Rollins Sustainability Efforts Set an Example

January 13, 2011

Colleges and universities across the country are taking the lead on sustainability programs and carrying the torch for environmental awareness. At Rollins College, Mowbray House stands as a testament to what can happen when students, faculty and staff join forces to generate positive change.

Mowbray Sustainability House
Photo by Laura J. Cole

A worm farm. An organic soap-making station. A medicinal plant garden. And a group of college students working to change the world. That’s Mowbray House—a non-conventional, ecologically friendly, fully sustainable “living lab” located right in the middle of the Rollins campus. The five-bedroom, three-and-a-half bath, 2,800-square-foot residence houses seven and engages dozens more in its maintenance.

From the moment you enter the front door, it’s clear that this is no ordinary environment. In the corner of the entrance hallway stands an ominous-looking, stark-black worm “hostel.” While it might make most people cringe, it actually represents a significant piece of the sustainability puzzle. “We feed Red Earthworms just about all of our food waste, and even our junk mail and dryer lint,” explained Theresa Chu (Class of 2011), president of Eco-Rollins and current house manager. “They chew on it for awhile, and when they're finished digesting, the microbes in the worm castings help break down nutrients in the soil, which creates ultra-nutritional, plant-friendly organic debris.”

Chu breaks down the organic soap-making process with equal enthusiasm: “We decided to try and make everything organic, so we sacrificed part of the kitchen to be able to make our own soap. We use olive oil, lye, beeswax and a variety of natural essential oils to create the different scents. It’s not a quick process with drying times and everything, but the final product is free of toxins, chemicals and animal products.”

It’s obvious that Chu and her roommates take their roles as environmental ambassadors to the entire Rollins community seriously. Leading by example, they feel confident that they can raise awareness and empower others to make choices that lower their environmental impact through both lifestyle change and community action.

A Growing Opportunity

When Mowbray House became vacant last spring, it caught the attention of Eco-Rollins—a student organization whose goal is to educate and motivate in regards to environmental stewardship. With assistance from the school’s student-run Sustainability Program coordinators, members submitted a proposal and aggressively pursued the opportunity to create a house that would serve as a testing ground and inspiration for sustainable living on campus.

Mowbray Sustainability House garden
Photo by Jill Gable

Immediately following the news that they had been awarded the home, club members set out to transform Mowbray House into a model for conservation and preservation. With a well-conceived plan, they spent last summer removing and recycling the cement driveway and metal fencing surrounding the backyard. This helped prepare gardening space for edible organic fruits and vegetables, herb and medicinal plants. Students designed the gardens—which are used to grow tomatoes, radishes, broccoli, carrots, beans, squash and even okra—to attract butterflies, bees and other pollinators. They also increased the presence of native plants on the property while still maintaining some well-established non-native flora species. Along with the worm hostel and organic soap-making area, students installed rain collection barrels to collect water that’s used for irrigation, replaced the home’s incandescent bulbs with compact fluorescent lamps and painted the interior with a fresh coat of VOC-free paint.

As news about the sustainable house spreads, the number of volunteers grows. Members of the facilities management staff helped students prepare the grounds for the gardens, and professors from the College of Arts & Sciences provided their organic agriculture and medicinal botany expertise. In addition, the team had tremendous support and input from local environmentalists from such organizations as Simple Living Institute and Our Vital Earth.

“The goal is to engage the entire Rollins community and eventually create an organic corridor on campus,” said Ann Francis, adviser to EcoRollins and manager of the student-run sustainability program. “Hopefully, this house helps manifest other projects and acts as a stepping stone to a fully sustainable campus.”

Chu, an anthropology major, believes that this type of outreach spreads the idea of sustainability to the entire community. “It’s a fluid process,” she explained. “Right now, for example, we’re working with local vendors to install more energy-efficient windows. Many local businesses are aware of what we’re trying to accomplish and are very supportive. The house might be on campus, but members of the greater community have embraced the concept by offering their services free of charge.”

Developing Lifelong Skills

Robert Kennedy, Jr.
Photo by Laura J. Cole

What’s happening today at Mowbray House took root decades ago, when the creation of Earth Day in 1970 sparked environmental awareness in colleges and universities. Over the years, student and administrative efforts have culminated in new courses and faculty development, green buildings and policies, student sustainability programs, and collaboration with local communities. At Rollins, students understand that community service is part of the school’s overall curriculum and culture, and they embrace becoming socially responsible global citizens. So, it comes as no surprise that they have adopted campus sustainability as a microcosm of environmental stewardship.

“Conservation is more relevant than ever, and this house provides a blueprint that students can use to create their own sustainable environments,” said Francis. “Garnering awareness through projects like this helps to shift detrimental consumer attitudes, which is critical to maintaining a healthy planet.”

Francis, who graduated with an environmental studies degree from Rollins in 2001, believes that college students possess the passion and desire to create a tipping point (the critical juncture in an evolving situation that leads to new and lasting improvements) in society’s willingness to become ecologically accountable. “By showing young adults how to be responsible citizens, you create an impetus for change,” she said. “In this particular case, you hope they graduate with the impression that being environmentally conscious matters because if they do, they will dedicate themselves to making a difference.”

For Megan Frederick (Class of 2012), a biochemistry major and house resident, living at Mowbray House is a productive way to engage in a worthwhile cause. “This has been an awakening for me,” she said. “I’ve always cared about conservation, but I wasn’t fully aware of what it took to do it right. I’ll leave here a more informed individual. I get it now, and I want to work towards solutions and encourage others to take steps to reduce their carbon footprint.”

Francis is encouraged by what she sees. “Students take something important from their involvement, and when they graduate they perpetuate what they’ve learned,” she explained. “They gain a respect and understanding for environmental sustainability, and they use these experiences to become true community servants. In the end, they act because they truly care about the environment and making the world a better place to live. If we can encourage that here, we’re doing something right.”

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