Blue and Yellow make Green: UMKC extends efforts for a sustainable campus

Jessica Turner

The UMKC Sustainability Team added the 2013 Outstanding Recycling Program Award to its collection of achievements at a conference hosted in Jefferson City this September. The honor was presented by the Missouri Recycling Association in partnership with the Composting and Organics Association of Missouri. UMKC Sustainability Coordinator Kaye Johnston and Building Services Manager Velda Robins accepted the award on behalf of the University.

The award complements a first-place ranking UMKC earned in the RecycleMania Tournament this year as a result of having an 86.02 percent recycling rate.

On Oct. 6, Johnston represented UMKC at the annual weekend-long expo held by the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE) in Nashville. The event provided an opportunity for participants to attend workshops, to exchange presentations and to plant trees.

But Johnston wants to make clear that trees aren’t the only green resources being saved by UMKC’s sustainability initiatives. While the goals made for campus are beneficial to the environment, they’re also easy on the pocketbook. She considers it a priority to plan ahead and create long-term projects that will save the University—and the students—dollars in the long run.

“Generally, organizations — if they start up a recycling program — can save 40 or 50 percent on the hard cost of what they’d pay for trash removal,” Johnston said.

The Sustainability Team has already taken the University’s trash bill from $170,000 — which is closer to $250,000 in today’s inflated currency— to under $90,000 annually.

“It’s not an option to cut the student experience,” Johnston said. “So you have to continually look at your operational processes. You continue to look at options to help you manage those processes better and more efficiently. And sustainability’s part of that.”

UMKC acquired a Smith Electric Vehicle with the Sustainability Team’s grant funding.

“The truck you see running around with our logo? That came out of a partnership with Metropolitan Energy and the Clean Cities Group,” Johnston said. “We needed to replace a vehicle anyway, but we got into a partnership where $100,000 came from this initiative through federal funding, and we spent the $50,000 that we would have normally spent for another vehicle, and we got an electric plug-in vehicle.”

Johnston obtained her conservative mindset from her grandmother, who raised 10 kids during the Depression.

“You think she didn’t reuse everything?” Johnston asked. “I took a lot of this from her. A lot of this stuff is really not new.”

Johnston participated in “earth days” at Volker Park with her children when they were younger. They contributed to paper drives and dropped off recycling with the Boy Scouts. Then she began volunteering for Bridging the Gap, a non-profit organization for environmental education.

Johnston’s “real job” involved a successful position in real estate management, but after her kids had grown, she left her career behind for something she found more fulfilling and meaningful.

“I decided that I wanted to do work that was passionate, that I could believe in [and] that would make the world a much better place for my grandkids and kids,” Johnston said.

She began work writing grants for the Missouri Department of Natural Resources, the Twin Stadiums, Starlight, Rockhurst University, Park University and Jackson County Parks and Recreation.

When she began at UMKC, the Sustainability Initiative consisted of three people. By the time it officially launched in 2005, there were 53 people on the team. In addition to sustainability coordination, Johnston is a UMKC graduate student in geosciences and public administration and a National Campus and University Recycling Coalition board member.

“We’ve added battery recycling [and] toner recycling,” Johnston said. “We have 43 items that we recycle now.”

UMKC was also been named a Sierra Club Top 100 Cool School. The AASHE ranks colleges based on its Sustainability Tracking, Assessment and Rating System, or STARS, which consists of four levels—reporter, bronze, silver, and gold. UMKC has a silver rating.

The U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) has specific criteria for a building to qualify for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, or LEED.

When Johnston was on the Sustainability Committee for the planning of the Student Union, she and those involved in the Student Government Association were hoping it would qualify as a “basic” LEED building.

“It ended up being — I can’t believe it — a LEED silver building,” Johnston said. “Isn’t that amazing?”

When requirements are submitted for particular structures, the USGBC plugs those details into a program that reveals how many “credits” it has earned. Now the Student Union is a LEED gold building.

