Sustainability and green living power UNT

When students chose green to be one of UNT’s official school colors more than 100 years ago, they did so trusting that Mother Nature is “kind to those who wear her colors.”

That decision to honor nature was among the first of countless ways the UNT community began to place environmentalism, conservation and sustainability at the heart of UNT. It was likely no accident that the university’s first research faculty member contracted with the City of Dallas to improve water quality.

Today, UNT teaches green, researches green and simply is green. UNT offers 65 courses with a sustainable focus, faculty in many disciplines are searching for ways to reduce society’s impact, and in its daily operations UNT is dedicated to treading lightly. The campus is committed to a robust recycling program, fuels its vehicles with biodiesel generated from cafeteria cooking oil, and is retrofitting existing buildings to be more energy efficient while constructing new structures to meet the highest green building standards.


UNT System’s green commitment

The commitment to green is modeled by the UNT System and is shared by all three system schools. In fact, a new facility will open at each UNT System campus this fall, and all three of the new buildings are on track to receive gold-level Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification.

“We have an obligation to leave to future generations campuses that minimize use of resources and don’t harm the environment,” says Rich Escalante, vice chancellor for administrative services. “There is also the very practical matter of cost. We keep our buildings for 50 to 75 years, and by building in this manner, the buildings pay for themselves through their efficiencies within seven or eight years. Plus, environmentally responsible buildings mean healthier buildings with better air quality.”


UNT’s legacy of sustainability

When UNT was still known as North Texas State Teachers College, J.K.G. “Doc” Silvey, who specialized in freshwater conditions, joined the biology faculty in 1935 as the college’s first research faculty member. He later chaired the department from 1952 to 1973.

“He was the first component in UNT’s green movement,” says Erin Davis, assistant to the director of UNT’s Office of Sustainability. “Since 1935, UNT has had a ‘green’ mindset. It began with Doc Silvey’s environmental awareness campaign and community outreach for pollution and water quality.”

In 1970, UNT opened the Institute of Applied Sciences for interdisciplinary research and public service and in 1990, UNT created the first Environmental Philosophy program in the world. Just two years ago, UNT became the first large Texas university to sign the American College and University Presidents Climate Commitment.

“UNT takes a holistic approach to sustainability, integrating it into all that we do,” says Todd Spinks, director of the Office of Sustainability. “To have a legitimate and credible sustainability initiative, a university must balance its activities, making sure it operates as efficiently as possible and reduces waste, provides students with the intellectual skill-set needed to overcome complex 21st century challenges, and influences behavior on and off campus to lessen the impact of environmental stressors.”

Read some of the practical ways UNT is working to reduce its impact on the environment >>


Office of Sustainability

Two years ago, UNT created the Sustainability Council to begin designing a plan to meet the ACUPCC commitment. Among the council’s recommendations was the creation of the Office of Sustainability to guide UNT to its goal to become carbon neutral.

Spinks says UNT’s Office of Sustainability is unique for two reasons.

“First, the administration has given us full liberty to engage in any activities that the university undertakes,” he says. “That lets us be completely objective as we guide the university and provide benefits to all parts of the UNT family. Second, we are the central point for information collection, organization and dissemination, and coordination of activities related to sustainability. As such, the office brings cohesion to the many sustainability efforts on campus, increasing their impact.”

The office also:

  • tracks all of the university’s sustainability efforts and accomplishments throughout its history
  • facilitates new innovative sustainability initiatives throughout the campus
  • partners in the development of courses and degrees in sustainability
  • increases the visibility of and identifies funding for sustainability research activities

Members of UNT’s Office of Sustainability appear with a statue honoring J.K.G. Silvey at the Environmental Education Science and Technology Building. From left, Lauren Helixon, graduate student; Todd Spinks, director of the Office of Sustainability; Paige Burgess, graduate student; Lauren Lesch, graduate student; Erin Davis, assistant to the director of the Office of Sustainability; Brandon Morton, graduate student.


