Austin College (still) Recycles

By Tulwen Adams ’22

With Austin College teaming up with Recyclops to get back to recycling on campus, it’s a good time to ask some fundamental questions about recycling contamination. Namely, what it is, and why it matters.

What is recycling contamination?

Recycling contamination is any non-recyclable item that winds up in the recycling stream. Some contamination might seem obvious, like soiled motor oil containers. Other contaminants are less apparent, like wax-lined paper cups. The two best ways to avoid recycling contamination are to familiarize yourself with what is and isn’t recyclable according to the guidelines of your local service, and to trash items you aren’t sure about. If you’re not sure whether an item is recyclable or not, it’s better off in the trash than contaminating the recycling. Remember, one more item heading to the landfill is better than an entire container of contaminated recycling heading to the landfill.

Why does it matter?

Contaminated recycling doesn’t get reused or repurposed, it goes to the landfill. Even if the recycling isn’t taken to the landfill, contamination creates a major problem for recycling facilities. Contaminants such as plastic bags can wrap around the machinery used to sort and process recyclables, leading to a shut-down of the facility while employees climb inside the equipment to clean out the tangled items. Food containers — like pizza boxes — are often stained with grease that soaks into the paper. If the boxes end up in the recycling, they will be processed along with clean recyclables, contaminating an entire batch of paper pulp with grease and rendering it non-reusable.

What can AC students do to help?

Following the Recyclops guidelines for recycling is essential. So, before you recycle, ensure that:

  1. You have the right bag for your recycling. If you live in the North or South Flats, Bryan Apartments, Roo Suites, or Cottages, make sure you have the required green recycling bags to collect your loose recyclables. You can collect a semester’s supply of these bags from the Environmental Studies Coordinator, Rebecca Jones.
  2. Your items are recyclable. Recyclable items on campus include plastics number 1, 2, or 5; paper; cardboard; and metal containers, such as food tins or soda cans. Ensure that all items are dry and clean of food residue. Paper with dry ink is fine, but wet, shredded or plastic-coated paper is not recyclable. For more information, check out the AC Recycling page.

Remember, if you aren’t sure whether an item is recyclable or not, it’s better to put it in the trash than to risk contaminating the whole container. When in doubt, throw it out!

Spring 2021 Lunch Talks: Anthony Swift ’03

By Tulwen Adams ’22

Anthony Swift ’05

During the fall and spring semesters, the Austin College Environmental Studies Department hosts a series of lunch talks designed to give current students a chance to meet with alumni (as well as other experts and professionals) to learn about the wide array of environmental professions and career paths that alumni have pursued after graduation. The talks are also an opportunity for students and faculty to learn about the projects, research and campaigns headed and assisted by alumni in a variety of fields, from the solar industry to the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). In April 2021, Anthony Swift, the current director of the Canada Project of the NRDC, spoke about the organization’s largest undertaking: blocking the development of the Keystone XL pipeline.

Anthony Swift graduated from Austin College in 2003 with a Bachelor of Arts in political science and biology. As an undergraduate, Swift was an active member of the Austin College community, holding a position as Student Assembly President alongside an active membership in Phi Beta Kappa. As a junior, Swift was internally nominated for the Truman Scholarship in recognition of outstanding academic commitment to pursue a career in public service.

Following the completion of his degree at Austin College, he attended the University of Pennsylvania Law School, graduating in 2010 with a doctorate in law. Five years later in 2015, Swift would become the director of the Canada Project with the Natural Resources Defense Council. His work with the NRDC in blocking the Keystone XL pipeline represents the work of an agency undertaking a massive endeavor.  

In Anthony’s words, at its most fundamental level, the Keystone XL pipeline represents a large-scale threat to human and environmental health. On the local scale, communities and ecosystems near the points of extraction, refining and transportation of tar sands face the threat of oil spills, the release of toxic contamination and environmental degradation. On the global scale, the distribution and use of fossil fuels derived from tars will increase the production of greenhouse gas emissions, spurring further climate change.

