Trashed 

At UC Berkeley, recyclables end up in the landfill, outdoor plazas are drowning in litter, and gardeners spend their days collecting garbage. Welcome to the world's greenest university.

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There are several ways to look at Cal's trash troubles. In the cynical view, the university's commitment to environmentalism is shallow, and campus greening efforts are simply reaching for what Chapot calls "the low-hanging fruit": high-profile but relatively achievable goals that earn the school its green street cred without requiring much sacrifice on the part of administrators.

According to some, it's only because of agitation from students that many of the university's environmental initiatives have taken shape. It was undergraduates who lobbied heavily for the university to start phasing out plastic water bottles earlier this year; it was a student group called the Compost Alliance that worked to bring composting to dorms and co-ops this year; and it was students who have taken on the task of sorting recycling in dormitories. "I do think that we" — meaning students — "oftentimes take the lead," said Andy Albright, a third-year student body senator who's been involved in various environmental initiatives on campus. Goldstein agreed: "A lot of work is student-initiated here. Students are the main agent of change on campus."

Berkeley is home to scores of environmentally-oriented student groups and it has a culture of involvement, both of which have buoyed campus green initiatives over the years. But the capacity for long-term, high-level, student-led change is small on a college campus, where, by definition, activism must be limited to extracurricular hours and leaders cycle through every four years or so. Just as depending on scavengers to sort cans and bottles is an untenable solution to surface recycling problems, so, too, may be relying on students to spearhead new environmental projects. At one of the nation's largest universities and amid a massive budget shortfall, there's only so much a group of twenty-year-olds can do to create systemic change, Goldstein said. "Berkeley is such a complex institution that making changes on a campus-wide level require a lot of coordinated efforts," he said (and he would know; he was one of the student leaders of the water bottle-ban initiative). "It's very decentralized."

And Albright also wonders whether the university is formally depending on students to get the hard work done. "I do question how committed the university is to this," he said, "and whether it's just students pushing for it."

On the other hand, there's an argument to be made that no matter how noble or ambitious its intentions, the university is hog-tied into making tough choices by an unprecedented budget crisis. At this point, we've all read screaming headlines about the massive cuts the University of California has sustained in recent years, but the numbers bear repeating: System-wide, the university has lost hundreds millions of dollars in state funding in the last several years. This year alone, UC Berkeley was forced to slash $81 million from its budget. In that light, maybe the university is doing all it can. That's what King, McNeilly, and Shaff maintain. "Until the state budget gets better, we don't have many options," King said, with the resignation of someone who's spent a long time working in the public education system. And Albright, for one, views it as a trade-off: "We do receive a great public education — but at the same time our facilities aren't the greatest. In a way, it's just part of our learning experience."

Nonetheless, there is hope in sight, and it's coming on many fronts. Early next year, the university expects to roll out installation of what King describes as "much better" cans in public plazas, with color-coded bins for paper, can and bottle recycling, and trash (no plans for compost or educational programming quite yet). At the same time, gardeners said they've heard rumblings of a new full-time hire coming through soon. In August, a new contract with Pepsi for exclusive rights to campus vending machines was negotiated to include a ten-year, $15,000-a-year subsidy for sustainable programming. Starting in January, a well-respected, well-connected, and longtime City of Berkeley administrator — Julie Sinai, who's been Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates' chief of staff for nine years — will take on a new job as director of local government and community relations for the university, which Worthington and Shaff both believe will smooth over campus-city relations. And all over campus, there's student and staff interest in and energy for sustainability initiatives.

As for Chapot, he's realistically optimistic. "Who knows, maybe there is hope," he said. Several yards behind him, an empty frozen yogurt cup whipped across the plaza like a tumbleweed, ultimately coming to rest on top of a bush.

Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly implied that the university installed solar panels on its student union building after 2008. The solar panels were in fact installed in 2003.

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