Sustainability research and teaching

Many of UNT’s significant research initiatives could help reduce negative environmental impacts. Some of the goals of the university’s research clusters include:

  • Exploring how light can be used in extremely small dimensions to develop new nano-devices with applications in energy and a number of other fields.
  • Using materials modeling to produce predictive tools to create next-generation materials to help scientists reduce greenhouse gas in the environment.
  • Studying signaling mechanisms in plants that control growth, crop yield, defense against pathogens and responses to stress.
  • Developing renewable bioproducts to create green solutions for the life cycle of consumer and industry products using plant, bacteria and other bio-agent materials.

In the classroom, UNT has the nation’s leading curriculum in environmental philosophy (according to the International Association of Environmental Philosophy) and offers 65 courses across disciplines that either focus on sustainability issues or incorporate some aspect of sustainability as part of the coursework.


Spirit of Green

For students, being green is about more than being a responsible resident of the planet, it’s also the way you show your UNT pride.

“Green living has infused UNT spirit,” says Heidi Bamberg, women’s studies graduate student. “As our official school color, green as pride and green as sustainable are now interchangeably used. The green movements are very apparent at popular school events, like football games, where things like recycling play an integral part.”

Students’ efforts don’t stop with recycling. UNT students start local food movements, plant trees and reduce their carbon footprint by bicycling and carpooling whenever possible. They adopt sustainable lifestyle practices and serve as examples of conservation and sustainability for the community at large.




Thank you for the details Lisa. But again, recycling is just the first step. And even with all the actions you mentioned, they are obviously not visible enough for students like myself to notice any change. A few thousand dollars just doesn't cut it. If UNT is serious about the improving the environment, then you will have to invest millions ($1,000,000+), just like any other successful campus initiative. What about the millions spent on Athletic programs? I'm pretty sure the decision to build a new stadium for a losing program was a hard fought battle, yet the university leaders pushed it through.

Improving the campus environment should be an easy sell, and I am certain cost savings from sustainability initiatives can pay for themselves and generate revenue if the decision makers of the university would actually take serious action, with university dollars. Companies like Wal-Mart and Dell are saving millions of dollars by investing in employee stewardship programs, energy efficiency and renewables, improving alternative transit options, and conserving water by reducing demand. With a Department of Sustainability at a university, I would think these would be some of their primary initiatives, saving UNT millions in operations costs, which can then be invested back into a diverse array of university-wide programs. Now thats what sustainability means.

A concerned student

Comment #1 posted by Anonymous (not verified) 7 years 12 weeks ago.

Dear UNT Family Member,
I was asked by the North Texan folks to provide some about the UNT’s recycling efforts. I am thrilled to read your comments and to have an opportunity to share with you, not simply what UNT has been doing, but more about the university’s current efforts to strengthen and enhance its overall recycling efforts.

I could not agree more with your statements regarding the need for an aggressive approach to recycling. To my office, and many others on campus, this means that UNT must have a holistic, cohesive strategy to solid-waste removal that is effective and efficient. It must provide cost-savings while affecting behavior and the environment. After assessing the initiatives at UNT during the last year, UNT’s Office of Sustainability recommended a full review of the university’s recycling efforts with recommendations for a more comprehensive strategy. Accordingly, the Office of Sustainability is currently assessing every detail of every campus initiative relating to solid waste, surplus equipment, composting, and recycling. Our goal is to provide a few options on how these efforts can be structured to maximize their combined effect.

The team is also working to develop a strategy to:
• integrate student participation on a much greater level
• promote student conducted/faculty guided research to strengthen the program’s impact
• encourage faculty from a variety of departments to use UNT’s model as an example to complement their course instruction
• implement outreach efforts to increase awareness of solid-waste challenges change behavior on and off campus.

To use your phrasing, “Now that is what sustainability means.” Though UNT has made significant strides in recent years, it is now positioned to provide a much more comprehensive, effective, and efficient program that will bring benefits to many throughout the UNT family. But it can’t be done successfully without people like you.

