Sustainability effort becomes campus priority

Enid Cardinal is only one person. She can’t do it all, and she’s not perfect. But you’ll never find bottled water on her desk. And if she sees someone throw a can away, she’ll pluck it out of the trash and drop it into a recycling bin.

Cardinal is the University’s first sustainability coordinator. Two years ago she moved from upstate New York, where she worked as an environmental consultant advising businesses and not-for-profit organizations. The chance to change a Midwestern university was too tempting. She joined Illinois State with the belief it can become the greenest campus in the state.

“I could have stayed in New York and had an impact, but not as profound of an impact as coming here. This is a community that’s really ready to do something,” she said. “I’m aiming to put Normal and ISU on the map for sustainability, and I think there’s a huge opportunity to do that.”

One of Cardinal’s challenges is sharing the reality that going green is about more than carrying a canvas bag into the grocery store, using a refillable coffee mug, or turning the water off while brushing your teeth. She hears the lack of understanding and confusion in conversation with people who tell her they’re green because they recycle their water bottles.

“It’s like fingernails on a chalkboard to me,” she said. Although she’s grateful they’re recycling, she would prefer they fill a reusable bottle from the tap. She really wishes people would realize that sustainability refers to the impact we’re having on the earth, and its ability to endure.

Angela Ford ’86 understands the scope of the effort. She advises the city of Chicago on sustainability. When she received an e-mail announcing Cardinal’s role, she was thrilled but cautious.

“I really was excited about our going green, but when I heard we hired a sustainability coordinator, I thought, ‘Who’s that? A can collector?’” All it took was one meeting for Ford to know where Cardinal was headed.

“She is such a champion, so passionate, so smart. Not only is she full of energy, but knowledgeable. She reaches out to everybody. She’s the Martha Stewart of sustainability for ISU,” Ford said. “I really think ISU has a great shot of being a real presence in the sustainability arena because of her.”

Illinois State is already leading the state in some efforts, such as storm water management. A long strip of asphalt was dug up behind Duffy Bass Field and replaced with sandy soil and vegetation. The bioswale filters water before it heads for the streams and rivers. The University also leads the way with environmentally friendly parking lots created using permeable pavement.

President Al Bowman declared sustainability a vital part of the University’s mission last fall with the release of the 2008 Sustainability Progress Report. He acknowledged Cardinal, as well as the faculty, staff, and students who work with the University’s Green Team for their efforts in resource and energy conservation, environmental protection, and socially responsible business practices.

They have already proven that promoting an environmentally sustainable campus doesn’t have to cost a lot of money. It can be as simple as getting local foods on the plates in the dining halls, purchasing seafood from sustainable fisheries, adding hybrid cars to the university fleet, and encouraging programs like Reggie Ride, which offers free campus bike rentals.

The president’s endorsement confirms that going green is not a passing fad, but part of the University’s future. Cardinal and Ford think a green campus will be yet another draw for prospective students.

“The next generation is very serious about sustainability, and if ISU is a super green campus, I know that my tuition dollars are going toward the best professors, not buildings that aren’t energy efficient,” Ford said.

Student interest has been evident and increasing in the nine years since President Vic Boschini Jr. started the Green Team, an advisory committee that works on expanding green initiatives. Student involvement had been limited, but Cardinal is working to change that. The Association of Residence Halls recently added a student sustainability chair to its executive board and hall representatives, and the Student Government Association is adding a sustainability chair to its board.

“I hear so many students saying, ‘Why aren’t we doing this?’ Usually it’s because nobody asked us to,” she said. “I’m trying to convince students their voice means something.”

Students have asked why the campus does not have Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) buildings, which meet a national benchmark for high-performance green buildings. Some construction sciences students are LEED accredited professionals.

“There is a cost associated with everything but if students say we should do it, and if we can prove it’s worth the investment and show it’s a learning tool for them, there’s more value to it,” said Cardinal, who targets her message directly to student groups.
When addressing a College of Business group, for example, she spoke about corporate social responsibility and socially responsible investing. Nine out of 10 times a student follows up with her, wanting to know how to get involved.

“Part of this work is one person at a time. It’s providing as many educational awareness opportunities as possible,” Cardinal said. One of her personal campaigns right now is urging students to unplug their cell phone chargers.

“It’s just realizing that every action you take does have an impact, no matter how small,” she said. “You don’t have to tackle everything at once. I can’t tackle it all at once. I always tell people that I’m not perfect.”

But she is determined to make a change. When Cardinal moved into her two-bedroom townhouse, the first thing she did was change her light bulbs to energy-efficient compact fluorescent lighting. She walks or bikes to work, and hangs her clothes to dry. When she got her neighbor’s electric bill by mistake, it was $100 higher than hers. “We live next door to each other. We have the same infrastructure, so habits can really make a difference,” she said.

Growing up in an environmentally conscious family with a mom who loved trees, Cardinal learned to appreciate the natural world. On a visit home from college, she noticed that a patch of woods near her home had been bulldozed for a housing development.

“That was my lightbulb moment,” she said.

After doing a little digging she found that the project had filled a large wetland that should have been protected under state and federal statutes. That sparked the biology graduate’s interest in environmentalism, and drove her to graduate school to study environmental policy. On a later visit she found out a developer was threatening another protected area. This time she got involved, working with regulatory agencies to prove the wetlands on the property were connected to a waterway, which ended the project.

“I didn’t plan on stopping it. I actually told the land owner that I’d work with him if he built around the wetlands, but he said he didn’t care. That’s when I went the other route,” she said. “That’s how I make the argument that you can make a difference if you care, and you really want to do something.”

Cardinal has found alumni who are as passionate about sustainability as she is, including Ford. She owns her own environmental consulting company, T.A.G., which stands for The Absolute Green. Ford believes public-private partnerships are critical, and is outspoken about what direction she feels Illinois State should go.

“We need to open the conversation to public-private partnerships instead of looking for more funds from the state. That’s what I want ISU to do. It’s a huge mind shift, but ISU is so big it has the potential to attract a lot of support. I’m trying to bring capitalism down there,” she said, with a laugh. “We have so many extremely successful alumni. Let’s gather them together and see what we can do.”

Ford envisions a university with dozens of green initiatives, and a Web site that would allow alumni and donors to easily get involved. She speaks of the need with enthusiasm, and a sense of urgency.

“I’m afraid some other university will have a huge recycle can drive, seek all kinds of publicity, and for the next five years they’ll be known as the greenest campus,” Ford said.

Initiatives will undoubtedly increase because the green movement will gain momentum as we experience climate change, a shortage of fossil fuels, and evaporating natural resources, Cardinal said.

“When we start paying the true cost of energy, when we start paying the true cost of our water, we’ll see less waste. Some changes are going to come willingly, and some are going to come because they’re imposed on us.”

Determined to be proactive, she is focused on harnessing the energy that can come from the campus community and alumni. “This is my field and this is my expertise,” she said, “but I’m just one person.”

Editor’s note: Enid Cardinal is actively seeking feedback and recommendations from alumni regarding sustainability efforts the University should consider. She is open to ideas that range from curriculum changes to facility upgrades, and would especially like to hear from individuals in the field. Send her your ideas by e-mail at or call (309) 438-4425.

2 thoughts on “Redbirds going green

  1. Keep up the hard work keeping the environment clean, I am right here with ya man! To a greener 2010!!

  2. going green articles says:

    Hey whats up?. I happened upon your web site while I was searching for something completely unrelated. While I do not agree with everything you say we do have similar thoughts by and large. I have bookmarked your website and may visit again in the near future to see what you’re blogging about in 2010!