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From Good to Great: Sustainability at Pacific Ridge

Melissa Symington
Mission Principles: Purposeful Use of Campus, Understanding of Social Justice, Global Systems

When I began working at Pacific Ridge in 2007, one of my first assignments was painting our vermicompost bin with a few of our founding 9th grade students.  We decorated the bin with our handprints and talked about why composting is important and how we might run our new program—this was the beginning of Sustainability at PRS.  We also had a few Service Learning groups devoted to Sustainability-type causes—Green Team and Stewardship among them—and with these few pieces, we started to grow our small Sustainability program. 

Over the years our mission elements have helped guide the Sustainability program in new directions, leading to a diversified recycling program, conservation-focused student groups, energy monitoring platforms, pollinator-beneficial landscaping, and many more initiatives, largely driven by student interest and feedback.  Overall, we are doing a great job of reducing our collective and individual footprints, educating the larger community about issues like plastic pollution, and being mindful of our triple bottom line—not only are we concerned with the environmental sustainability of our actions, but also the economic and social. 

Knowing all of this, I have begun to wonder:  How does a good Sustainability program, like ours, continue to innovate and expand with an eye towards becoming truly great?  And how do you know when you’ve gotten there? 

Over the past two years, we have undergone two benchmarking processes to evaluate our Sustainability programs on campus—ProtoStars and CA Green Ribbon.  We received high marks from both, including a Gold Award from the California Green Schools Initiative in 2015. This reinforced what I already thought—we have a strong program, even compared to more established ones at other schools.  What this benchmarking also did was highlight areas of our program and operating practices where we fell short. 

When I saw all of the data and scores compiled together, new opportunities began to present themselves.  To continue the growth of our program, we would need to begin to tackle these low-scoring areas.  One that jumped out for me was our paper purchasing and usage.  Our per-person usage was quite high and the copy paper we used was not made from any recycled content.  Surely this was an opportunity for our program to grow.

This year, we have committed to focusing on our paper purchasing and consumption as a community, with a goal of reducing our usage by at least 20% and switching to recycled content copy paper.  I pitched the initiative in one of our first faculty meetings before the start of the year, highlighting strategies to reach our goal such as more comprehensive use of Haiku, our online platform. 

In our first month, September, we reduced our usage by 7% per person.  September can be a challenging month to begin a paper reduction campaign in a school, since there are so many syllabi and handouts necessary in the first few weeks, so this small reduction was encouraging.  In October, the numbers were far, far better—35% reduction!  Wow! 

If we can sustain this 21% average month-to-month, we will be switching over to recycled content copy paper and the increased cost will be offset by our usage reduction—a great moment of environmental and economic sustainability for our community. 

I am quite proud of our Sustainability work here at Pacific Ridge and talk about it whenever I get the chance—with colleagues at lunch, at national conferences, and in conversations with sustainability folks from other schools.  Our challenge in the coming years will be to not be content with our great “green” programs, but to continue to look at ourselves critically to discover where new opportunities exist—I know we are up to the task!  Keep it green, PRS!