06 April 2010

Can study abroad be green?

For the first month of the program, many of us grumbled about how wasteful we felt we were being in Thailand. We would eat an individual yogurt cup in the morning, maybe with a mini box of Frosted Flakes, a big plastic bottle of water (because we cannot drink the tap), get some fresh pineapple for a mid-morning snack, which invariably comes in a plastic bag placed inside another plastic bag, snag some take-out lunch in a will-never-decompose-Styrofoam container also inside a plastic bag, and an iced coffee pick-me-up in the afternoon.

For a program that places such emphasis on student empowerment, we felt remarkably disempowered over our impact in the world. We don’t have a kitchen to cook for ourselves nor do we have a fridge so we can buy our soymilk by the gallon rather than the juice box. Thinking about the lifestyle we are living here in Thailand, coupled with the carbon-emitting 20-hour plane ride and constant car rides around the country, a friend remarked about being here, “I feel like I’m doing more harm than good.”

Part of me justified this lifestyle by remembering I was abroad, and that there were other lessons to be learned while here. I placated myself thinking, “Well, it’s only one semester of living this way.” But students feel like they have to live like this each new semester, and feel powerless to do it differently.

We’ve found that we can change things. Looking at our consumption patterns, we realized that we could make a huge difference in how much waste we produced by buying Tupperware containers to get fruit and takeout in, as well as a reusable cup to buy smoothies and iced coffee (and some places give us discounts for bringing our own cup!). Being intentional and filling our nalgenes with the filtered tap water in our office cuts down a lot on the plastic bottles we would otherwise use. And learning phrases like “mai sai tung” (don’t put it in a bag) help daily to reduce our waste.

But more than just our personal decisions, we need institutional support to enable us to be green. We talked to our program director about making the program more environmentally friendly, and he responded enthusiastically to our interest. We’ve formed three specific subcommittees to address the issue of CIEE Sustainability: the garden club, kitchen crew, and the CIEE climate action plan.

The garden club started after learning about food and organic agriculture. Realizing how little of the food we consume here in Khon Kaen in grown organically, a few students banded together to start the club. They approached Ajaan Dave about the idea, and he in return provided the bricks and soil to make two raised garden beds. Already we have vegetables growing. The students created a schedule for watering/weeding, and have talked with our neighbors about watering while we are away.

Ajaan Dave agreed to build a mini-kitchen and purchase a fridge for the students to use so we are not so dependent on food vendors. We are in the midst of drawing up plans for what we need in the kitchen and where we will place it.

The CIEE climate action plan is examining the environmental impact of the program, and what the institution can be doing better to make it a green study abroad program. A few students and some staff meet regularly. We decided to first establish the current environmental impact of the program (by looking at our electricity, water, and vehicle gas bills, as well as weighing our trash) over a period of time, and then discussing ways to reduce these numbers. Three students met with the company that supplies our electricity to learn the sources of our electricity, and see if it is possible to obtain our energy from renewable resources. We are looking into having the program provide the students with a reusable water bottle, container, and cup that every semester can use.

Together, the three parts of the committee held a workshop to update the rest of the group on what we’ve been doing, steps we all can take, and how they can be involved. I’ve realized that we don’t have to be disempowered while abroad. It takes an extra effort and some creativity to think of how we can be more environmentally friendly, but it is worth that extra thought. In doing so we are really taking ownership over our education and are empowered. The program responded when we initiated the discussion on the program’s sustainability. Taking that first step has made a difference already, but still there is a long way to go. What else can CIEE Thailand do to become more sustainable? How can other study abroad programs, like CGE Mexico, also become green?

Leslie O'Bray
George Washington University


Claire said...

Being part of the sustainability committee has showed me how important it is to create a "green" study abroad program. I am more than excited to be part of the team that is developing the foundation for other study abroad programs to incorporate "green" aspects into their curriculum and their everyday practices.

Just an update to your entry, not only do we have a garden but it is growing like crazy! The kitchen has gone from drawing plans on a whiteboard to having the constructor come to the CIEE office, expand the roof over the area where the kitchen will be located and is scheduled to be completed in the next few days! The Climate Action Plan is well on its way and will be completed during project time in May. I'm so excited to be part of contributing long-term changes to CIEE Thailand and am confident that future semesters will build upon what we have implemented.

Ilse said...

Can study abroad be green? I really believe that it should be. As part of the sustainability committee, I am really excited about the steps CIEE Thailand as an institution is taking to do so. To me, it seems illogical to come on a program where you learn about the impacts of mass consumption and waste, only to commit a long list of our own environmental/social sins. I have a lot of hope for the climate action plan we hope to complete by the end of the semester. I hope it can serve as a model for CIEE as a whole as well as other study-abroad programs. Understanding the sources of your environmental impacts is the first step in reducing your carbon footprint. Admittedly, it will not be easy for this program to make big changes. You can’t really ask students to not turn on the air conditioner in the classroom when it is 108 degrees outside. Judging by the report I worked on for a town last semester, it would take a fleet of electric vans run off of completely renewable electricity to make a reduction at the level world scientists are calling for (80% by 2050). There are concrete steps the program can take to reduce its footprint and hopefully more will become available in the future. Additionally, the fact is evaluating a study abroad program’s carbon footprint is different from a town. What the climate action plan will not take into account are the personal choices we make as students and staff living here in Thailand. They may not be measurable, but they are significant in the context of impact here.


