From Unattainable to Sustainable: An environmental history of Whitman

William Witwer

Only 30 years ago, the concept of recycling would have bewildered many Whitman students. Today, as Associate to the President Jed Schwendiman can testify, that is emphatically not the case.

“The attitude of students has changed,” said Schwendiman. “When I was a student, the cutting-edge environmental thing to do was recycle. Students today have grown up in areas that have had recycling programs since the day they were born. Now, recycling is kinda passé, and there is there is this whole movement towards sustainability.”

Recycling might seem as natural as breathing to much of our moderately eco-conscious generation. But that is a radical change from generations past, and a change that might not be recognized as important. In fact, the whole sustainability movement is a recent occurrence primarily concerned with global climate change.

“When I was a student [climate change] wasn’t on the radar screen, not anywhere to the extent it is today,” said Schwendiman. “There certainly were students who were concerned about the environment and conservation then and there are now, it’s just that the things they are focused on have shifted.”

The changing ways Whitman students think about the environment has brought about many important adjustments. As environmental focuses have shifted, many more students have become interested in reducing their effect on this earth. In other words, the culture has changed tremendously.

“The idea that we need to lessen our impact on the environment wasn’t present in many people’s minds,” said senior Sustainability Coordinator Lisa Curtis. “I wasn’t here 20 years ago, but I doubt that that was present in the college administration at all.”

Due to the changing attitudes on the environment, there have been major improvements designed to help the earth. The previously mentioned example is recycling, as it has become a basic tenant of the environmentally conscious.

“The college didn’t used to do recycling,” said Schwendiman. “I mean, nobody used to do recycling. Everybody would just put everything in the garbage. In the mid-80’s there was a student group that started a recycling program in all the residence halls, and that program has continued over time and so now there is recycling all over campus.”

Recycling, while still seen as important, is almost taken for granted these days. Beyond reprocessing basic materials, Whitman has made considerable changes from 20 years ago. The Lifecycle Committee sets aside money to upgrade buildings with current equipment, so the college’s buildings should match industry standards. Whitman now uses 100 percent  post-consumer waste paper, in part to create demand for the college’s own recycled paper.

“It does cost more, but coupled with the new Print Tracking system, it’s hopefully going to bring the cost down in the long term,” said Schwendiman. “Hopefully we all just have less paper in the future.”

The new Print Tracking system has reduced paper waste in its first year by an estimated 30 percent. Whitman, while by no means the leader of the pack when it comes to environmentalism, has changed dramatically in the last 20 years. While many of the changes may be hard to see, long term progress is definitely being made.

“I think one of the challenges for students is that they are here for a relatively short amount of time––only four years usually,” said Schwendiman. “Everything that has happened up until the day they show up, in the student’s mind, has always been here.   And so it’s sometimes hard in that short time to see the progress.”