Campus & Community

Student co-chair helps Sustainability Council work toward a greener DU

In fall 2014, Mollie Doerner became the Sustainability Council’s first student co-chair. Photo: Wayne Armstrong

In fall 2014, Mollie Doerner became the Sustainability Council’s first student co-chair. Photo: Wayne Armstrong

Mollie Doerner’s interest in green issues was first stoked when, as a first-year student, she joined the University’s Environmental Sustainability Living and Learning Community (ESLLC).

That meant she shared living space with other students who were passionate about sustainability and joined them in a weekly class dedicated to local and regional environmental challenges. Among their many activities and research projects, class members toured a passive solar house, and journeyed to the mountains to measure snow pack and to see, firsthand, the devastation wrought by the tiny pine bark beetle.

“It was a great introduction to what it means to pay attention to the environment,” says Doerner, who majored in French and geography and who is wrapping up the graduate portion of a 3+2 bachelor’s and master’s degree in geography.

Since those days with the ESLLC, she has volunteered with the University’s Environmental Team and the Sustainability Council, which works with the Center for Sustainability to spearhead the University’s efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. In fall 2014, Doerner became the council’s first student co-chair.

“I think it is great to have a student in a leadership role,” says council co-chair Rebecca Powell, associate professor in the Department of Geography and the Environment. The council draws on faculty, staff, administrators and students for ideas and contributions, Powell says. “And all of these constituents have equal footing.”

Powell credits Doerner with working hard to engage students “in our process and our meetings.” Doerner, she says, has learned a lot about the University’s organizational structure and how to work effectively within it.

In her role as co-chair and in her work with the Center for Sustainability, Doerner has focused on assisting student efforts to promote zero-waste hockey games at Magness Arena and on researching offsets for the carbon emissions associated with air and car travel — two areas the University is unlikely to eliminate.

“The point is that when you fly or drive, you release carbon emissions into the air,” Doerner says. “Offsetting is really the only way we know of right now if we want to meet our carbon neutrality goal.”

Offsets can be purchased, but with the University’s budget in mind, Doerner has looked at ways in which volunteer work might offset auto and plane emissions. For example, students could join efforts to distribute energy-efficient light bulbs in economically distressed areas or help arrange for free energy audits for Denver residents.Both efforts could result in emission reductions.

Doerner’s work with zero-waste hockey games has put her in the gritty trenches of sustainability work. Under this initiative, students work with the Ritchie Center for Sports & Wellness to reduce the overall waste associated with concessions and to divert the remaining waste from landfills. “Reduce is first because that is the only thing we know is effective. If we can reduce it in the first place, then we don’t have to worry about what happens next,” Doerner says.

What happens next is the challenge facing those students who, like Doerner, serve as zero-waste goalies. It’s their job to monitor trash receptacles and urge patrons to recycle or compost whenever possible.

“When we began, there was pretty much zero percent diversion of waste. Now we have nearly 70 percent of the waste going into composting or recycling,” Doerner says. That’s within striking distance of the 90 percent diversion that would qualify, according to the EPA, as zero waste.

Throughout her University of Denver experience, Doerner has taken advantage of opportunities to better her understanding of sustainability and how best to achieve it. While studying in Senegal as part of DU’s signature study-abroad program, Cherrington Global Scholars, Doerner saw how access to irrigation technology enhanced the sustainability of food-supplying gardens.

“Sustainabililty is really about access to things,” she explains. “If it is easier for you to water your plants, you won’t have to use as much fertilizer.”

When she graduates, Doerner hopes to put her understanding of geographic information systems (GIS) — not to mention the various skills she has honed on the Sustainability Council — to work for the benefit of nongovernmental organizations and nonprofits. Many of them, particularly those focused on environmental and economic sustainability, could benefit from the kinds of data GIS provides.

“There’s a lot of aid that is well intended,” she notes, “but that never addresses its mark.”

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