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  • sustainability 2:19 am on April 12, 2012 Permalink  

    The US/Canada Citizen’s Summit for Sustainable Development Through the Eyes of Green Eagle Kayla Ma, SIS ‘14 

    After a hiatus, we’re bringing back the AU Sustainability Blog. Nothing exemplifies the great work we do like the efforts of our student peer educators, the Green Eagles. A few weeks ago one of these students, Kayla Ma, attended the US/Canada Citizens’ Summit for Sustainable Development at Yale University. Her account of her three-day trip is a window into the experiences of our students and their sustainable ambitions, and a great way to reinvigorate our blog. Check back often over the coming weeks for more new content and updates on our latest sustainability initiatives at American University as we begin to settle into a regular posting schedule. If you have any feedback regarding our blog, we’d love to hear it – e-mail us at

    The American Dream is Green,


    Friday, March 23rd –

    Wow. What a way to start this trip! Earlier today, I left on a 4:48 a.m. Amtrak from Union Station to New Haven so I could attend the US/Canada Citizens’ Summit for Sustainable Development: I’ve been looking forward to this summit for a few weeks now, but now that I’m here, I’m a little nervous. Hopefully, that nervousness subsides by morning and I can make the most of my time here!

    When I first received the invitation to Yale about a month ago, I wasn’t sure what to expect. The tone of the e-mail seemed to target the graduate and post-graduate population, so my invitation as a U.S. undergrad representative both surprised and excited me. Although I’ve researched / assisted a handful of conferences in DC, this is my first one out–of-town and I’m excited to see what I can learn beyond the capital.

    For those who don’t know me, I intend to pursue a career in water resource management in the international community. I want to use the experience of attending this summit to sharpen my focus and expand my perspective. Yale invited people of all environmental backgrounds in the U.S. and Canada to the summit, so I expect to be introduced to views I’ve never heard before in my area of interest, and also develop my professional knowledge and career plans. I’m also hoping that these approaches build into ideas for large-scale environmental activism on the AU campus. My job as a Green Eagle with the Office of Sustainability requires me to work in a diverse community towards a common goal, and hopefully tomorrow, I can use what I learn to better address the student body and my potential trip to RIO +20 this summer.

    Travelling to Union Station this morning (not the easiest of tasks post-Metro hours, mind you), I realized that there are so many people, specifically the homeless, who are a part of our civil society that don’t have a voice in these summits. It would be great to get underrepresented views and non-traditional perspectives, but part of me wishes I could have simply brought these people along to have a say in this citizens’-focused summit.

    Ellen, my host, is super sweet and I’m lucky to have her during the summit (free housing and free meals? I think so.  Thanks, Yale). She’s a grad student focusing on forestry and actually left on a silviculture field trip for her class today, so I’ve spent a majority of the day reviewing the summit schedule, doing homework (hahaha, this may be my only chance), and finishing up other small projects, which is fine by me. Ellen wants to introduce me to Miya’s Sushi tonight, which is supposed to be the third-best sustainable sushi restaurant in the nation. I’ll be excited to see how they approach sustainable seafood as that’s a large part of my diet (I’m very guilty).

    I’ll try and jump in later tonight with details, but until then, here are my thoughts. I’m looking forward to tomorrow – just hoping that my undergraduate status doesn’t make seem me too out of place and my knowledge on the field helps.

    Hey all… I’m pretty shot, but Ellen and I walked around Yale’s campus tonight and I got a feel for the university and halls I should know about before tomorrow. Miya’s was delicious – I’d suggest checking out their invasive species menu if you’re in the area : I need to get up early tomorrow, so I’ll check in later, but until then, keep your fingers crossed!

    Saturday, March 24th –

    Today was the start of the summit and Yale’s School of Forestry and Environmental Studies is hosting everything in their two biggest halls, Kroon and Sage. Kroon, I’ve learned, is LEED – Platinum certified, meaning it’s one of the most environmentally friendly buildings in the country. Below are a few pictures from the inside of Kroon and a rainwater filtration system for the grey water used in their facilities. Although it’s not SIS, it has that same open feel and is the perfect hall for hosting this summit.