“Johnson Hall was brought up to a LEED building,” Johnston said. “And we’ve got Miller-Nichols at LEED standards.”

The new Bloch Building hasn’t been rated, but it’s possible that it will be ranked at a platinum level.

These buildings didn’t receive rankings simply by having recycling bins. When Johnston committed to UMKC’s sustainability efforts, she did not imagine an eternity of recycling management. In 2007, she sat down with Associate Vice Chancellor Bob Simmons, who was then over Campus Facilities Management, and shared with him her vision of the future. She was proud of the recycling program, but Johnston wanted to incorporate other initiatives.

“Just don’t let me get in your way,” Simmons told her.

And she didn’t.


There’s much more to sustainability than recycling

To date, the UMKC Sustainability Team has received an estimated $500,000 in grant funding, which has been put toward a wide range of projects. Some include energy conservation, recycling, peer-to-peer education, waste reduction, a bicycle program, bus passes, composting, purchasing local food and solar panels.

“It’s a wide variety of things, but that’s what sustainability is,” Johnston said. “It’s very interdisciplinary. There are a whole lot of components, but there are a lot of really cool things that go into making it happen. And that comes from our upper-level administration and management. Without the buy-in of being sustainable on this campus at those high levels, none of this would happen.”

Johnston considers the Sustainability Team a large grassroots group. She pointed out that faculty, staff and students are all factors in the program’s success.

“I can’t tell you how wonderful it is to have my boss be supportive,” Johnston said, “and to have his boss be supportive, [and] to have the Chancellor be supportive, all the way up to Tim Wolfe and the curators. They’re all very receptive. And it’s not so much about everybody being tree huggers. It’s about doing the right thing and being a steward with the monies that we get from the state and the students.”

She explained that sustainability development reinforces the University’s mission to have a world-class educational experience, creating the best possible future for its students.

“Honestly, if you boil sustainability down, it’s about quality of life,” Johnston said. “It’s about being able to breathe, drink clean water [and] have good local food. So it’s pretty natural that UMKC is on board with all of this. My job is to think forward from where we are now, and continue to push it.”

The Sustainability Team has created alliances with several other organizations.

“We’ve got great partners,” Johnston said. “Sodexo’s a great partner on campus. Believe it or not, they have come around. They’ve got a great sustainability mission nationally, and we’ve worked with them.”

Dining Services by Sodexo uses cage-free eggs. They have eliminated trays to reduce waste. They use compostable straws. Upon the phasing out of the current inventory of supplies, they have made a commitment not to purchase Styrofoam in the future. They also use bulk condiments.

Many efforts are made behind the scenes. Many students may not even realize that more than 50 percent of what Sodexo serves comes from local farmers.

It began more than five years ago, when Johnston and Sodexo met with Diana Endicott of Good Natured Family Farms.

“Well, Sodexo is a large corporate entity,” Johnston said. “To make it affordable for [students] to buy food, they go through a main supplier called Cisco. They have to buy so much, according to corporate goals, with that provider because there’s a contract. So, you know what we did? We plugged in Good Natured Family Farms to Cisco, so now they’re with Cisco, and now we can buy local stuff [in the required quantities].”

The chefs at Dining Services have planned seasonal menus, and understand foods like fresh green peppers and tomatoes may not be available year-round.

Dining Services also composts all organic materials. In Johnston’s ideal world, everything would be compostable.

“They’ve been able to do a really good job,” Johnston said. “But we get a little bit more complicated when we get into Einstein’s or Chick-fil-A, where you have individual condiments.”

When considering Chick-fil-A’s presence on s campus, one may encounter a certain degree of irony. Why does a university that prides itself on being environmentally conscious feature an anti-LGBT, Styrofoam-using eatery in one of its most modern, silver-rated buildings?

“Students voted for it to be there to begin with,” Johnston said. “That’s the only reason they’re there.”

Before the Student Union was built, surveys asked students about dining choices they would like to see on campus. Chick-fil-A, Baja Fresh and Jazzman’s are the results.

