Office of Sustainability’s CEC leads student-facing sustainability efforts

Sponsored by the Office of Sustainability, the Campus Environmental Center (CEC) student organization serves as a student voice for sustainability initiatives across campus, according to Environmental Center Coordinator Brianna Duran.

Launched in 2002, the student organization has since evolved to lead the majority of student-facing sustainability initiatives across UT Austin, Duran said. The CEC’s work models the FAS core values of diversity, stewardship, sustainability and teamwork by collaborating to promote awareness around environmental issues, especially those that impact the university and its student body.

The Office of Sustainability sponsorship role entails staffing the CEC leadership positions, with Duran serving as their supervisor. Duran explained that the CEC consists of paid student leaders, known as the Leadership Council, volunteers and a general community of student members.

“The CEC student leaders and team members retain creative control over the CEC projects and are responsible for project and event development and implementation,” Duran said. “The leadership is not elected like a traditional organization. Instead, students apply and interview.”

The CEC addresses a range of sustainability initiatives

In fall 2018, the CEC dropped membership requirements, opening the CEC to all students who want to be involved as volunteers at any level their schedule permits. The CEC works on a variety of sustainability initiatives across campus that include:

  • Trash to Treasure, a recycling and resale program with the purpose of diverting reusable items from the landfill through a series of donation drives and sales throughout the year.
  • Microfarm, the university’s first student-run organic urban farm.
  • Green Events, which provides free zero-waste consulting services and recycling and composting services to student organizations that are planning events or meetings on campus.
  • Green Greeks, which has helped the university establish a more sustainable network of Greek Life members.
  • Half-Pint Prairie, a pocket Blackland prairie located west of the Student Services Building. Blackland prairies are an endangered ecosystem.
  • Environmental Justice Collective, a space for students to explore and organize around issues of race, class, gender, ability, etc., within environmentalism.

The CEC creatively adapted to the pandemic

According to Duran, with the onset of COVID-19 altering most university operations to a remote environment, the CEC initiatives also had to change course, pivoting to an almost entirely virtual format. The CEC had to adjust its outreach in creative ways to continue engaging the university community.

For example, with students hosting fewer in-person events, the Green Events group produced online educational information such as a video about greenwashing, which is providing misleading information about the environmental friendliness of a company’s products; a new Instagram channel; and a Green Events waste hub with information on waste justice, greenwashing, food waste and extending the life cycle of products as long as possible.

Duran cited another example of a CEC group’s project shift in light of COVID-19: the Trash to Treasure team.

"This group runs a donation collection in on-campus residence halls during spring move-out and then sells the items at campus-wide sales with each item priced at a dollar," Duran said. "Each year, more than 10,000 pounds of items are diverted from landfill through the donation drive. With COVID-19 restrictions, the team was unable to host on-campus sales, so they tried a new approach and launched the Making Amends program. Making Amends is an initiative for students to educate and promote sustainable fashion through collaborative upcycling."

Through Making Amends, Trash to Treasure facilitates student participation in various phases of upcycling, which is reusing discarded objects or material to create a product of higher quality or value than the original. Kits are delivered to interested students. Each kit contains a collection of used garments and materials for students to design, cut, sew, dye and finish the used garments into a new creation.

Trash to Treasure Co-lead Diego Allison noted how Making Amends is setting a new trend in sustainable fashion.

"By working collaboratively and sharing our skills, materials and tools, the Making Amends team is redefining what sustainable fashion is and making it more accessible to students on campus,” Allison said. “The Making Amends initiative excites me because many of its practices are what I consider to be the future of fashion."

CEC members change the world

The CEC and individual members are known for their outstanding efforts. This year the CEC received the Exemplary Status in the Pillars of the Forty Acres Award recognition program for student organizations whose activities embody the Core Values of the university. Half-Pint Prairie Co-lead Jack Rouse, was a finalist for 2021 President’s Student Employee of the Year. The other Half-Pint Co-lead, Pranav Jayaraman, won the Texas Exes President’s Leadership Award in part for his leadership with the CEC.

Duran noted how much she admires the efforts of the CEC students, especially during the pandemic.

“I’m always impressed by our student leaders, but I can’t overemphasize how inspiring it has been to witness their creativity, adaptability and perseverance through all the uncertainty and challenges of the past year,” Duran said. “The dedication of these young people to doing values-driven work, no matter the hurdles, gives me so much hope. Our students are the world changers, and I’m honored to be a part of their journeys.”