    This morning, the summit began with a small panel of influential Canadian and American leaders in the field of sustainable development. Speakers can be found here on the Citizens’ Summit Schedule ( and included many people who had attended Rio in 1992. (In fact, one of the speakers later compared comments of “I was at Rio” or “He was at Rio” or “I wasn’t at Rio, but my father was at Rio” to coming out of the closet, as if going to Rio was like a confession).

    With the 1992 Earth Summit serving as a pseudo-“rite of initiation”, it also became clear during the first panel that the problems with implementing the outcomes of the first Rio conference vary among different groups. Some panelists blamed a lack of political will, others argued that meant nothing and during this discussion, I heard my first criticisms of Agenda 21 (the long-cherished outcome of Rio in 1992). Although I was excited to hear their perspectives, this fragmentation concerning the source of problems was enough for me to understand why Rio had “failed.” No one knew where to start, so by making everything a priority, nothing became a priority.

    On the first day of the conference, there were two sessions, the first focused on “Learning” and the second on “Engagement.” With my interest in water management, I attended the “Sustainable Water and Land Conservation” session and followed it with my interest in outreach at the “Sustainability in Local Institutions and Communities” session with the Yale Office of Sustainability and Roots and Shoots organization. Reflecting on this experience (which can be read about here: ), I want to make a quick shout-out to my professor, Paul Wapner, for his excellent choice of readings in my International Environmental Politics class. Many of the people in these sessions had read pieces such as “Sustainable Growth: An Impossibility Theorem,” Herman Daly, etc., and I was able to hold my own as a well-informed participant of the sessions (given a few additional pieces of knowledge from my other experiences). It was inspiring to see the collection of people at these sessions moved by environmental concerns and who had become active members of their communities. The Yale Office of Sustainability in particular caught my attention during their Session II and, with their graphic design focus; I’d like to make a few suggestions to my own employers at AU. Outside of the people attending this summit, it was clear that engagement rests on the importance of tangibility to inspire local communities.

    I spent the night with my new Canadian friends at dinner near the university and talked excitedly with Dr. Jairo Garcia of Columbia University, who shares my interest in water management. He will be leading the delegation from Columbia to Rio +20 alongside Yale and, hopefully, AU. Because I was under 21 and couldn’t get into Gypsy, the grad student bar, (ahh, to be young…), I ended up going back to my host’s place and reaching out to a few of my new friends while working on this blog. However, as I was typing, it became clear that my undergraduate status does not set me apart from these inspirational people, as I originally thought. In fact, I’m glad to have these in-depth discussions with people who have diverse sets of experiences and be treated as an equal in terms of intelligence and thought. Looking forward to tomorrow!

    Sunday, March 25th –

    The focus of today was completely on engagement and involvement from our level to the broader community. One of the interesting things Yale did while hosting the conference was to schedule an “unconference” session based on our interests written on a whiteboard the day before. I really liked this idea of semi-free time to get together on common interests and suggested a small session titled “International ‘GreenTech’ Innovation: What can the U.S./Canada learn from innovations abroad?” I wasn’t expecting it to be chosen, given all the other very interesting topics, but was excited to see it scheduled as an “unconference” session today! AU – we can definitely learn something from this and should build on attendees’ engagement through a similar idea sometime in the future.

    Before leaving for the “unconference,” I attended the last formal session, centered on “Change” and attended “Coalition-Building: Engagement and Mobilization for Rio +20” from WeCanada and MobilizeUS (through the Human Impact Institute). It mostly began by reviewing the efforts of WeCanada and MobilizeUS in coalition building and ended with small break-out groups discussing challenges of coalition-building, making a solid base in preparation for Rio +20, and my group concerning coalitions within the community. One of the things we discussed briefly was pulling together a diversity of backgrounds and ideas based on a similar goal and I briefly mentioned how privileged we all were to be here and represent what we could from groups that could support us (this was also echoed by the closing speakers and remarks in reflecting on the outcome of the conference). Semi-joking, we formed our own small coalition of bloggers since many of us, including me (obviously), were asked to write about our experience at the summit. If you’re reading this, community coalition-building group, “hello” from DC and hope you’re all still doing well!

