Faculty Q&A with Sarah Burke, UNO sustainability coordinator


Cassie Wade

Photo courtesy of Sarah Burke

October is National Campus Sustainability Month, making it the perfect time to get the inside scoop on what’s happening in the University of Nebraska at Omaha’s Office of Sustainability.

I spoke with Sustainability Coordinator Sarah Burke to learn more about the history of the Office of Sustainability, what the office has planned for the month and how the UNO community can make simple changes to go green. Check out Burke’s answers in this month’s Q&A.

Questions and answers have been edited for clarity and length.

CW: Has the sustainability office always been on campus?

SB: No, I was hired in November of 2015, and I am UNO’s first sustainability coordinator. With my hiring, the office of sustainability was created at that time, so it’s almost three years old now.

CW: What have been some of the things the office has implemented?

SB: We have a master plan that was created for campus on sustainability. I track all of our goals. Some of the things we’ll now start seeing is the Hefty Energy Bag program. We’re expanding our B-cycle stations. Within the next couple of months, we’ll have one outside of ASH and Dodge and Scott housing. A lot of stuff is behind the scenes. We did a new waste contract and will have a new waste hauler soon that will be handling the waste and recycling we generate on campus.

CW: How can students get involved with sustainability?

SB: There are a number of ways. There’s a student organization that just formed last year known as Sustain UNO. They’re an action organization, so they’re implementing small sustainable projects on campus. I’m their advisor. Students that are within the sustainability minor can intern with my office to fulfill some of the credits they need for their minor. Any time, students can be involved. I’m always looking for students to volunteer at events. They don’t have to be sustainability minors. My door is always open to students, so if a completely different organization, like a sorority or fraternity, wanted to implement or try to promote something, I’m always willing to partner.

CW: Can you tell me about some of the events you put on throughout the year?

SB: We have two big times of the year for sustainability. The first is October, which is campus sustainability month. During this month, we’re really trying to focus on campus work, making people more aware of programs that are already on campus or programs we’re working on. Then, April is Earth Month, which coincides with Earth Day. That one, we try to focus on the bigger picture. We try to bring in people from organizations in Omaha working on sustainability. We try to focus on the more global aspect of what’s going on with sustainability in the world.

CW: If people want to start living a little bit greener, what are some small changes they can make?

SB: Some small changes for sure, especially being on UNO’s campus, your ID card is your bus pass for the city of Omaha. You don’t have to take the bus just to campus. You can take it anywhere. It’s a nice, easy step, especially because it’s free if you wanted to try it out and see. Utilize the reusable water bottle stations we have on campus. It was an initiative done by student government originally and was adopted campus-wide by the university because of he success of the program. Always just think about what is the right choice. When it comes to recycling, think about ‘what do I have in my hand? Can it be recycled? Can I make those two extra steps to get it to that recycling bin?’ Also, think about what you’re buying. Do you need something? There’s a huge movement right now about banning plastic straws or purchasing metal straws. My question is, do you need the straw to begin with? If you don’t need the straw, just refuse the straw because regardless, you’re contributing to consumerism. If you do it too much, it’s a bad thing. Buying stuff is not a great thing to do. If you do need it, what’s the sustainable option?

CW: Why do you think it’s important for the office of sustainability to be on campus?

SB: Right now, the importance of my office is to raise awareness about what sustainability is. Being in the Midwest, we are kind of behind the ball compared to other locations that are dealing with sustainability and climate change issues because they’re getting impacted right now. Places along the coast, they’re already seeing the sea levels rise, so they are already being a bit more proactive. In the Midwest, we don’t have a sea that’s going to rise. Bringing awareness that even if it’s not happening here, it is happening and we are contributing to it.

However, in the future, I hope to put myself out of a job. That is the one thing when it comes to sustainability. Our job really is to put ourselves out of business. We don’t need to be calling it, ‘oh, that is the sustainable option.’ That’s just the option available. Right now, it’s about raising awareness and trying to galvanize the campus on pursuing more sustainable options, looking at renewable energy, looking at composting, those kinds of things. It’s making sure there is a grassroots movement for students.