The site of tar sands extraction in Canada is northern Alberta. The local ecosystem is the boreal forest, one of the largest remaining intact forests on earth. The forest provides a wide array of ecosystem services, including climate change mitigation through the storage of atmospheric carbon. The mining of tar sands leaves large tracts of the boreal forest stripped bare of vegetation and interspersed with tailing ponds holding the toxic waste generated by extraction. In essence, mining tar sands transforms a thriving ecological community into a wasteland. In describing this transformation, Anthony recounted a flight he took over the tar sands fields. He showed a photo: a side by side of the boreal forest before and after tar sands extraction. The before photo showed a landscape of dense forest interspersed with clear lakes, pocket-sized from the height of the plane. The after photo showed a site of dark-looking, bare ground stretching into the distance that, in Anthony’s words, wouldn’t have been out of place in a post-apocalyptic, “Mad Max-style” movie set.

Environmental justice plays a key role in Anthony’s work and by extension the work of the NRDC. The Keystone XL pipeline project threatens the health and safety of the First Nation peoples of Canada, particularly in Northern Alberta where tar sands extraction, and consequently pollution, is concentrated. In the United States, the planned path of the Keystone pipeline would have driven through the tribal homeland of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe in South Dakota, before continuing on through the Sand Hills of Nebraska, one of the most ecologically sensitive regions in the United States. Although Anthony highlighted the threat to both regions cultural and ecological importance, he noted that a spill anywhere along the route of the pipeline has the potential to cause massive environmental damage.

Transportation is key to the production and distribution of tar sands. The NRDC’s work to stall the transport of oil into the United States led to a decline in the total amount of tar sands extracted. There are 3 million barrels a day on today’s market. Had the Keystone XL project gone forward, that number would have risen to 5 million barrels per day — meaning 5 billion more barrels of oils refined into fossil fuels, threatening local communities and ecosystems along the way.

We are thankful to alums like Anthony not only for taking the time to speak with AC students and staff, but for the tremendous efforts they put forth to protect our environment. Other spring 2021 lunch talk speakers included:

  • Vero Tessier ’21, an upcoming AC grad who defended her honors thesis on wildflower abundance and conservation at the Sneed Prairie Restoration Project.
  • Natalia Carter ’05, an independent solar consultant working to bring awareness to the benefits of renewable energy.
  • Sabina Wilhelm, a biologist with the Canadian Wildlife Service working to monitor and protect seabirds in eastern Canada.

Photos courtesy of nrdc.org

My Summer at the Little Traverse Conservancy

By Madison Talmage ’21

This past summer I had the amazing opportunity of interning for Little Traverse Conservancy (LTC) for eight weeks. LTC is a land trust in Northern Michigan that has been protecting land since 1972. They protect the natural diversity of Northern Michigan through nature preserves and conservation easements. I spent some of the best months of my life at this internship, and I’m so appreciative that I had the chance to go. My time there flew by because I enjoyed it so much! I was gratefully accompanied by another Environmental Studies student, Tulwen Adams.

After a long, twenty-hour road trip, I was immediately fascinated by the beauty that Michigan holds: green everywhere, bright blue waters of Lake Michigan, and chipmunks! The office of LTC is tucked up within one of their nature preserves, which made it all the more magical to work there. The LTC staff warmly welcomed us; it was incredible getting to know them. Despite being in a pandemic, they still found ways for us to connect, like having outdoor, socially distant picnics and other fun get togethers.

My work days were filled with maintaining LTC’s nature preserves, and my weekends were spent adventuring around Northern Michigan and its upper peninsula with Tulwen. A typical workday would begin with driving to LTC’s barn, picking up tools and instructions for the day, then travelling to any preserve that needed maintenance. We often would mow trails, insert logo/information signs, or remove invasive species. We would occasionally build boardwalks, go bat monitoring, or establish native plants within the preserve. One of the best parts about this internship is that we did something different every day.