    Because of some delays in the schedule (the summit began a little late in the morning and it’s easy to get caught up talking sometimes), I was a little late to the “unconference” session and wasn’t sure what to expect in terms of turn-out. Much to my surprise, a Yale Forestry and Environmental Science student was already there, speaking about Israeli GreenTech (the very topic I finished researching a few months ago), and I saw about five or six others there. Some represented the overall environmental movement in Europe, others were from the energy sector in Germany, another had knowledge of Chinese innovations and agricultural technologies, and wow… to have this group of internationally-focused people, all just as passionate about sustainable development as I am, together? It was fantastic. Even having the opportunity to co-facilitate this discussion was something beyond my expectations coming to Yale this weekend.

    Sometimes, I realize, I’m stuck talking about my water interests and don’t seek out experts outside my field, but they are just as important to addressing my concerns. Luckily, this summit forced experts of varying backgrounds to speak with others outside their field, an important aspect towards long-term success. I couldn’t feel happier that this resulted from the summit and that I was there to witness the idea sharing of 180 scientists, leaders, and entrepreneurs in this field. Good job, Yale – I hope to come back again and work with these same passionate people in the future. It’s inspiring and is exactly the type of interaction we need before Rio +20.

    For additional resources, see:!/citizens_summit

  • sustainability 10:11 am on February 14, 2011 Permalink  

    AU’s Kicking the Bottle on Campus & in Congress 

    By Joshua Kaplan

    Tuesday February 7th, Corporate Accountability International released a report revealing that the US House of Representatives spends nearly a million dollars annually on bottled water. The report, “Tapping Congress to Get Off the Bottle”, calls for Congress to stop spending taxpayer’s money on the privatization of an important public resource.

    Thanks to our efforts to reduce bottled water consumption at AU, the Office of Sustainability was invited to take part in a news conference at the Capitol announcing the report’s release. Green Eagles administered a “Tap Water Challenge” to attendees challenging them to correctly identify tap water among popular brands of bottled water. No one succeeded.

    Green Eagle Cole Mellino administers the “Tap Water Challenge” to Takoma Park Mayor Bruce Williams

    Speakers included Mayor of Takoma Park Bruce Williams, Director of DC Water George Hawkins, and DC Congressional Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton. Representative Norton captured the spirit of the event when she proclaimed that the mark of a truly developed nation was not automobiles or consumer electronics, but the ability to provide clean, public drinking water to all of its citizens. Director Hawkins built on that, emphatically stating that clean drinking water is the basis for every action undertaken to drive our economy.

    As Congress desperately looks for ways to cut spending and reduce our deficit, eliminating bottled water from its offices is the best place to start. Clean, safe tap water – which our government provides as a public resource and a basic human right – is more than one thousand times cheaper than water in a single-use bottle. By purchasing bottled water, the House of Representatives sends the message to the American people that they care little for the environment, put the interests of private corporations ahead of the public, and don’t trust our infrastructure.

    To help send this critical message, AU senior, green wonk, and Office of Sustainability intern Josh Kaplan joined CAI’s “Think Outside the Bottle” campaign in delivering over 60,000 signed petitions to Speaker of the House John Boehner’s office.

    Josh Kaplan delivers petitions to Speaker Boehner’s office

    It is our hope that Speaker Boehner, as well as the rest of Congress, heeds the call to renew investments in our nation’s public water systems and cut spending on an unnecessary and environmentally damaging extravagance. We are practicing what we preach by investing in our campus infrastructure as well. Throughout the spring semester, look for over a hundred water bottle filling spigots like the one below to appear on water fountains throughout campus. They can already be found in Bender Arena, the Ward Circle Building lobby, and Bender Library.

