My homework’s in the dumpster!

“My homework is in the dumpster!”

An excuse for some, but it’s the truth for students participating in UNC’s Sustainable Triangle Field Site (STFS). The students explore how communities, industries, governments and nonprofits on or near UNC’s campus practice sustainability.

One exploration put them in the middle of a city’s trash, learning about the waste stream and opportunities to promote a re-use economy.

“That was one of the most untraditional, yet eye-opening field trips I’ve ever been on,” said Beth Hieronymous, a sophomore majoring in business administration and environmental studies.

The Sustainable Triangle Field Site program, run by UNC’s Institute for the Environment, gives students a chance to combine coursework in environmental studies, urban planning, geography, health and related fields, with practical experience gained through internships, field experiences and research projects. Unlike traditional field sites, where students live in a remote area to conduct research, STFS students live in Chapel Hill while taking courses and working on projects together. They even share at least one meal a week.

“The most interesting thing has been figuring out how to pull everything together,” said sophomore Jordan Iddings. “Our research wasn’t just gathering data from experiments and putting it in a spreadsheet. We had to go out and talk to people and work with their schedules and try to persuade them one way or another, so it was different than what I expected. It was really cool to meet the various people involved in re-use around this part of the state and see how successful their projects are.” Iddings is a history major with a minor in sustainability studies.

The students in spring 2013 gave off a contagious mix of feelings: part comfort of a close-knit group, part zeal for sustainability and part curiosity with a desire to find answers.

Hieronymus said the semester was “one of the most beneficial, hands-on learning experiences of my academic endeavors. The field site transformed the Triangle into our classroom. Everyone has a unique perspective to share and this semester gave each of us the opportunity to grow and learn alongside each other, both within and outside the classroom. From taking classes, studying, eating and researching together, the field site became a place of discovery, a true academic community.”

That is by design, said field site director Elizabeth Shay.

“One of the goals of the field site is to get a mix of majors, personalities and interests that enriches the group,” said Shay. “You can really see it when they get to the capstone; that’s when people with different interests and backgrounds find a place to fit in on their group’s project.”

Varied Experiences

John Moran’s time with the field site illustrates the varied experiences students have. His spring internship came a semester after he completed a Capstone research project with seven other students on how UNC’s forested areas may offset carbon produced by campus.

Working with the UNC emissions specialist, students gathered data to assess carbon sequestration and pollutant removal potential of three campus locations – Carolina North, the North Carolina Botanical Garden and central campus – and assess associated economic benefits.

The teams cataloged trees in the locations, sampling 80 randomly selected 0.1 acre plots. Moran’s team at the Botanical Garden recorded each tree’s characteristics such as species, diameter and leaf coverage.

“I had never done field work before, so it took us about two hours the first time then we got better until it took our team about 30 minutes per plot. We spent about a month and a half getting tree data, then entered all the data in spreadsheets,” Moran said. The team estimated that UNC’s trees remove 67 metric tons of air pollution annually, which could help campus reach its goal of carbon-neutrality by 2050.

“Wasteful and disconnected”

For his internship, Moran worked in UNC’s Office of Waste Reduction and Recycling. He organized and conducted waste audits at a residence hall, a lab building and the Smith Center after a men’s basketball game.

The building cleaning staffs put out trash the night before each audit. Moran and volunteers sorted the trash based on waste type and weighed each container. They found a large amount of recyclables in the residence hall. Almost 50 percent of game-day waste was compostable. Moran will present his internship findings at a national recycling conference this spring.

All students in the spring shared at least one opportunity: visits to the Durham, N.C., solid waste transfer station for waste assessments. Trips involved sorting waste to get an idea of what’s in the stream. Students used assessments to devise proposals for improving the waste traffic flow so that recycling increases and creating a re-use center.

Senior H.K. Landis said the students dug into random samples of trash to determine what is in the waste stream. Mostly, they found municipal solid waste, but a lot of material could have been recovered, reused or recycled, he said.

The first assessment in January startled some. “I remember being disgusted with how wasteful and disconnected we are with our ‘waste.’ People place it in garbage cans and do not think of it again,” said Hieronymus. It’s “a prime example of ‘out of sight, out of mind.’”

The students also visited the Scrap Exchange in Durham and a Strata Solar solar farm and toured sites on UNC’s campus that demonstrate sustainable practices.

“Strata Solar may have been my favorite place that we visited,” said Charlie Stanfield, a junior environmental studies major with a city and regional planning minor. “It was a pretty awesome to get an in-depth tour of a solar farm from the company that owns it. They taught us about how the process of building and financing a solar farm works.”

A big part of the program also involved students learning from one another. “We see each other every day because we have all our classes together, so we get to know a lot about each other while learning,” Stanfield said.

“I was amazed how much diversity, yet camaraderie surrounded me” Hieronymus said. “The twelve people in the field site, our professors and involved community members each has a unique area of emphasis and passion, we also shared the invaluable understanding of how essential it is to be wise stewards of our resources.”

Read the students’ blog about the spring 2013 STFS experience.

Read more about the Institute for the Environment and its academic partner, the Curriculum of the Environment and Ecology, which offers the environmental science an studies degrees, and about what other students and graduates have done through the institute.

By Scott Jared, UNC-Chapel Hill University Relations.