My favorite experience from the entire trip was going to Beaver Island. It is the largest island in Lake Michigan, and LTC has several nature preserves there. People live on this island, so interns have to maintain the hiking trails on it every couple years. We flew over Lake Michigan in a tiny six-seater plane, which was a little scary but incredibly exciting! My coworkers and I purposely finished our preserve monitoring pretty quickly so we would have a lot of time to explore the island together afterwards. My most cherished memories from this internship consist of the adventures that we had on this island.

Interning at LTC taught me valuable lessons that I will forever carry with me. I learned how nature preserves and conservation easements operate, how to use certain tools, and how to successfully restore degraded land into a natural area. I also gained more insight on the type of career I want to have in the future. Working with such a close-knit group of colleagues made me desire a type of workplace like LTC. Lastly, and most importantly, this internship substantially increased my independence. I feel more confident in a work setting and with the idea of moving away. I sincerely miss my time in Michigan so much. I can’t wait to visit again to see the progress on the projects that Tulwen and I worked on and catch up with the LTC crew!

Photos by/courtesy of Madison Talmage

Sneed Prairie Restoration awarded 2020 Texas Environmental Excellence Award by TCEQ

By Tulwen Adams ’22

In the spring of 2020, the Austin College Sneed Prairie project received the Texas Environmental Excellence Award (TEEA) for the provision of outstanding education to K-12th grade students in Grayson County, Texas. Recipients of the TEEA are recognized as leading environmental programs with the potential to inspire like-minded organizations and individuals to implement initiatives within their own communities.

The 2019 recipient of the TEEA is EcoRise, a non-profit organization which has served over 68,000 students by providing access to materials, training, and grants to fund environmental education and initiatives in Texas schools. With the precedent set by the exceptional work of EcoRise, it is an honor for the Austin College Sneed Prairie Project to be similarly awarded, as well as a credit to the hard work, dedication, and generosity of the benefactors, faculty, and students of the Austin College community.

The Sneed Prairie was donated to Austin College in 1984 by Clinton and Edith Sneed. The property is comprised of one hundred acres divided into nine experimental fields and one remnant of intact prairie. With the inception of the Sneed Prairie restoration project in 1996, treatments of fire, cattle, and mowing were implemented on the nine experimental fields with an end goal of evaluating their effectiveness while restoring the site to native tallgrass prairie.

Old Sneed Farm
Photo provided by the Sneed family (c.1950s)

As well as providing an opportunity for research and restoration, the Sneed Prairie also serves Austin College and the larger Grayson County school system as an invaluable educational resource. Austin College students in the biology, physics, and environmental studies departments have the opportunity to study the Sneed Prairie during laboratory classes, or as upperclassmen participating in independent studies. Every two years, students of all departments have the option of taking a January Term class focused on the controlled burning of select fields at Sneed.

The field trips conducted at the Sneed Prairie are designed to provide environmental education on the history, ecological function, and importance of restoration projects to students from elementary, middle, and high schools in Grayson County. Austin College undergraduates lead the trips, engaging students in activities designed to model water uptake or native grass seed dispersal on the prairie. The prehistorical legacy of the prairie is still apparent in the 21st century ecosystem, which is also highlighted to students.

AC student field trip guides help local 4th graders discover the natural world at Sneed Prairie

The Texas landscape which today is comprised of agricultural fields, with a few prairies similar to Sneed scattered in between, was an inland sea during the Cretaceous, 65 million years ago, evident today by the fossils still found along riverbeds. Alongside the prehistory of the prairie, K-12th grade students have the opportunity to explore more recent history of the prairie by learning about how the bison, wolves, and wildfires maintained the prairie as a grassland with few trees. As of fall 2019, the Sneed Prairie project has provided education to more than 11,000 schoolchildren during these field trips.