We’d like to welcome you, or other passionate UNT family members, to be a part of the team. In fact, we could use more student voices on this task force to ensure that their unique perspective is heard loud and clear. So I extend a personal invitation to you, and others, to contact me directly if you would like to be a part of this effort.

Again, I thank you for your very knowledgeable comments and your passion to improve the overall condition at UNT. I look forward to the many successes UNT will experience as its entire family works together to become a national steward in sustainability.


Dr. Todd Spinks
Director, Office of Sustainability

Comment #2 posted by mwh0012 7 years 6 weeks ago.

As sustainability goes, recycling reduces our need for increasing our land impact in a potentially more permanent way than increasing energy efficiency. In fact, energy efficiency increases our ability to impact the earth for the same amount of power used.

Recycling is only as effective as its weakest link. In the case of UNT recycling, bottlenecks appear in the system where the emptying of recyling bins is concerned. UNT Environmental Services requires a basal amount of funding in order to function well and have sufficient personnel to perform that function. It is hypocritical of us as a university to spend millions of dollars on athletics while only a few thousand dollars are directed toward such basic environmental infrastructure.

As placement of recycling bins is concerned, there are important gaps. Bins should be placed within '10 seconds' of a source of recycleable materials. A model for this ideal placement is the Green Mountain Coffee/Bookstore/Shop area of the Student Union. In other areas, it is possible to walk for some distance across campus without finding a recycling bin. Visitors to this supposedly 'green' university are frustrated each time they feel forced to throw something away, then feeling bad when they find the recycling bin just out of their earlier reach.

Also, bottles and cans are a recycling staple, but polystyrene cups are a heavy source of waste that is often thrown away by well-meaning consumers. A bottle-shaped container sends the wrong message. "Plastic/Styrofoam 1-6", with the recycling symbols might catch more foam cups.

Sustainability initiatives are an important and useful goal. They draw attention to issues and make us feel good about ourselves. However, only correct decision-making, integrating known facts, together with effective action, can we accomplish our needed goals with regards to sustainability.

A concerned student

Comment #3 posted by Anonymous (not verified) 7 years 28 weeks ago.

Hi, I'm Lisa Largen, the online editor for The North Texan.

Thank you for sharing your thoughts and concerns. We took your comments and talked with Doug Turnage in facilities.

They have plans to add additional recycling units throughout the campus, as the budget allows. The larger canisters cost $800-$1,000 a bin, while the smaller ones cost $45-$110 dollars. There is also an associated labor cost that goes along with providing new bins on campus that facilities must plan for in the budget. They are currently assessing the university and we brought your concerns to their attention, which they also appreciated.

Facilities does try to provide and distribute the bins and recycling units equally around the university. They informed us that many times they will place a bin in a location, then often finding later that it has been moved by someone to a classroom, a different part of the hall, and sometimes it has disappeared completely. Facilities then has to find room in the budget to replace the bin, making it a priority in their efforts.

The recycling area that you mentioned in the Union near the Green Mountain Coffee Shop area was purchased by the Student Union themselves and came out of a separate budget that is not incorporated in the overall university budget. Many buildings, organizations and departments do have the option to do something similar. The funding is separate from the university's and it is up to the individual buildings if they want to provide a similar receptacle base.

Coca-Cola sponsors additional white recycling barrels around campus. There are already a few on campus and these will help to only strengthen and grow the university's efforts for a more sustainable campus.

Athletics also participates in recycling. There are several recycling bins throughout the athletic facilities including Mean Green Village. Plans are underway to provide bins to vendors this year at various athletic events and during tailgating to further develop the university's sustainability impact.

Facilities makes $30,000-$50,000 a year in profit from UNT’s recycling efforts. That budget goes into labor, equipment, repair and other operational costs. UNT has lowered their costs in trash disposal by roughly $30,000 annually. Over time, and as more utilities are added to help facilities pull from to help their operational duties, this should assist in even further development and growth in our campus' sustainability efforts.

Thanks again for sharing your thoughts and ideas with us.

Comment #4 posted by lae0006 7 years 28 weeks ago.

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