April 7th, 2010
08:02 PM ET

Eco-enlightenment at college

[cnn-photo-caption image=http://i.cnn.net/money/.element/img/1.0/sections/mag/fsb/bestcolleges/2007/galleries/univ_colorado_boulder.jpg caption="UC Boulder's students make $15  a ton for their recycling efforts."]

Jim Spellman
CNN All-Platform Journalist

I felt like a schnook pulling into the campus parking lot at the University of Colorado, Boulder in my gas-guzzling SUV. I dodged an endless stream of bicycles on my way, almost got hit by a biodiesel bus and squeezed into a spot between two Priuses.

I normally wouldn’t notice these things but I came to check out the college that topped the Sierra Club’s “Cool Schools” rankings of the most “Eco-enlightened” universities.

Suddenly I was “that guy”, the only square on campus who hadn’t gone green.

It’s doesn’t take long to notice all of the green efforts underway. We’re all used to recycling by now but they take it to a whole new level. In the student union “compost goalies” man the garbage stations. There are bins for recycling, composting, reusables and finally trash.

Kat Stuart is on duty as I approach with a soda bottle.

“I stand here and I tell people what is and what isn’t compostable, what’s trash and even help with recycling if they need it," she says. "If it gets contaminated we have to pay to put it in the landfill.”

Once the recycling gets past Kat’s careful eye it heads over to the recycling center where students put it through another sorting process. The white paper goes with the white paper, the plastic with the plastic. That’s the secret to getting top dollar for it.

They do such a good job of separating their recycling that even after paying students to sort it all out they actually turn a modest profit: 15 bucks a ton.

A film student named Musa works a conveyor belt sifting through empty bottles and stacks of paper. This is where my soda bottle will end up. It’s pretty gross and a little smelly, but Musa doesn’t seem to mind.

“At the end of the day I feel like I’ve done something by recycling this paper, you know?” he says. "As I walk in the world every day I apply what I learn here to what is happening outside. It takes each individual to make that change.”

It’s that personal commitment to the environment that is so impressive about the efforts of the students here at CU Boulder. So many of us seem to think, or at least hope, that the government or maybe a non-profit organization will take care of protecting the environment. These students seem to realize that if they don’t take on the task then it’s possible no one will.

Scot Wooley is a senior from Aspen, Colorado. He’s studying environmental policy and plans on a career that helps the planet, but for him being green is a much more personal pursuit.

“For me it is a personal responsibility to be sustainable and act green,” he says. “I think it does boil down to individual personal choices made by everyone so that it’s cool to be green. It’s our future.”

As I pull out of campus I can't help but feel that with young people like Kat and Musa and Scot on the case the future looks a little bit brighter, or at least a little greener.

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