Because Johnston works with other leading universities throughout the nation, she heard it is possible to make a contractual agreement with Chick-fil-A, preventing them from using single-serve condiments and Styrofoam.

“Now, I haven’t seen it myself,” Johnston said. “But I’ve got hope that we’ll move in that direction.”

UMKC also implemented its Clean Commute program, which is part of a multimodal transportation system on campus. Students have the option to borrow one of the program’s 50 bicycles, available for the duration of a semester. Funding for the project was provided by another partner, the Missouri Department of Transportation.

The Sustainability Team also encourages commuters to take advantage of the bus system. The Kansas City Transportation Authority has contributed to UMKC’s efforts to provide low-cost bus passes for students.

“When the students came together and decided they wanted to get the bus pass, I was very supportive of that,” Johnston said. “For an individual to go to KCATA and get an all-access bus pass, it’s 50 bucks a month. For a student, it’s $14 a semester.”

On Oct. 8, the Student Environmental Coalition (SEC) held a meeting about the organization’s plans and goals for the semester.

“I was personally very proud of how many folks at today’s meeting rode the bus,” senior John MacBride said.

An environmental science major involved with the SEC, MacBride confirmed that the group is enthusiastic about activities such as trash pickup and river clean-up.

“The SEC this semester is really gearing towards service volunteerism,” MacBride said. “We talked today about doing things like touring an urban farm, possibly working with the on-campus Garden Collective,  recyclable sorting and data collection. We might also look into doing the Adopt-A-Street, which is a great way to raise community awareness about UMKC and our enviro-minded students.”


It takes a village to save the planet

UMKC has been working with the Environmental Protection Agency since January, and Johnston works with students and organizations on campus to keep the initiatives moving forward. She works with groups like Enactus, the Garden Collective and the SEC. She serves as a support mechanism for any green idea that is brought to her attention. Johnston occasionally presents material as a guest lecturer in different courses, encouraging all students to get involved in the sustainability movement.

“I’ve always worked with the students on campus,” Johnston said. “I had a group of students that did a full environmental initiative of awareness over at Bloch, which helped spike their recycling. It really helped people understand that this is something students want.”

This year, UMKC has been selected as one of eight universities in the nation to participate in the Food Waste Challenge to reduce food waste. In June, the Department of Agriculture and the EPA initiated the Food Waste Challenge to change the fact that 30 to 40 percent of American food goes to waste.

“Without the involvement of everybody — and I mean, literally, everyone on this campus — none of these things would happen,” Johnston said. “And none of them would happen to the degree that they do. It’s about all of us working together.”

There are a few locations throughout campus that are still working toward increased progress. In a recent survey conducted by U-News, students commented about the lack of recycling in the parking garages and at sporting events. They also had concerns about the system of hazardous waste disposal in the School of Medicine, and the manner in which Campus Facilities Management maintains the grounds.

“We have considered placing recycling receptacles in the parking garages before, but have really done little research regarding the practicality at this time,” Parking Operations Manager Michelle Cone said. “But we are certainly open to the possibility of making this happen.”

Robins reached out to Cone in an attempt to remedy the lack of recycling in UMKC’s parking garages.

“She offered to place several recycling bins in the Cherry Street parking structure as a test program to see if they will be beneficial,” Cone said. “There will be three bins, one at the Oak Street exit, and one by each pedestrian walkway.”

The time frame for the test project is still unclear, but students are encouraged to use the test bins as often as possible upon their arrival. According to Cone, if students take advantage of them, bins are likely to appear in other parking structures.

Johnston commended Parking Operations for the efforts they have made.

“We’ve got electric plug-ins, so we’ve gone multimodal,” Johnston said. “There’s a lot Parking has done, but the next step for them would be to get recycling in those areas. But again, students need to speak up.”

Cone agreed that student voices make a difference.

“Student support of any program at UMKC is always important,” Cone said. “I cannot imagine you will find many individuals on campus who do not find sustainability to be an important issue, and Parking Operations is no exception.”

