Lessons from dumpster-diving at Huston-Tillotson University

Before and after views of a converted dumpster
Before and after views of a converted dumpster from Texas Disposal Systems.

Sustainability in higher education targets a distinct version of the triple bottom line; "people, planet and profit" goals must serve the broader educational mission of the school. College and university sustainability programs often link academics, operations, community outreach and research to balance this complex task.

At Huston-Tillotson University, a historically black university in Austin, Texas, we’ve found that starting with our core — education — has allowed us to bridge these areas and serve the full bottom line. We did this by focusing HT’s nascent sustainability efforts on a key educational initiative called the Dumpster Project.

You’re doing what to a dumpster?

The Dumpster Project’s goal is to transform a used 6-by-6 foot trash dumpster into a high-tech, sustainable, and healthy micro-home. Like most experimental ventures, the project is collaborative, somewhat open-ended, and best of all, wildly engaging.

The dumpster-to-home transformation challenge is the basis for our formal environmental education programs where, for example, elementary school students learn about water treatment and college students design solar energy systems for the dumpster. The transformation challenge also frames informal events like science camps, fairs, and community environmental outreach.

The challenge is very much a real-world one. For the first year of the project, Dumpster Project founder Jeff Wilson, a former Huston-Tillotson dean known as "Professor Dumpster," spent most of his nights in the dumpster to establish it as a living experiment.

Freshmen have used the dumpster as a learning tool in courses like "Dumpster 101" and "Weird Science," and as the framework for several exercises. For example,  students design and conduct a sampling protocol to investigate bacteria on common surfaces in the human-built environment, including computer keyboards, air vents, and dumpsters. Although there are no dumpster dorm rooms, some students have spent a night or two in one.

As the project developed, we’ve opened the home to educators, artists and community members who use the evolving dumpster as a teaching tool or for inspiration. As the design and construction process continues, the dumpster engages people from a variety of backgrounds, strengthening our sustainability efforts and our resource base.

Partners support our experimental spirit

That same dumpster-to-home transformation challenge has led to productive partnerships with businesses and community organizations. Project sponsors such as Texas Disposal Systems, a local waste hauling, recycling and composting company and Treehouse, a green building supplier, have sustainability missions that intersect with the project’s educational aims and HT’s green commitments. Onset, a company that manufactures data-loggers widely used by sustainability professionals and researchers, donated materials to augment our own HOBO dumpster weather station.

These partners say they see the potential of a non-prescriptive, playful, and open-ended approach to engage people to sustainability action in their own lives.

Green Is the New Black with the Dumpster Project
</strong></p><p></p><p></p><p></p><p><strong>Green Is the New Black with the Dumpster Project win a prize at Earth Day in Austin, Texas.</strong></p><strong>

Big solar program for a small campus

Engaging with industry in this way translates even more broadly to sustainability projects for the Huston-Tillotson campus. We must consider the bottom line, and cost-savings measures are often the best initial approach for new campus initiatives; however, we’ve found that projects do not succeed on this argument alone.

For example, we are awaiting installation of our first solar photovoltaic arrays on campus. This  240kW rooftop system on three buildings will supply approximately 10 percent of the university’s power. When installed, HT will be the only private historically black college or university  with solar on campus, a significant milestone for the relatively small,  1000-student university.

Favorable financial terms made possible by  Austin Energy’s performance-based solar incentives helped us to initiate the project and bring it to the university board. The ultimate decision to proceed, however, was heavily based on the idea that it is the right thing to do — for the university’s identity.

Green is the new black at HT

The issue of university identity brings us back to the school’s core mission, education, and highlights another avenue for business and community partnerships to synergize with campus sustainability. The college’s Green is the New Black (GITNB)   environmental student group is heavily involved in Dumpster Project activities, often using it as a platform for campus and community outreach.

Dumpster Project collaborators such as the Skillpoint Alliance and the Sustainable Food Center have provided training through internship opportunities and mentorships for our Green Is the New Black students that enhance their academic training and their exposure to green career paths.

Continuing plans include working with partners to incorporate sustainability service learning more broadly as HT makes its way towards becoming a truly green historically black university.

The educational bottom line

As an institution of higher learning, our triple bottom line may be more directly expressed as "students, campus, and cost-savings;" however, the underlying motivations are the same across all types of sustainability work. We are working for a positive future for people and the planet.

At Huston-Tillotson University we use a selection of multifaceted platforms like the Dumpster Project , Green Is the New Black and the environmental justice-centered Building Green Justice Forum to connect resources across the many arms of campus sustainability, allowing us to serve our mission. Diversifying our network of partners while remaining focused on these unifying frameworks ultimately drives progress towards all of our goals.