The end of spring quarter will mark six months since the creation of the Green Fund, a pool of grant money dedicated to student-led campus sustainability projects and research. The fund has provided grants to six projects in total, ranging from off-campus composting to energy reduction initiatives.
The University first announced the Green Fund in spring 2020. It consists of at least $50,000, renewed annually, along with any additional funds donated by alumni through the University's annual giving campaign. Management of the fund is a joint effort by faculty members and the University of Chicago Environmental Alliance (UCEA), a partnership of student-run organizations that includes the Phoenix Sustainability Initiative (PSI), the Environmental Research Group, Student Government’s Committee on Campus Sustainability, the Environmental Justice Task Force, and the Paul Douglas Institute. During the fall and winter application cycles, students and faculty met over Zoom to review proposals and pick the ones that were most feasible and impactful. The criteria for the proposals included significance of impact, plan for implementation, feasibility of budget, and measurability of outcomes.
Alison Anastasio, an environmental and urban studies professor, is one of the faculty members involved in the judging process. In an interview with The Maroon, she emphasized that the judging process was highly interdisciplinary, involving close collaboration between undergraduate students and faculty members.
“I think that is a rare thing on campus,” she said. “It was very nice. It was like we were all colleagues.… Sustainability is a thing that requires people from lots of different fields and with different perspectives, and the Green Fund takes that into account. I think it’s really reflective of the way that sustainability work is done.”
Terra Baer, a third-year and a copresident of PSI, has worked to create the Green Fund since her first year. She agreed with Anastasio that the review board considered input from all members and made changes to the review system during the winter application process in order to ensure that everyone’s opinions were taken into account. “The goal is never to give out money just to spend it,” Baer said. “We only want to fund projects that we are highly confident will be successful and that meet our rubric and our criteria.… We were not able to award the majority of applicants grants this year.”
According to Baer, the COVID-19 pandemic affected multiple aspects of the Green Fund’s planning. “One aspect of the application that we had to add at the last minute was a ‘COVID implementation plan’ section. This year, we definitely took the pandemic into account and tried to encourage distance collaboration.”
The only project to receive a Green Fund grant during the fall application cycle was a composting initiative organized by PSI. The group used the grant funding to subsidize composting services for students living off campus via The Urban Canopy, a Chicago-area urban farm. Second-year Chloe Brettmann, who led the project, reported that 35 residences and 106 individuals participated in the program, higher numbers than she had expected. Second-, third-, and fourth-years participated in roughly equal amounts.
“We were super thrilled by the reach of the program. It seemed like most people didn’t have any major problems, but people were excited about it and surprised by how easy it was,” she said. More participants joined the initiative during spring quarter, and it has earned approval to continue this summer and in the following years.
The success of PSI’s composting project inspired a group of medical students at the University of Chicago Medical Center to apply for a grant to start a similar program for medical students living off campus. The Sustainable Pritzker Residential Composting Project received approval from the Green Fund this winter to begin during spring quarter.
Both composting initiatives also seek to educate the campus community about food waste and proper waste-sorting practices. For instance, PSI’s Off-Campus Composting Subsidy Initiative hosted webinars explaining how to compost and produced informational handouts to help residents remember what they could and couldn’t compost.
The Green Fund also supported the implementation of a new algorithm within the UChicago Data Center that reduces energy consumption. The algorithm minimizes the number of power-intensive operations the computers must perform. It also reduces energy costs by automatically scheduling power-intensive jobs for times when the cost of electricity is lower.
Battle of the Buildings, a dorm competition to reduce environmental impact, also received funding this spring. Battle of the Buildings is a collaboration between Facilities Services and Housing and Residence Life. The first competition was held throughout April. The theme was “energy vampires,” which are devices such as refrigerators and TVs that use considerable energy even when they are not in use. International House won in the water reduction category, and Max Palevsky won in the electricity reduction category.
Two waste-related projects also gained funding. The DivaCup initiative provided free menstrual cups to students on campus in order to reduce the waste caused by disposable period products. The DivaCup initiative had previously been funded through the Health and Wellness Committee budget of Student Government. Lastly, the Cummings Life Science Center set up large recycling bins on each floor to collect and recycle used pipette tips.
Next year, Baer expects to see more Green Fund project applications and a greater proportion of accepted proposals. “I anticipate that we’re going to be receiving a lot more applications because even between the first cycle and the second cycle, we received more than double the number of applicants. It’s really exciting because so many people have ideas,” she said. The Green Fund also plans to update its website and publish additional resources for students in order to help guide them during the application process.
Baer expects the reopening of campus to lead to more collaborative projects and in-person proposals. “I anticipate more projects that have more of an in-person collaborative element to them, as well as more projects that target on-campus…sustainability issues,” she said.
Brettmann and Baer both expressed hope that on-campus composting, a long-term goal of PSI, may be implemented next year with the help of the Green Fund. “On campus, composting has been a bit of a touchy subject,” Baer said, citing the long history of the initiative. (Baer said that Housing and Residence Life has raised the issue of the compost-collecting bins’ smell and tendency to attract pests, among other concerns.) “It’s been something that has been unequivocally denied by Housing for a very long time, but now we’re starting to break those barriers and have those conversations with them.”
PSI’s leadership recently met with administrators to work on a plan that would introduce composting on campus. “Dean [Richard] Mason in particular has been super helpful in facilitating conversation,” Brettmann said. “He’s met with us multiple times and has been really supportive in helping us put forth a proposal that meets the needs of Housing.”
According to Brettmann, the next step would be a pilot program based on composting systems at other universities. She described a program in which students living on campus would receive a compost bucket and drop off their compost once a week at a central location on campus. In PSI’s proposal to Housing and Residence Life, the pilot program would begin at Campus North Residential Commons in partnership with The Urban Canopy. “We’re trying to put forth a proposal that will mitigate any possible risks,” Brettmann said. “But again, we’ll take what they’re willing to approve for now and go from there. I’m really optimistic that we will get there, but we’ll have to see.”