    Water bottle filling spigot in the Ward Circle Building lobby

    Over the next few months we will be ramping up our on-campus efforts to educate the AU community about the benefits and safety of tap water, and make it just as easy and convenient to access as the nearest single-use plastic bottle. We’ve been calling this the “Kick the Bottle” campaign in the office, but if you’re a creative type and can think of anything catchier, please share your ideas with us using the comment function or email Until next time, grab your nearest reusable water bottle, write a letter to your Congressional representative asking them to Kick the Bottle as well, and join us in greening the American dream.

  • Emily Curley 2:49 pm on December 2, 2010 Permalink  

    One Year Later: Grading DC’s Bag Fee 

    A year ago, DC became the first major city in the US to impose a charge on disposable bags, enacting a 5 cent bag fee.

    We know the fee was progressive, but a year on, how is the fee doing at meeting it’s goals? We grade the progress for you:

    Dispensing fewer plastic bags: Bag use has dropped markedly – an astounding 50% – since the fee was enacted. According to CNN, “Some big name grocers like Giant, Safeway and Harris Teeter have reported that bag use by their customers has fallen by 60%.” While this progress is great, other US cities, such as San Francisco, Oakland, and Malibu, have banned plastic bags outright.

    Surprisingly, maybe, China banned plastic bags in January 2008 and experienced a similar reduction in bag use.  “After two years, the poorly-enforced law has nonetheless dropped plastic bag consumption by a whopping 50% – keeping an estimated 100 billion plastic bags out of the landfills” – equivalent to the total amount thrown away by Americans each year.  A-

    Raising money for Anacostia River clean-up: The fee has only generated a third as much revenue as expected through September ($1.3 million raised vs $3.6 million estimated). However, as lower revenue means that less bags are being used, this is actually a positive trade-off; costing consumers less while helping to keep trash out of the river. B+

    Keeping bags out of the River in the first place: The Allison Ferguson Foundation keeps amazingly detailed notes on how much and what kind of trash is retrieved from the Anacostia River each year during their annual clean up events. In 2009, 41,122 plastic bags were removed from the river and disposed. In 2010, that number fell to 21,597. Plastic-bag numbers in 2007 and 2008 were lower than both 2009 and 2010. The verdict may still be out on this one. B

    Changing behavior: Perhaps most importantly, the behavior of a whole city has changed. Cashiers ask whether shoppers would like a bag and reusable bags are now commonplace.  Charles Allen, chief of staff to D.C. Council member Tommy Wells, who sponsored the fee sums it up best: “The goal from the very beginning was to get into your head, not your wallet,” says Allen. “And a nickel did just that.” A+

    On campus the bag fee has helped with our overall Zero Waste Plan which calls for zero waste being sent to the landfill.  To help bolster awareness of and participation in finding alternatives to plastic bags we’ve also included reusable bags as giveaways to new students and put signs on cash registers. With no widespread plastic bag recycling on campus, the fee has surely helped us to divert what would have otherwise been landfilled. Reducing is always the best option in the “reduce, reuse, recycle” equation.

  • Emily Curley 3:23 pm on November 17, 2010 Permalink
    Tags: , biking, transportation   

    Commuter Benefit Gives Bikers Another Reason to Ride 

    Die-hard bikers now have another reason to ride. Starting November 11th, faculty and staff bikers can now elect to receive a commuter bike benefit that offers a monthly incentive of $20 to commuters whose bicycles are their primary mode of transportation to and from work. Commuters may use the voucher towards the purchase of bicycling gear and services at participating shops nationwide. The vouchers can be spent each month or accumulated for up to a year to help make larger bike-related purchases. For more details on how you can enroll in the commuter bike benefit program, click here.

  • sustainability 5:42 pm on July 26, 2010 Permalink
    Tags: Vegawatt, Waste to electricity   

    Fryer Grease to Power American University 

    Today AU became the first University to purchase a Vegawatt. This waste-to-power cogenerator will run on used cooking oil from the Terrace Dining Room and produce electricity and hot water for the Mary Graydon Center.

    Office of Sustainability staff members Emily Curley and Josh Kaplan pose with the Vegawatt as it is delivered to American University.

  • sustainability 1:16 pm on June 8, 2010 Permalink

    AU launches sustainability blog!

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