Community Colleges Adding Green to Community – Oakton Community College

Community colleges – they’re at the root of many communities. These community colleges are just that – they serve the community and by doing so these colleges try to reach out to people with diverse interests. Sustainability is one of these interests. Being green and good to the Earth and more sustainable isn’t just a trend or an “in thing” anymore, it’s real – oakton_headerpeople from many backgrounds are interested in chipping in and preserving and beautifying the Earth and their surroundings – their community. I wanted to learn more about what the community colleges in my area (Chicago, Ill.) are doing to be more ecofriendly. So, I’m reaching out to these colleges to learn more. This is the first of a series of blogs which I will post when I have received the information.

Oakton Community College – Des Plaines, Ill.

Listed below are questions and answers I posed to Oakton’s Sustainability Specialist, Debra Kutska:

Q: What are some of the sustainability measures Oakton has taken which the college is most proud of and why?

A: A great piece of pride for the College is our 147 acre Des Plaines campus. We are located in a beautiful stretch of land alongside the Des Plaines River, Kloempken Prairie and a stretch of the Cook County Forest Preserve.  The College works hard on maintaining natural habitats for native plant and animal species. Our naturalist, Ken Schaefer, heads up such initiatives. We perform in regular habitat restoration endeavors including removal of invasive species such as buckthorn and garlic mustard, use native plants in our landscaping, compost lawn clippings and plant trimmings, avoid pesticides and herbicides whenever possible and have an extensive prairie restoration project in process including regular prescribed burns.  These efforts have resulted in recognition from the US EPA and Chicago Wilderness in the form of a 2010 Conservation and Native Landscaping Award and by the National Wildlife Federation as a Certified Wildlife Habitat. Another great endeavor is the opening of our new Margaret Burke Lee Science and Health Careers Center, our first building erected under LEED certification.  You can read more about that here: https://oaktongreenteam.wordpress.com/2015/01/20/margaret-burke-lee-science-and-health-careers-center-is-open/.

Q: How has the College reduced energy?

A: Reducing our electricity consumption is an ongoing process, particularly since our main campus buildings are older. Some of the things we have done include replacing parts in our HVAC equipment to those that are more energy-efficient, switching out to CFLs and LED lights in phases (we recently replaced all of our Halogen bulbs in the gymnasium with LED lighting), utilizing occupancy sensors and timers throughout buildings to turn out lights when not in use, choosing Energy Star appliances where possible and high-efficiency technology equipment, using solar heating for water at the Des Plaines campus, and installing a 23.6 kw solar array on the new Lee Center.

Q: Has the College reduced its water consumption?

A: Using native plants on campus results in less water usage for irrigating the grounds. We have switched to water efficient fixtures in restrooms (low flow toilets, faucets) and are in the process of remodeling our locker rooms which will also contain water-saving features.

Q: What has been the faculty and student reaction to the College’s green efforts?

A: Informally, folks are excited. My position is new to the College and I just started in July. I have received lots of great feedback from staff and faculty who are excited about opportunities to be more sustainable in our operations and lots of suggestions are coming in for how we can make this happen. It is great to see individuals from multiple departments, across disciplines come together with ideas.  Of course, there are many out there who are not interested or who do not see the value in green efforts, so we just have to work to frame projects in ways that will be more appealing to them. Maybe it is the cost-savings, maybe it involves the benefits our students can receive, or the way we represent ourselves as leaders in the community.  Every day is a chance to help people think about their behaviors.

Q: Is composting in the future?

A: Yes, we hope! We currently have a task force assigned with evaluating the waste we produce on both campuses. How it is produced, what is produced, how we can reduce our usage or better divert waste from landfills. Composting is high up on the list of conversation. We are currently evaluating opportunities and costs associated with onsite composting versus third-party composting.

Q: Future plans?

A: Looking at data to evaluate baselines for water and energy consumption, reducing our waste so that we send far less to the landfill, refining recycling opportunities and educational campaigns for all users of our campuses, reducing our paper usage and increasing digital technology for operational procedures.

Lara R. Jackson is a writer/editor based in the Chicago available for full-time, part-time or freelance opportunities. Visit www.lrjwriteedit.wordpress.com or contact her at lrjwriteedit@gmail.com.