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Catamount Conservation: Eco-CATS challenge WCU community to take on more environmental responsibility

By Michael Beadle

The cost of college can get pretty expensive, especially when it comes to paying the monthly electric bill.


Last year, Western Carolina University’s residence halls racked up a $1 million energy bill. The dorms’ electric bills are expected to rise 9 percent, and with water fees expected to double this coming fall, WCU’s energy consumption is becoming too costly to ignore.

That’s why a group of concerned Western Carolina students recently formed a new club called the Eco-CATS, or Conservation Awareness Team for Sustainability. The club organized last fall, and more than a dozen of its members have met to discuss plans that will bolster campus recycling, celebrate Earth Day, assist the Town of Sylva with curbside recycling, and challenge all of Western’s residence halls to reduce the amount of water and electricity they consume each month.

“They are extremely energetic [and] excited. They’ve got some great ideas,” said Lauren Bishop, assistant director for facilities for residential living at WCU and the club’s advisor.

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There’s a cross-section of students in the club, from science majors to music majors to parks and recreation majors.

“It’s not just attracting one type of student,” Bishop said.

Bishop helped start the club last fall after graduating from Appalachian State University, where a similar eco-friendly organization helps students and community members reduce energy consumption, recycle, and learn more about helping the environment. While Appalachian State and Western Carolina may be sports rivals, the two schools share similar goals of producing innovative programs.

One area Bishop first sought to improve on the Cullowhee campus was the recycling program. Last year, 2.8 million pounds of trash were hauled off Western’s campus.

“And a lot of that could’ve been recycled,” Bishop said.

Part of Bishop’s job at Western is to keep costs down for its residence halls, and energy costs have been steadily rising in recent years. For example, water costs, which once held at 31 cents per thousand gallons rose this year to $1.51 per thousand gallons and will rise again to $3.11 next year.

Since utilities are rolled into the overall cost of renting a dorm room, a higher cost of living can hurt a student’s — or the parent’s — pocketbook, making it tougher for some to afford college. Western tries to keep these costs down so it can attract and retain students, so saving energy becomes part of the equation in the livelihood of a university.

“We have a budget, and we have to stay within that budget,” Bishop said.

So she got together with residence halls on campus to start the WHEESAVE energy competition. Throughout the school year, each of the 14 residence halls will compete to see which can reduce its electricity and water consumption the most. The winner gets a generous prize at the end of the year.

To make it a more even playing field in the competition, Bishop decided to have each residence hall compete with its own past history of energy consumption. She compiled records of the average energy consumption for each building over the past five years (or fewer, depending on the age of the residence hall). That average energy consumption will be matched against its monthly energy consumption this year. The residence hall with the biggest total percentage decrease in electric kilowatt-hours and gallons of water used will win the prize.

Halfway through the school year, all but one residence hall had reduced its electricity consumption, and all but one residence hall had lowered the amount of water it used. Central Drive Hall managed to cut its electricity consumption nearly in half, while nine others reduced theirs by at least 10 percent. Nine dorms out of the 14 have reduced their water consumption by 15 percent or more.

So far, Norton Road Hall leads the way with a 58.72 percent total decline in water and electricity consumption. Last week, the Eco-CATS honored the hall with a cookout to celebrate its mid-year accomplishment. About 100 students attended the open event.

David Shore, Eco-CATS president and WCU sophomore, said the club would be planning other campus events to educate fellow students about the benefits of recycling and saving energy. Shore, a business management major from Wilkesboro, said he was shocked when he found out that residence halls consumed more than $1 million in energy costs last year.

“It’s unreal, the numbers that are involved,” said Shore.

For instance, WCU’s residence halls consumed 36.8 million gallons of water in 2006.

By doing his part to keep energy consumption down on campus, Shore can help make the cost of living for college better for students like him who have to pay their way through school.

As the club gets cranked up this semester, Shore said the Eco-CATS will be setting up a comprehensive, campuswide recycling program and helping the Town of Sylva with its curbside recycling efforts, which started last October.

According to Dan Schaeffer, the public works director for the Town of Sylva, about 13 percent of the town’s residential households are currently participating in the curbside recycling program. Schaeffer would like to see that number rise to 20 percent. The town is recycling about 1,000 pounds of recyclables each week with one bin for paper, cardboard and fiber products and another bin for plastics, metals, glass and aluminum.

About 80 percent of what you throw away can be recycled, Schaeffer explained, and it costs about $39 for every ton of waste. These costs, together with the lack of available land for disposing waste, are pushing more communities to do more recycling.

“It’s something you have to want to do,” Schaeffer said.

The Town of Sylva has been working with WCU students and faculty to promote recycling and even develop lesson plans about recycling for local school teachers. With the Eco-CATS on the prowl, there’s one more group to keep the public aware of recycling and its benefits.

A big part of the Eco-CATS’ mission is simply to educate students about the importance of saving energy.

At the start of the school year, Bishop and her staff put up WHEESAVE stickers on every lightswitch in every residence hall as a friendly reminder to turn off the lights if they’re not in use. Residence hall staff also posted energy-saving tips on bathroom stalls and entrances, doorknobs and anywhere else that students might take notice to get the message. Residence hall advisors will also be discussing energy conservation as part of ongoing educational programming with student residents. WHEESAVE commercials have been airing three times a day on the college’s radio station, Power 90.5.

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