Students, Faculty Emphasize Sustainability In Age Of COVID-19

As people adapt to the new normal of COVID-19 and its effects on the university environment, students and faculty who take part in the university’s sustainability efforts are aiming to continue those efforts to better the planet and the campus while remaining safe.

Claire Eaton, one of two Campus Sustainability Projects Coordinators on the school’s Green Fee Committee and a senior majoring in environmental studies and anthropology, said that the pandemic had a major impact on the committee’s work early on.

“It was kind of difficult when things started; we put all of our projects on hold,” Eaton said. “As we left campus, there wasn’t much we could do anymore.”

Tyler Pasley, the other Sustainability Project Coordinator and a senior studying environmental studies and philosophy, said that much of the work has shifted to online meetings even after the return to campus.

“It’s definitely changed the nature of the work,” Pasley said. “You kind of value that face-to-face interaction.”

The pandemic has also created setbacks in sustainability elsewhere on campus. Chair of the Department of Environmental Studies Megan Styles is also faculty advisor for the campus community garden, while currently serving on the campus Senate Committee on Sustainability and the Green Fee Committee. She said that much of the pandemic’s impact on sustainability on campus comes in the form of waste generation.

“Because of the concerns about the transmission of COVID-19, there’s been an enormous uptick in using disposable products,” Styles said. “We’ve made a lot of progress in the last few years, especially with eliminating single-use plastics and the pandemic has kind of undermined some of that momentum.”

But students such as Eaton acknowledge the difficulty of sustainability work in the middle of a pandemic.

“I think sustainability during the pandemic, it’s kind of taken a backseat,” Eaton said.

But the Green Fee Committee’s work toward sustainability on campus has resumed.

“That is continuing to be our mission: to strive for a sustainable campus, and for students and faculty and staff to have opportunities to participate in sustainability,” said Francesca Butler, a senior majoring in environmental studies and philosophy. In addition, she serves as a coordinator for the campus community garden and as a co-chair of the Green Fee Committee.

Even with reduced student involvement, Styles said most of the projects approved in last year’s funding cycle are being implemented with social distancing in mind.

“[The pandemic] hasn’t stopped our work,” Styles said. “We’re definitely still working, we’re just a little bit slower.”

However, the changes brought about by the pandemic have also created opportunities for sustainability organizations and committees on campus. For example, three student sustainability leaders have been able to attend the virtual conference of the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education.

“It would have been a little bit cost-prohibitive to bring everybody to that if we also had to pay for travel expenses,” Styles said. “But if we just have to pay for registration, [and] it’s remote, it means that we’re able to make these resources accessible to our student leaders.”

Styles noted that the pandemic and shift of many conferences and webinars online have made sustainability resources more accessible than ever.

“if you’re at home and wanting to learn about this stuff, now’s the moment you can literally join a webinar with a world-renowned expert,” Styles said.

Even in Springfield, there are numerous ways to take sustainable actions in everyday life.

For example, Butler said that, while using face masks and gloves is necessary and beneficial, those things need to be disposed of correctly.

“Most of those things are not recyclable, so you need to throw them away, but make sure they make it to the proper trash can,” Butler said.

She added that reusable items can have less environmental impact.

While Pasley said actions such as recycling and energy conservation can be helpful in terms of sustainability, he added that reaching out to legislators and local politicians can also make a difference.

“With climate change, I think we all have actions to take, and every little thing matters,” Pasley said. “It’s a collection of little things that actually creates big changes.”

Sustainability, according to Butler, means more than just keeping things the way they are.

“When we talk about sustainability, we usually mean bettering our current environment or getting it back to the place that it once was,” Butler said. “We really have this idea of revitalizing and regenerating, you know, having an ecosystem that is regenerative that it’s not so devastating if some fluctuation happens.”

Eaton said sustainability can help people set standards and principles for society as a whole.

“it’s kind of a really selfless topic,” Eaton said. “You are making changes to your lifestyle to benefit others in a world you might not really see.”

Pasley added that sustainability can help preserve the world as it is now for future generations.

“In the face of the pandemic, I think it’s difficult to try and think about leaving a place better than you found it, because we feel like we don’t have as much control,” Pasley said. “But I think we can still try and live by those principles.”

The Sustainability Committee is still planning on conducting this fall’s Sustainability Week in a virtual format from Nov. 2 to Nov. 6. The keynote speaker will be Liz Stelk, the executive director of the Illinois Stewardship Alliance.

The Green Fee Committee is also currently accepting proposals for campus sustainability projects. The deadline to submit a Letter of Intent for funding for a project is Nov. 8.