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Campus Sustainability is Threatened by COVID-19

By Lindsay Price

The University of Tampa’s campus sustainability may be impacted in unforeseen ways by changes made to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. Two issues in particular that are difficult to control are the additional plastic silverware due to no longer dining in at the cafeteria and increased usage of air conditioning to ventilate the classrooms.

Casey Racho, freshman marine science major, knew that due to COVID-19, the dining halls could not have their own silverware. However, she was troubled by the waste created from increased plastic and styrofoam usage, so she has started bringing her own reusable bamboo cutlery. She hopes to find a way to sell sets to other students on campus.

“I think it’s important to start thinking sustainably, especially in this climate, said Racho. “The world needs our help, and if we can just do the little things, trying to reduce our waste output starts very simple.” 

Racho suggested using a reusable water bottle, minimizing the use of plastic bags, and bringing reusable utensils as efforts to reduce waste at UT. 

“Hopefully, if these reusable items are for sale on campus, students have the option to think sustainably,” said Racho. “I’m not asking for anyone to go zero-waste or anything, but any effort is better than nothing.”

Stephen Kucera, associate professor of biology, is a member of UT’s Faculty Sustainability Committee. He has noticed from personal experience that the need to ventilate classrooms to reduce COVID-19 transmission has led to increased energy expenditure.

“Near the start of the semester, I built and installed a vent system to port outside air into my lab where most of my classes are to get a lot more fresh air change-outs happening in my space, with the students in there,” said Kucera. “Between that and the best practice of having sufficient air change outs in occupied spaces, it’s now necessary to run the unit pretty much all the time to have good air flow to help mitigate COVID risk for my students, the custodial staff who go in there and myself. That’s very likely happening on a campus-wide basis.”

Jennifer Isenbeck, director of facilities, explained that there are many different things that factor into air conditioning usage. For instance, warmer climates like Tampa use more air conditioning, and ventilations in modern buildings must be in accordance with code. Increases in energy usage have mostly been seen where prior ventilation was inadequate.

“Since March, the campus essentially shutdown for about 4.5 months,” said Isenbeck. “Therefore, there was minimal occupant load. Cooling costs went down. Generally, facilities did not change air conditioning and ventilation operating hours, even though the campus was at minimum occupants. We felt it was more important to keep ventilation at maximum levels for the faculty and staff who remained on campus.”

Complications stemming from the pandemic have affected sustainability, but many of the solutions would be complex as well. UT seeks to find a way forward that balances student health and environmental concerns.

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