According to Director of Recreational Services and Facilities Marsha Pirtle, Swinney Recreation Center is no exception, either. At the men’s soccer  Founders’ Weekgame this month, there were no recycling bins to be found at Durwood, and Pirtle intends to address the issue with the athletics department.

“I don’t think it’s something that they would actually probably think about unless someone brought it to their attention,” Pirtle said. “When recycling got started on campus, they went around and put recycling in all of the buildings, but the stadium didn’t exist at that time. I think the easiest [method] is probably just for us to … partner with athletics and buy our own recycling bins that would just stay there permanently.”

Pirtle meets with Interim Director of Athletics Carla Wilson on a weekly basis, and has added the concern to her list of topics to be discussed.

“I’m sure we’ll have some recycling bins here very quickly,” Pirtle said.

In the meantime, Swinney Recreation Center is home to the Clean Commute Bicycle Program, and does have a recycling bin that it uses for events and intramurals.

“I have tried to engage [Swinney] in the Annual Game Day Recycling Challenge,” Johnston said. “This challenge is similar to RecyleMania in that the effort provides resources for campuses that sign up to participate.”

One survey respondent expressed a concern about the process of disposing hazardous waste after visiting the School of Medicine last semester for coursework.

The administrative chief of staff at the School of Medicine, Melvin Davis, recalled when students from a waste management class visited the medical school several months ago.

“We certainly take any of these concerns very seriously,” Davis said.

Davis confirmed that the School of Medicine conducts training sessions on proper disposal of biological hazards and sharp items. A vendor collects biohazard bins for disposal on a weekly basis.

“I think we’re really on track in doing those things the way they’re supposed to be done,” Davis said. “For the most part, everybody is compliant in disposing of certain materials in the manner that we have designated by policy for them to be disposed of. Almost exclusively, anything that [medical students] have is disposed of in the hospital where they work.”

Davis explained that occasionally a student will accidentally leave a syringe in their white coat pocket after leaving the hospital.

“We make sure that students don’t put those types of things in the trash when they get here,” Davis said. “We’ve been highly successful with that.”

Another survey respondent indicated that UMKC Landscape and Grounds used inefficient means to maintain organic debris on campus, adding that “the waste would have been great to add to the compost pile at the Student Garden. ”

Director of Facilities Operations Randy Shingleton discussed the issue with Campus Landscape and Grounds Supervisor Steve Jenks.

“Leaf blowers are used after mowing to get grass and leaves off of the sidewalks and walkways as soon as possible so they aren’t tracked into the buildings,” Shingleton said.

He explained that riding lawn mowers are used extensively to mulch grass and leaf clippings back to the turf, and that bagged clippings are brought back to the yard and recycled through a vendor to mulch and compost for reuse by his department.

“We try to be as productive as we can with the limited resources we have,” Shingleton said.

Survey comments varied. One respondent said that “UMKC has proved that it is committed to sustainability efforts. ” Another said that it “depends on the department.” Another said that “groups related to general topics like the environment just don’t get a lot of student support. ”

Johnston verified that although she is overwhelmed by the efforts of everyone on campus, there are still several things that can be done to increase the rate of progress. She calls it a “Kaye dream,” but has hopes for implementing a Bike-Pedestrian Master Plan one day, and even creating a bike lane on Rockhill Road or Troost Avenue.


UMKC falls short  of standard at other universities.

A 2009 New York Times article stated that “college students often protest when administrators threaten to raise their fees. But rising numbers of students seem willing to self-impose a ‘green’ fee, to help the environment and purchase renewable energy.”

UMKC has no such fee and, according to the AASHE’s list of universities that do, it usually only amounts to around $3 to $5 a semester. Many surrounding universities have a student fee for environmental purposes, including MU and KU, but those are larger schools with more resources than UMKC.

Johnson County Community College, however, makes about $440,000 annually from sustainability efforts.

