During her sophomore year, Lauren Trotter started to notice how Texas Christian University’s approach to sustainability impacted her ability to recycle or reduce plastic waste on campus.

After COVID-19 interrupted her freshman year, Trotter returned to TCU and realized few recycling bins were available in comparison to trash cans. Every meal from TCU’s dining locations came with a plastic water bottle, whether she wanted it or not. No recycling bins are available at football games, where fans toss all of their waste into trash cans, she said. 

“In addition to the shortage of recycling bins on campus, there’s also this common misconception that TCU doesn’t recycle,” Trotter, now a junior, said. “It all started when students saw housekeepers dumping recycling bins into trash bins. But, in reality, the housekeeping staff are told that if they see trash in recycling, then they’re supposed to throw it away because it’s not their job to sort it.” 

That experience prompted Trotter and sophomore Riley O’Connor, both environmental science majors, to ask more questions. Last fall, as the pair began their terms as student government representatives, they wondered: Who’s in charge of coordinating sustainability initiatives at TCU? 

The answer has left them unsatisfied. O’Connor and Trotter’s research found that TCU was one of only two universities in the Big 12, alongside Kansas State University, that does not employ a full-time staff member dedicated to sustainability work. 

In February, O’Connor and Trotter introduced a bill supporting the creation of a sustainability administrator or director on campus, citing disconnected environmental actions on campus and the desire to ensure student-led projects continue after graduation. The resolution passed with 84% support from Student Government Association members. 

“How can you guarantee that this is going to be a priority on campus and among the student body if there’s not someone actually overseeing it and delegating the responsibilities?” O’Connor said. 

In a statement, TCU communications director Ann Davis said the university engages in environmentally sustainable practices across campus. She pointed to 30 new building and renovation projects over the past decade that met LEED Silver standards or better. LEED certifications are awarded to buildings that lower carbon emissions and reduce waste or energy, according to the U.S. Green Building Council.  

Water conservation efforts, campuswide recycling, green cleaning chemicals and energy management control systems are part of TCU’s strategy to reduce its environmental impact, Davis said. For six years in a row, the university has been recognized by the Arbor Day Foundation for its efforts to preserve and maintain 3,200 trees on campus. 

Davis did not address specific questions about whether TCU administrators previously considered or are considering the addition of a sustainability staff member or director. 

“While we’ve made great progress, there is always opportunity to do better and we look forward to working with students, faculty and staff to further educate, engage and grow TCU’s sustainability efforts,” Davis said in an email. 

TCU students Lauren Trotter, left, and Riley O’Connor organized a campus sustainability week this month. Their initiative included an art display of 136 bags of litter collected on campus during a two-week period. (Haley Samsel | Fort Worth Report)

Committee promotes sustainability, but lacks budget, staff

Faculty, staff and students serve on the TCU Sustainability Committee, which reports to the university provost’s office. The 20-person committee is charged with drafting the university’s official position on sustainability and promoting awareness of environmental events and initiatives to the campus community. O’Connor served as an intern for the committee this year. 

However, the volunteer group does not have power to shape specific policies, said Ashley Coles, an environmental geography professor who took over as chair of the TCU Sustainability Committee last year. 

The committee also doesn’t receive annual funding from the university. Most of the group’s fundraising comes from committee members donating their own money, though the committee received a grant from the previous provost, Coles said. 

“We all have our full-time jobs, whether faculty or staff,” Coles said. “The sustainability committee is just another thing on top of all of our other priorities. The little bit that I can offer, the little bit that other people can offer, it’s still going to be a disconnected effort. We need one person who can be the person to coordinate all of these efforts.” 

Faculty have advocated for a full-time sustainability staff member for at least the past decade. Sustainability committee members support students who are drawing attention to the issue, Coles said. 

A 2017 committee report recommended the hiring of a sustainability director, citing high student support, a growing number of environmental academic courses and low awareness of campus recycling efforts as reasons to bring a staff member on board. 

Students, faculty and staff are already carrying out their own separate environmental projects, with professors bringing in guest speakers, students and faculty collaborating on research and groups organizing litter pickups, Coles said. 

Even a part-time graduate student assistant could help the committee organize those activities and potentially apply for grant funding, she added. 

“Imagine the impact we could have if we had better reach with how these things get communicated to other people, if we had a dedicated person who could promote the initiatives that we’re already doing,” she said. “The number of people involved would grow, the number of people inspired to take up their own initiative would grow.”  

Wendy Macias, a communications professor and associate dean of undergraduate studies at TCU, helped create the sustainability committee more than a decade ago and continues to serve today. Over the past 12 years, she hasn’t seen administrators pay significant attention to improving recycling or sustainability. 

“With the pandemic and budget issues, I get that it’s hard to add a person to any organization, but it’s always felt like a lower priority,” Macias said. “That’s really frustrating when you work really hard for something and it never seems to move up the priority list. It never seems to be a priority for anyone up the ladder who could make a difference.” 

Students launch sustainability week, worry action won’t continue after graduation

O’Connor and Trotter have used funding allocated for student government activities to make their own push for recycling and waste reduction campus. 

Earlier this month, the pair led TCU Sustainability Week, which featured a trash cleanup, an art display of litter collected on campus and a pledge asking students to reduce energy use and take alternative transportation to school, among other lifestyle choices. 

“We’re trying to get (students) to second-guess the next time they get a plastic water bottle and go to throw it in the trash: ‘Can I recycle this instead?’” O’Connor said. 

Administrators aren’t to blame for students not knowing how to recycle, but the problem must be addressed with more educational events and promotion on campus, Trotter said. 

“In reality, we’re bad at recycling as students. That’s evident,” Trotter said. “Sometimes they just don’t know any better. It’s a matter of education. We’re trying to do that with sustainability week, but who knows after we graduate if there’s going to be another student who comes along and is as passionate about it as we are.” 

Student government representatives have tentative plans to conduct a campus-wide survey this fall asking students if they support hiring a sustainability director and making changes to be a more environmentally conscious community, O’Connor said. 

Drew Stewart, a TCU alum who served as the student government’s sustainability director for the 2020-2021 academic year, led his own initiatives to recycle the numerous plastic yard signs on campus. 

He produced an end-of-year report encouraging the university to hire a staff member and create a “trash trap” for litter entering campus waterways. TCU should also re-join the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education and re-sign the American College and University Presidents’ Climate Commitment, he wrote. 

Stewart had success building relationships with TCU’s facilities staff, known as the Physical Plant, and once had plans to meet with chancellor Victor J. Boschini, who read Stewart’s report. Their schedules didn’t line up before Stewart graduated, but he believes Boschini is supportive of improving environmental policies on campus. 

“(Boschini) was very enthusiastic about it. He is very open to sustainability, and I think that if he has the opportunity to, he will certainly pursue sustainability,” Stewart said. “I definitely think that TCU, as an organization, is 100% willing to embrace these sorts of student-led plans.”  

Macias is not quite as optimistic. Looking at other local universities, including the University of North Texas’ wind power efforts, she knows TCU can do more if administrators get behind the efforts. 

“Even my naturally optimistic state is dampened by the lack of movement,” Macias said. “I’d love to know why it’s difficult to be able to get folks above to care … The main indications I see from administration is that it’s less important than other things.” 

Haley Samsel is the environmental reporter for the Fort Worth Report. Her position is supported by a grant from the Marilyn Brachman Hoffman Foundation. Contact her by email or via Twitter. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.

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Haley Samsel

Haley Samsel is the environmental reporter for the Fort Worth Report. She previously covered the environment for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. She grew up in Plano and graduated from American University,...