Athletic Center.

Christian Zweirlien ’23, a Biochemistry major, plans to collaborate with Derek Chalfant, Associate Professor of Art, to use reclaimed materials to create artistic sculptures and small benches to place around campus. His hope is to use art as a medium to bring attention to the science of sustainability and highlight the importance of sustainability as a whole.

Zwierlein plans to upcycle wood from trees that were recently removed as part of an annual landscape management project.

As the four Sustainability Leaders look ahead to the second year of the program, the team is excited to make more happen.

Zweirlien hopes to provide leadership to the group by formalizing processes, making it easier for them, and future leaders, to implement their initiatives.

Craver is excited about the work the group has already started, combined with larger College initiatives. “I hope the campus community keeps the ball rolling on sustainability initiatives like the donation drive Alexis Barnes put together and the teach-in day about the climate,” said Craver.

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