Sustainability U

Throughout red-and-blue SMU, green practices have become a way of life as the University community rallies to cut waste and conserve precious resources.

In Cockrell-McIntosh Hall, Pamela Varela’s small refrigerator used to be stocked with single-use plastic water bottles. Now Varela, a resident assistant, relies on reusable bottles.

“I used to think that throwing all those plastic water bottles into the recycling bin was enough, until I realized that it’s best not to have a bottle to recycle in the first place,” says Varela, a sophomore environmental engineering major. She also is a member of the SMU Environmental Society and the campus co-chair of RecycleMania, a national intercollegiate recycling competition.

Not far from Varela’s South Quad living quarters, a crew completes the installation of a new chiller for Barr Pool. The high-efficiency system captures energy that would otherwise evaporate into the atmosphere and converts it into heat. As a result, the University will save about $80,000 a year in heating costs for the outdoor swimming pool.

On the west side of Bishop Boulevard, students gather for lunch at the campus’ main dining hall, the Real Food on Campus (RFoC) in Umphrey Lee, where trays have been removed. That action has yielded substantial decreases not only in water consumption but also in the amount of food thrown away, according to Michael Marr, SMU director of dining services and resident district manager for Aramark, which provides dining services.

“When people use trays, they tend to pile up their plates with much more food than they’ll eat,” he says. “Without the trays, food waste has been reduced by 4 to 6 ounces per meal a day, and we serve an average of 3,000 meals each day.”

Many Shades Of Green

At Barr Pool, a new, high-efficiency chiller system saves the University about $80,000 annually in heating costs.


The widely accepted definition of “sustainability” – eco-conscious behavior that “meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs” – was established as a national goal when the Environmental Protection Agency was formed in 1970. That year, the first Earth Day was celebrated on April 22.

The SMU Sustainability Committee generates the kind of awareness that Earth Day evokes and supports it throughout the year. Established in 2009, the committee focuses efforts by students, faculty and staff on a sweeping plan to recycle, reduce waste and reuse. The long-term strategy encompasses resource management programs, student initiatives and green-building construction as well as degree programs, course offerings and research.

Sophomore Elizabeth Peterson serves as an Environmental Representative, or E-Rep, a student staff position assigned to a residence hall to promote recycling and other green efforts.


Steps to shrink SMU’s environmental footprint are taken around the clock, says Michael Paul, executive director of Facilities Management and Sustainability (FM&S) and a member of the SMU Sustainability Committee.

“There’s not one big thing we do that’s the sustainability panacea; it’s the thousand little things that really add up and make a difference,” Paul says.

FM&S takes the lead in rethinking business as usual by identifying new recycling and waste management opportunities as well as finding products and techniques that are eco-friendly and cost-effective.

“Before we adopt a new method or system, it not only has to meet certain environmental criteria but it also has to make economic sense,” Paul says.

As an example, he points to the replacement of incandescent bulbs with LED bulbs in all exit signs. On average an LED bulb uses about a 10th of the energy and lasts about 80 years, compared to the three-month lifespan of an incandescent bulb. “In one year the program paid for itself,” he says.

Forward Thinking

SMU’s long-term commitment to sustainability includes academic tracks to educate students who can meet the needs of a changing world and develop energy-conservation tactics that will play out over decades.

Environmental degree programs – Environmental Studies and Environmental Sciences in Dedman College of Humanities and Sciences and the Department of Environmental and Civil Engineering in Lyle School of Engineering – prepare students now to develop solutions to mounting global sustainability issues.

Mackenzie Keck, a first-year advertising student, shines in a design by Diana Mansour, a first-year business student. They participated in the inaugural eco-fashion show hosted by SMU’s Environmental Representatives March 25.

“I’m interested in research and work being done around the world to reduce carbon emissions by switching to renewable resources for fuel,” says Sarah Karimi, a sophomore environmental sciences and chemistry double major from Karachi, Pakistan. “My academic background helps me understand the environment from a scientific perspective, and I hope to pursue research that will contribute to sustainable energy solutions.”

Researchers like David Blackwell, Hamilton Professor of Geothermal Studies and one of the country’s foremost authorities on geothermal energy, and SMU Geothermal Laboratory Coordinator Maria Richards explore the alternative energy frontier. Their breakthrough mapping of the nation’s geothermal resources shows the vast potential for geothermal energy, which harnesses heat from the Earth’s core. Geothermal energy is reliable – and with the right technology can be generated virtually everywhere.

“That’s really the holy grail of geothermal: that you can go anywhere and extract the Earth’s heat,” Blackwell told National Geographic News in December.

SMU’s Sustainability Committee also is looking at energy through a long-range lens. A Carbon Action Plan with a 30-year goal of attaining carbon neutrality is in development, according to Michael Paul. The plan will outline specific projects to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions by using fiscally sound technologies.

“If we’re not good stewards of the environment today, then we’re not setting up generations to come for success,” he says. “Sustainability is as much about the future as it is about today. ”

Visit SMU’s real-time water and electricity usage on the Building Dashboard.

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