SAGE spreads culture of sustainability

June 2, 2011

In May, the University’s SAGE Ambassadors attended the first annual SAGE Social to celebrate campus sustainability volunteers. Nearly 75 SAGE Ambassadors and sustainability partners gathered at the Quad Club for an evening of conversation, food, and drink.

Several Ambassadors received special congratulations. Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics Senior Research Associate, Vikram Dwarkadas, was honored for his efforts to reduce bottled water use across the University, as well as for his enthusiastic leadership in recruiting other SAGE Ambassadors to manage composting at the South Asian Students Association Show. Deb Pratt of Student Counseling and Resource Services was recognized for a top-to-bottom “greening” effort that has built awareness of sustainable practices amongst her colleagues, leading to a reduction in waste and monetary savings across the department. Ari Epstein, a fourth year in the College and member of the AEPi fraternity, was commended for starting compost and recycling initiatives, introducing green cleaning practices, and encouraging his brothers to save energy in their fraternity house.

SAGE—Sustainable Actions for a Greener Environment—is the University’s green leadership program. Through SAGE, dedicated members of the University community attend a short training session where they learn how to raise awareness about campus environmental initiatives, contribute to the sustainability efforts of the University, and inspire their peers to integrate sustainable action into their daily life. The program is unique in that the 150 trained Ambassadors come from among the ranks of University faculty, students, and staff, facilitating the opportunity for innovative green leadership and collaboration across all levels of the University.

One way in which SAGE Ambassadors contribute to the movement of sustainability at the University is by helping with campus-wide programs. For instance, SAGE Ambassadors recently turned out in force to run the Office of Sustainability’s Second Annual E-waste Recycling Event, despite it being on Friday, the 13th. As early as 7:00am, Ambassadors helped to unload old computers, printers, fax machines, and many other antiquated electronic items. “The Ambassadors were the life of the event!” exclaimed Office of Sustainability Program Coordinator, Colleen Lanier Christensen. “We would not have had the success we did without them.” Ambassadors served in rotating shifts throughout the day, helping to recycle over 40,000 pounds of e-waste.

Perhaps the most exciting element of the SAGE program involves the steps taken by individual SAGE Ambassadors to make meaningful, sustainable change that is specific to their campus environment. For SAGE Ambassador and Associate Dean of Students, Kelly Pollock, this led to drastically reducing the Social Science Department’s paper impact. By printing applications double-sided and reducing margins, sending admissions decisions by email, accepting electronic forms, and limiting redundancies in materials, the office saved an estimated 25,000 sheets of paper annually, or three whole trees, adding up to about $350. According to Pollock, “my co-workers appreciated saving space on applications, which consequently saves space in our offices and reduces filing, and they have gladly accepted other streamlining efforts.”

Many SAGE Ambassadors find themselves correcting misconceptions, particularly around recycling. Dennell Reynolds, SAGE Ambassador and graduating fourth year in the College, often hears other students lamenting that the University doesn’t recycle. “I attended the Waste Management recycling facility tour in March,” Reynolds states proudly, “and when I hear someone bemoaning how the University doesn’t recycle, I’m able to jump in and say, 'Actually, the University recycles about 40% of its waste—I've even been to the recycling plant and have seen it all happen.'"

In addition to updating office processes and correcting misconceptions, Ambassadors assist by disseminating sustainability information across campus. When the Office of Sustainability released the Recycling Directory in January, they elicited the help of Ambassadors to share the Directory with colleagues, friends, and the University community at large. Similar to the ripple in a pond, when each Ambassador shares information with one other person, that person then shares it with their friend or colleague, who then shares it with someone else, and so on. “The reach of a single SAGE Ambassador really is exponential,” explains Ilsa Flanagan, Director of Sustainability, “and helps to expand the impact of our office. But the best part is that they are all volunteers doing this on their own time and in their own way.”

The collective effort of the SAGE Ambassadors is helping to create a culture of sustainability at every level of the University, and was the highlight of the SAGE Social last month. Nim Chinniah, the University’s Vice President for Administration and Chief Financial Officer, reflected on this point: “The SAGE Ambassadors and the Office of Sustainability are driving a real cultural shift here at the University. The many inquiries I have received about our model of wholly-integrated sustainability demonstrate that the University of Chicago is quickly becoming a national leader in sustainability innovation, and this is thanks to all of you here tonight.”