One Rad Room

The best thing about sustainable living isn’t the energy-efficient stereo or TV, says UC Berkeley student Rachael Robertson: “It’s the new deodorant!” She bounds across her dorm room to pull a clear glass bottle containing a mixture of alcohol and sage oil from a shelf.

Since October, the 19-year-old residence hall advisor has walked green, talked green, and lived in the Green Room, a new student-run project aimed at producing a living model of what a sustainable dormitory could look like.

Robertson’s electricity-guzzling appliances were swapped for energy-efficient alternatives, her chemical-laden personal products replaced by eco-friendly substitutes, and durable solutions supplanted disposables. Overnight, Robertson transformed herself into a living ambassador for sustainable living, and her room became a teaching tool.

“The concept is teach by showing,” says Lisa Bauer, manager of UC’s recycling services (see page 11). “We’re trying to model the room so students can make the choice to live more sustainably.”

The design of the room, located in Putnam Hall, is far from revolutionary. The walls are institutional beige, and industrial-strength carpeting covers the floor except where Robertson has placed her yoga mat. Outside her door, hall lights blaze night and day. But even in these generic rooms, students can make changes to reduce their ecological footprints. For instance, after switching to low-energy appliances, the Green Room uses 35 percent less energy than any other room in the building and generates the equivalent of 473 fewer pounds of carbon dioxide per year, says Laura Moreno, one of the project’s student coordinators.

The rest of the energy-saving is up to Robertson and a series of conscious choices she makes, beginning at the building’s door. In keeping with the Green Room’s mission, she shuns the elevator and dashes up four flights of stairs to her floor, an activity that she insists has gotten easier over time.

Inside her room, a dazzling array of placards informs the curious. In front of the bottle of organic sage deodorant hangs a sign with information on parabens, a preservative found in most hair gels, shampoos, and anti-perspirants. Scientists believe parabens may be linked to cancer.

A placard next to a bar of Tom’s of Maine soap warns that while anti-bacterial soaps may kill up to 99 percent of germs, their use has researchers worried about the creation of a generation of highly resistant bacteria. Next time, the placard recommends, wash your hands with regular soap and water for a full 10 seconds. They’ll be just as clean.

The new soaps, deodorant, and makeup might be fun, but the changes to Robertson’s lifestyle aren’t all glamorous. There’s the thermos she carries around for her cup of morning coffee. Savings: one paper cup, one cardboard coffee sleeve, and one plastic sip-top per day.

There’s the notebook she has constructed out of a Trader Joe’s corn flake box and used sheets of computer paper. Then there are the reusable plates and silverware she would use if she cooked more often. But the alternative for Robertson isn’t take-out containers and plastic utensils. Despite her busy schedule, she takes time to sit in the dining hall at least once a day and eat a full meal.

Near the refrigerator, a power strip dangles from atop a closet. Its ease of use is important—even when appliances seem to be turned off, they still suck miniscule amounts of electricity, says Judi Quach, a project manager at Strategic Energy Innovations (SEI), a San Rafael-based nonprofit that helps communities and businesses become more energy-efficient. If every appliance from the television to the computer (except necessities like the refrigerator) is plugged into and turned off from a power cord before their owner leaves the house or goes to bed, the phantom energy drain can be reduced dramatically.

It’s a small change, but consider that the average student has 17 energy-consuming products in her dorm room, says Quach. Multiply that by the hundreds or even thousands of students in a single dormitory. US universities spend close to $20 billion a year on heating and electricity costs alone, according to Department of Energy (DOE) estimates, and phantom loads are part of that bill.

The Green Room owes its existence to the DOE. Armed with a grant from the federal Energy Star program, SEI approached Bauer with a plan to create an energy-efficient dorm room. The nonprofit was already setting up two other Energy Star model rooms at the University of Hawaii and another UC campus, and Quach thought Berkeley might make a good fit. When SEI approached Cal, administrators jumped at the chance.

Louisiana’s Tulane University unveiled the very first Energy Star dorm room in 2001. But Cal’s Green Room coordinators took the idea further, turning the project into a sustainable prototype. After switching Robertson’s refrigerator, television, stereo, and lamp for donated Energy Star-rated products, a $150 private donation was used to replace household items that can be harmful to the environment or to human health with alternative products.”If we can provide students with a learning tool, they can incorporate this into their lifestyle,” says Quach.

So far, it seems to be working. “I’ve always tried to be energy conscious,” says Robertson. “But now I’m more concerned about how long my shower is lasting. And even if I’m running late to class I’ll take the extra moment to turn off the light.”

It’s the tragedy of the commons on a small scale, explains Quach. Since students living in dorms never see a bill for the electricity or water they use, it’s easy for them to be wasteful. That’s where Robertson’s example comes in—think of it as a course in Behavior Modification 101.

Robertson believes more students are following her lead and turning off the water when they brush their teeth. The floor’s recycling bins are always full, and the night-owls usually remember to turn off the radio. Eric Michal, a civil engineering major living across the hall from the Green Room, says its example has made him “think twice about his lights and computer speakers,” and he is trying to implement small changes in his lifestyle.

Of course, not all the PR has worked. Robertson still teases one of her hallmates about his long showers, telling him that if every dorm dweller cut his daily shower by just 1.5 minutes, he could save 12,000 gallons of water a year. And in an ideal world, says Quach, the Green Room would be housed in an LEED-certified building, painted and carpeted with nontoxic products, and stocked with sustainable furniture, such as an all-wool mattress. But the focus here is on small changes students can make easily.

“There’s different shades of green,” says project coordinator Moreno. “You don’t have to be the darkest shade of green to help the planet.”

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