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Sustainability Issues on Campus with Ellen Newell

Assistant Director of Grounds Services, Arizona State University

Ellen Newell
Assistant Director of Grounds Services
Arizona State University

Please describe your involvement in sustainability issues on campus and in your department.
The president of ASU, Michael Crow, has set the direction on the importance of and the expectation that sustainability will be a part of decision making. Our department has taken that charge very seriously and proactively looks for ways to cut our energy use and have more environmentally friendly horticultural practices.

We now compost over 12 tons of our green waste monthly with a local composting farm, removing that tonnage from the waste stream sent to the landfill. We buy back the compost and use it on our grounds instead of chemical fertilizers. Along with the compost, we have an aeration program for the turf, leading to healthier turf with better water-holding capacity, which needs less irrigation.

We are reducing our fleet of vehicles and using electric carts, and have purchased our first three-wheeled commercial bike. We intend to replace a number of electric carts with bikes; this will reduce our energy and maintenance costs. The Arizona State University Tempe campus is quite contained and very crowded, so the use of bikes is very efficient. The supervisors also will be on bikes as I already am. We also have started an edible food program where we harvest all of the edible food grown on campus and send it on to the university food services. The campus has a large collection of citrus trees, dates, herbs, and some other nut and fruit trees. We are working with a student marketing class on a marketing plan for making marmalade from the university's many sour oranges. This would be a program run by either the academic side as part of training, or the food services vendor with participation from the grounds department.

Earlier in the year the governor of Arizona mandated in an executive order that all blowers be banned from use on state-owned property. As a result, our crew is now using brooms, along with our power washers and sweepers used at night, to clean hard surfaces. There has been some reduction in efficiency and ground covered each day by each crew member but not enough to be noticeable. The only exception to that is it is now more difficult to pick up the thousands of cigarette butts from campus.

The waste-hauling contract managed by our department included a recycling component when reissued this past year. Along with the purchasing department and the Office of Sustainability, we are working together to set up and train building staff to add co-mingled recycling to each building before the end of the fiscal year. All kinds of paper fiber, plastic bottles Nos. 1 and 2, and aluminum will be allowed in the co-mingled recycling bins in each room. Metals, batteries and construction waste are recycling separately."

We are starting to develop a true Integrated Pest Management (IPM) program for our pest control both inside and outside the buildings. Presently, we are developing our standards and will then have to train the rest of the university staff and students about the control of insects and other pests on campus.

We also are working with a number of student groups and the university food service provider, Aramark, to harvest and make use of the tons of fruit, vegetables and herbs grown on campus. In the past, much of the produce was allowed to spoil or was damaged during hurried picking and entered the waste stream. We are now sending some of it to the food services restaurants and working with student volunteers to carefully harvest all of the citrus fruit for use or sale on campus.

What are your specific priorities or responsibilities when it comes to sustainability?
I need to make sure all changes in our operations are documented and measured. They need to support sustainability but also fit into our state-funded budget. The compost purchases will be a bit more expensive than purchasing the chemical fertilizers, but the savings to the utility account from hauling and tipping fees are easily measured. The shortfall will be partially offset by the savings on fuel and maintenance costs as the number of vehicles is reduced. We also have reduced the number of land phone lines from seven down to two in our office due to cell-phone use, further reducing costs.

My responsibility also is to look at our operations and find areas where we can reduce energy use. Often this has led to increased efficiency, sometimes by actually using less technology as in the bikes.

The other large responsibility is promoting what we are doing and explaining what and why we are making the changes. I have taken sustainability as a challenge to our operations but a very rewarding one as well.

How has the issue of sustainability affected the purchase and use of chemicals on landscaped areas?
We are developing an IPM program to reduce our use of chemical insecticides. We also are looking at our horticultural maintenance practices as part of IPM to grow healthier plants that are more resistant to pests. This includes the use of compost, aerating the turf, leaving the grass clippings on the lawn, and using the proper amount of water on each type of landscape. This will cut down on insecticides, chemical fertilizers and herbicides. We try to spray weeds when necessary - due to tight labor when they are small and require fewer chemicals. Our purchases are always for the least toxic chemical possible. We do not purchase any restricted chemicals except for termite control.

How has the issue affected big-ticket equipment, such as mowers and utility vehicles?
This is where we are making some of our most significant changes. We have used electric carts for years in addition to some small pickups, along with our larger trucks. We now are investigating and planning on purchasing some of the newer, heavier-duty electric vehicles with the solar option to replace our small and some mid-size trucks. As electric carts need replacing, we will purchase new carts with roof-top solar panels. In Arizona, with all of our sun, solar equipment is a very viable option. We have trialed and are in the process of trialing rider mowers powered by propane. The governor wrote an executive order last year outlawing all gasoline-powered landscape maintenance equipment on state-owned property. It was realized that the manufacturing industry was not quite there with practical electric-, solar-, or propane-run small equipment suitable for commercial use, so the order was modified. We are still allowed to purchase gasoline-powered equipment if it is the only practical option available, but it needs to be the cleanest possible. The one exception is all backpack blowers and blower/vacs have been banned outright on all state-owned property. We are now using hand brooms and rakes, along with large street and power sweepers with water. There was some initial complaining, but now everyone is used to the new way of operating. The only drawback has been the difficulty in removing the hundreds of daily cigarette butts from the planters. That is a whole different topic, though.

In light of growing concerns over water supplies, what actions has your department taken to curtail or eliminate water use?
The department has a Rainbird MaxiCom system hooked to a weather station for approximately one-third of our campus. We connect additional landscapes to it any time there is a remodel or new construction in the landscape. We still have portions of campus irrigated with hoses from hydrants and building spigots. We convert them to in-ground systems every chance we get. We have only one area left that is flood-irrigated. The master plan for the Tempe campus includes low water use designs for all, but the very center of campus and most of the new landscapes are much more drought-tolerant. I feel our department is capable of significantly reducing our water use and that is one of my long-term goals.

What sustainability-related issues and activities are on the horizon for your department and the university?
As I said, our president has taken a very proactive stance on sustainability and has signed the carbon neutral initiative, so we have a lot of support from the top, but also a lot of pressure to become more environmentally sensitive. I see the use of reclaimed water, possibly in partnership with the city of Tempe, as a possibility in the future. At the recent PGMS School of Grounds Management and GIE+EXPO in Louisville, I saw some large, heavy-duty wagons that can be pulled by electric carts or by hand that could be very useful in our operation. We are continually evaluating our operation, looking at new technology, and investigating how we can operate using less fuel, chemicals, and water.

posted:  11/6/2007