“It’s complicated,” Johnston said. “Because we’ve raised student fees and tuition, the leadership over student life is not [expecting] to raise again, unless there is a swell of students from the SGA and other organizations and individuals who come forward and lift that issue up.”

With continually decreasing money from the state combined with more budget cuts every year, the UMKC Sustainability Team would benefit immensely from a nominal student fee.

One survey respondent confirmed that they would like to see more information about proper recycling on campus.

“We want to find ways to raise community awareness about UMKC specifically, and the surrounding area,” MacBride said.

One means to see an increased level of activity in UMKC’s already impressive sustainability efforts would be to join other leading universities and add a green fee. Another option would be to replace one of the preexisting fees on the tuition bill students receive.

Last November, in response to UMKC’s silver STARS rating from AASHE, Chancellor Leo Morton wrote the organization a letter, stating that “we look forward to our continued partnership with AASHE as we strive towards a more sustainable future.”

But how many UMKC students truly strive?

“We’ve got a long way to go,” Johnston said. “And if you look at where we’ve been, we’ve really come a long way, but there’s so much more that needs to be done. I think we are doing well for a Midwest urban university with limited state funding. One of the things that happen in our society is that we become very apathetic, and feel like nothing we do matters. But if we all do a little, we all do a lot. So what can students do today?”

Johnston provides  tipsto make UMKC more sustainable


  1. “Every single time that you touch anything in your life — most everything you throw away, you’ve purchased before you throw it away — look at it, and vote with your dollars. What dollars you have, vote with those.”
  2. “You have the opportunity to throw some things in the trash, some things in compost [and] some things in recycling. Do the right thing. Take a moment. Before I even get up, I take my tray and put things in little piles, and then I go over and I put them in each [container].”
  3. “We try to have peer-to-peer educators. If [you] see that there’s an issue with people not using the right recycling bins … speak up to folks and just share how to do that. If [you] want to come to my office and … put together a group of students who — on lunch, between 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. on certain days of the week — help people, I’ll give you whatever you need. I’ll give you handouts, tools, even some giveaways, if you want to give folks who do the right thing something to remember it.”
  4. “If students have a project, I offer the opportunity to work with them and their advising professors on an internship and help them do something that is passionate for them.”
  5. “The thing [you] can most effectively do is talk. Become involved in the community garden. Being involved in these student organizations is a huge thing, and keeps sustainability initiatives and efforts out in the front. Students need to have more of a voice about it. The student voice is huge in making this continue. If it bothers you, don’t just tell your friends. Go and express it, because as staff and faculty, we’re here to serve the students. And if enough students speak out, it works. We’re in a good place now, but unless students keep pushing it, it’s not going to happen.”
  6. “You can take the pledge for energy [at]. We’re really going to be pushing this voluntary energy management. It has the potential to save us $500,000 a year. Turn off your monitor. Turn off your lights. In the dorm you could do that. I know how expensive it is to live on campus. So what can you do to help that? Be conscious.”
  7. “Start petitions and get signatures and ID numbers or email addresses” and present them to the SGA if there is a change that should be implemented.

In addition, the Missouri Energy Initiative is now accepting applications for student teams to participate in the Missouri Clean Energy Challenge Workshop at the UMKC Henry W. Bloch Executive Hall. Registration ends Dec. 1, and more information can be found at Participants can win $10,000 in Missouri and $100,000 regionally and receive mentoring from experts from around the region.

Historically, UMKC students have experienced a boost in green behaviors during RecyleMania, which begins in January and for America Recycles Day on Nov. 15. Although it is expected to see increased interest during those occasions, the UMKC Sustainability Team welcomes and encourages students to start right away.

Johnston reiterated that progress cannot be achieved by one, but only by many united together for the common cause.

“I don’t do anything by myself,” Johnston said. “It’s a collaborative effort with everyone involved. If it weren’t for the support from the top and the support from the bottom — and the support that we’ve had from students over the years — we wouldn’t have anything.”