Althea said...

This is an excellent and probing synthesis of our emotions and efforts concerning sustainability thus far. There is so much wrong with the fact that we are traveling halfway across the world on a gas-guzzling airplane in order to study sustainability, but there is also so much to be gained by the program here and the group we have to work with.
First of all, it is mind-opening to be in a place where sustainability is more (for lack of a better word) organic. Replacing the idealistic and ideological motivations of our regular California and New England liberal post-hippies, the communities we have encountered are pushing for healthy and sustainable use of resources because their livelihoods depend on it. They are switching to organic agriculture for their health, their finances, and their communities - and this is how it should be.
Besides, thinking about and experimenting with sustainability isn't fun by yourself. You know Georgetown, so you will understand my existential angst at traveling from a solar house in Vermont (complete with backyard compost), where REDUCE, REUSE, RECYCLE might as well be tattooed on the inside of everyone's eyelids, to a community where mention of sustainability is mostly met with the blank stares characteristic of people munching processed foods.
I spent the fall semester of my sophomore year trying harder and harder to essentially have no impact. No throwing away anything that could possibly be recycled, no unnecessary bags or containers or trips in vehicles, no plastic water bottles or paper cups, as much organic and local food as possible, and as many all-natural things and products as I could replace my regular repertoire with. True to my vision, when I tried to do this by myself (increasingly frenetically as I attempted to compensate for the waste and inaction of everyone around me) I had no impact. I didn't change anyone else's mind; I didn't even benefit from it myself since it just made me crazy, jaded, and disheartened about all of environmentalism. Plus, trying to shave your legs with razors made of flimsy recycled plastic just pisses you off after a while. And this is dangerously close to the mindset from which people get radicalized to join Eco-terrorist movements. Being here with a group to bounce ideas off of and take ideas from and work in solidarity with is so much more effective as a way to inspire sustainability. And in a very real way, this community of inspiration and sustainability is one that I think I can internalize and take with me as I go back to Georgetown for one more year, and for the rest of my life, even if the communities I am surrounded with are not down to sonjai singwedlom like CIEE Thailand 2010. AND I get to take you with me back to Georgetown too.

Larissa Gaias said...

We're going places. Like actually. Around the world, places.

We've contacted the CIEE RDs in Prague and Perth, Australia, as well as the Asian programs coordinator in Portland, ME. In the words of Ajaan Dave, "This is going to be a huge deal!"

We are currently working on our own Climate Action Plan, and a toolkit for other study abroad programs. We are going to need to get a more specific software developed in the near future in order to truly cater to the needs of study abroad programs, but things are set and in motion.

It's really amazing. As Leslie said, it's so easy to think of your semester abroad as negligible in the carbon scheme. But if you add up everyone all over the world studying abroad semester after semester, things don't seem so unimportant. Your flight to your destination probably upped your carbon footprint by somewhere around 20% anyway- you don't really want to be doing more damage while you're away.

Green Study Abroad is here and coming for you, ready or not.

Amy said...


Green study abroad makes me so excited because if anything that I have learned from this process is that being more "green" doesn't have to be so hard. After a shift of mind, it is a matter of building habit like you have said. I am super excited for the foundations we are building this semester. I also believe that it is taking ownership over our lives and really challenging ourselves to keep constant our values in many different conditions. What has really enriched many of the environmental decisions we have decided to take on is the reinforcement from our education on this program. I believe that I never really take up movements in America because I only understand issues through third party sources like the news or word of mouth or an informational pamphlet. I never really understood the heart of these movements and labeled them as hippie-ish or too activist-like. I am glad now that I have a much mature understanding of being active and how to feel connected to social change.

Gianna said...

I am really glad you wrote about this and got this issue out onto the blog because it is a very important one. I think that setting up several committees to address all of these topics of sustainable and environmentally-friendly practices really made the transition of living here in Khon Kaen a lot easier. At least, I know it made it a lot easier for me. It was hard to come here and bring all of those practices that I had in the states with me here.

I am reflecting now on how far I think we've come in our plans; we have a garden and a compost bin that has been so many things for several of us. To some, it was a space to learn about gardening for the first time. To some, it was a continuation of growing food for oneself. I think it was definitely a great next step that we put into action with the help of one another and all of the staff. The kitchen is almost done, which is pretty impressive! And we have a group of people working on an awesome Climate Action Plan as their final project. I am really proud of all of us!