Highlights from the 2021 Prairie Restoration JanTerm course at Sneed

(Photos by Syed Kamal)

Center for Environmental Studies welcomes Rebecca Jones as new coordinator

Rebecca Jones-Crdn
Rebecca Jones

“Can you guys please be quiet? I’m trying to enjoy nature,” my niece says with an air of deadly seriousness. Our feet crunch loudly on the dirt road as my sister and I stifle laughter. She doesn’t seem to remember, but a year earlier (a truly astronomical amount of time in the busy life of a 7-year-old), I had jokingly asked her the same question as she giggled her way through our annual holiday hike to Lake Texoma. This year, she had come equipped with a net, a bird guide and a wicked load of knowledge about dinosaurs. What a departure she had made from squealing and cowering at the sight of harmless bugs!

I felt the strangest sense of relief. While I had grown up on the lake, surrounded by wooded areas and more animals than neighbors, my niece was just beginning to explore and understand the world outside of her suburban neighborhood. Her sense of excitement about the process in turn made me excited – and that, of course, got me thinking.

***

Leaving behind my childhood home near Hagerman National Wildlife Refuge, I made my way to the “big city” of Sherman to attend Austin College in 2009. After graduating in 2013 with a degree in English, I worked in both an academic setting and in print media for a number of years. When possible, I eased the monotony of deskwork with volunteer hours at the refuge and eventually joined the local chapter of Texas Master Naturalists. During these years, I experienced a pretty broad spectrum of attitudes toward science and nagging environmental issues, with typical perspectives ranging from helpful and optimistic to openly hostile.

“Excitement” about nature and the environment has a darker side, I’ve found. It sometimes comes in the form of reluctance to perceived change (I’ve come to call this the “I’ll be dead by then” argument) or outright denial. Sometimes even those sympathetic to the issues experience burnout and are overwhelmed into inaction: The term “eco-anxiety” describes a relatively recent phenomenon, a “chronic fear of environmental doom.”

***

Rebecca Jones_Sneed
January Term 2021 at Sneed Prairie.

My own particular brand of eco-anxiety developed from sheer naivety. “Why would anyone be resistant to something that’s good for everyone?” I often wondered. Then I started to get my hands dirty. Turns out, being bright-eyed and optimistic about environmental solutions doesn’t hold up quite as well when it affects someone else’s life or habits or, maybe most importantly, their bottom line.

For example, many agreed that removing Styrofoam from the cafeteria at my former workplace was a step forward – except the ones who didn’t. They tended to remind me on a weekly or even daily basis that their beverages were not as well-insulated in paper cups.

Likewise, many reputable news outlets have reported on global warming trends with nary a mention of “climate change” or other seemingly frightening buzzwords that I’ve since learned to avoid as a journalist in the rural south. But sharing these kinds of stories with my readers only incited them to hurtful “keyboard heroics” – anonymous online attempts to personally shatter my confidence and the credibility of our entire news organization.

This wasn’t exactly the fan mail I was expecting. Thankfully, there’s more to the story.

***

The Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard once wrote,

“…the busy people sow and harvest and again sow and harvest (busyness harvests over and over again), […] the busy people store the barns full of what they harvested and rest upon their gains – alas, […] the person who truly wills the good in the same span of time does not see even the smallest fruit of his labors and he becomes the object of ridicule as someone who does not know how to sow, as someone who labors in vain and is merely shadowboxing…”

Eternally optimistic, albeit a little jaded, I sought out a new perspective. Instead of endlessly spinning my wheels – busying myself at all hours with the fate of humanity itself, as if it rested on my shoulders alone – I decided to approach the problem from another angle. Cue the angelic face of my 7-year-old niece and a fateful job opening in the Center for Environmental Studies at Austin College.

There’s good reason to want to change people’s minds about environmental issues. I’ll always see it as a noble endeavor, and one that must be undertaken if we hope to make real steps toward progress in this lifetime. But there are generations of children and young adults now whose minds need molding, not changing, who are excited to learn and be a part of a rapidly growing, increasingly relevant field like environmental studies, and want to contribute to something greater than themselves. I’m here for them.

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