Amherst Lagging Behind Peers in Sustainability Efforts
By Alexander Propp '13
After only one semester here at Amherst, I was presented with the opportunity to become one of the co-chairs of the Green Amherst Project. Both of our upperclassmen leaders decided to go abroad, leaving a spot open for a freshman to help take up the reins. Even with my limited experience at the College, I embraced the opportunity in order to help push the school towards greater sustainability.

In the last few years, Amherst has put forth a strong effort to reduce its footprint. According to the College website, “Amherst College is deeply committed to sustainability. We strive to set an example of responsible stewardship by establishing sound policies and practices that promote resource conservation and minimize our environmental impact.” So how are we doing? What lies behind the mission statements and press releases?

Amherst has engaged itself in numerous initiatives to reduce its environmental impact. From the co-generation plant to the smaller projects like replacing light bulbs across campus and installing motion detectors for lights, the Facilities Department has worked hard to reduce our footprint and produce energy using the most responsible means. The co-generation plant, which went online in 2008, reduces the campus’ carbon footprint by almost five percent. Solar water heaters line the top of Hitchcock House, Mayo-Smith House, the President’s house and Facilities building.

Amherst’s efforts have not gone unnoticed. In the latest version of “The Sustainability Report Card,” Amherst earned the highest grade awarded, an A-, alongside its peers Oberlin, Middlebury, Williams and Wesleyan. But in reality, although our efforts are commendable, Amherst’s efforts pale in comparison to schools like Middlebury, Oberlin and Williams.

Middlebury College is on track to carbon neutrality by 2016. Last year, Middlebury opened a biomass gasification plant that provides heat to campus buildings. The project reduced the college’s carbon footprint by 40 percent by replacing heating oil with a rapidly renewing and locally available source of fuel — wood chips. One of Middlebury’s more recent test projects is to simply let the grass grow in certain underused areas of the campus, reducing the need to mow, water and fertilize the land.

Williams has established an entire department on campus to foster initiatives that reduce the campus’s environmental footprint. All of Oberlin’s new buildings since 2006 fulfill the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design silver guidelines for sustainability. Oberlin buys 40 percent of its food locally, including some from an on-campus farm that is staffed largely by students. Buying food locally reduces the incredible impact each meal has on the world’s resources.

It is time for Amherst to look at sustainability with these sorts of bold initiatives in mind. While Amherst is only behind a few of its peers, the time has come to be a leader. Amherst’s strong national reputation gives us the ability and resources to truly embrace our mission of sustainability, instead of just maintaining the status quo.

Amherst needs to purchase all of its electricity from renewable sources. The school currently buys portions of its energy from renewable sources, but anything less than 100 percent is unacceptable. Although Valentine Dining Hall buys some of its produce locally, the percent of local produce is far below the amount available in this fertile region.

Some of the onus falls on the students, faculty and staff at the College. Amherst’s strong efforts to recycle are limited by how we embrace them. So far, the College’s efforts to reduce energy use depend on how responsible we are in turning off lights when they are not needed. But as we aim for greater sustainability, we need to learn to limit our consumption. The water on campus is as good as most bottled water, and it comes to us without the plastic and the huge carbon footprint of bottled water

One great thing about most of these initiatives is that they save a lot of money in the long run. This college is not going anywhere any time soon. The fewer resources we use, the smaller the college’s costs will be in the future, and the better the savings can go towards focusing on other areas of student life. Many of these projects require large initial investments, but most can recover their costs in a matter of years.

The Green Amherst Project is working on all of these fronts. We have a lot of work in front of us, and we’d love your help.

Issue 17, Submitted 2010-03-03 04:47:17