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Colleges Go Green: Mills College Leads in Sustainable Practice

Mills Green

Why is it important for colleges to go green? “That’s an easy questions!” replied Mills College Sustainability and Recycling Coordinator Britta Bullard.  Over the course of our hour-long interview, Britta explained the importance of teaching leadership and accountability, preparing students for the world in which they live, and modeling community activism for change.

Mills College is located in the beautiful rolling foothills of Oakland, California.  Mills has been recognized for its excellence in Sustainability in Princeton Review “Guide to 286 Green Colleges” and as one of Sierra Magazine’s “100 Coolest Green Schools.” In addition to housing 2 LEED certified buildings (one platinum and one gold) and a leading Environmental Sciences degree, Mills students and faculty and staff play an active role in initiatives that link them directly to the local and global green communities. Here are a few of my favorite ways:

1. Students “Power Down:” This is one of my favorite projects at Mills because it is student-led, innovative, and models creative activism.  It began when the college made a commitment to reduce energy use on peak energy use days when there is high stress on the power grid.  The first three times Mills staff spread the word, but there was no reduction in power use (and, in some cases, even an increase!).  Enter: Mills College Power Down Specialists!  A team of students such as Miranda Felix and Katie Young pictured above, planned and executed an internal energy reduction day.  Dressed for success, they combed through the campus, having others sign pledges to reduce energy use and helping people power down.  Their sermon was so successful that they found one dorm hall completely powered down before they even got there! Data results of the pilot have not been analyzed yet, but it is expected that results will show a dramatic reduction in power use.  Furthermore, the project “opened the door for greater communication about issues of energy use and sustainability.”

2. The Re-Use Depot: As students move around throughout their tenure at Mills their material needs change.  The Re-Use Depot is a place where students can drop off their old (from books to clothes to furniture to school supplies and everything in between!) and pick up something new.  After all, my trash is your gold.  Britta explained that the depot starts out the school year overflowing with last year’s clean-out and ends the school year bare, demonstrating the demand for free reusables.  

3. Compost, compost, compost: Several years ago Mills implemented a comprehensive composting program, but students are beginning to demand greater accessibility.  A Mills student in the Environmental Sciences Department conducted a study in which more composting bins were placed throughout one of the dorm halls and students were asked to sign a petition of support for increased composting.  The dorm’s waste previous distribution was 79% landfill waste, 21% recycle, and 0% compost.  After the intervention landfill use decreased to 37%, recycle increased to 31%, and compost increased to 32%. Wow!! Students continue to campaign to increase composting campus-wide.

4. Commitment to Community: The “Green” movement is all about grass-roots communication and an “if I do my part and you do yours, we can all make a difference” attitude.  Mills models for an connects with the larger community in many ways.

  • Once a month creek clean-up days with Mills students, staff, and faculty, as well as local community members.
  • Once a semester Mills teams-up with a local 8th grade class to give a tour of Mills and for the students to practice creek stewardship.
  • Team-up with local 8th grade class to visit Yuba river and observe how human activity impacts the waterway and salmon life cycle.
  • Participation in the American College and University Presidents Climate Committee, in which Mills has pledged (among other things) a 15% greenhouse gas reduction by 2015
  • Community Garden
  • Participation in the national “Recycle Mania” in which they compete with other colleges for the lowest amount of landfill waste and highest compost/recycling.
  • Comprehensive Earth Week curriculum once a year, in which students are educated about their impact in the environment and taught how they can participate in their community.
  • Plans for a transportation reduction program.  Mills has already found increased demand for the use of shuttle buses, and hope to implement programs for further reduction (commuting currently accounts for 19% of greenhouse gas emissions at Mills).
  • Plans for a “green department certificate” in which a baseline is set for sustainable practices in each educational department.


Britta Bullard describes the “movement of individual transformation to structural, local, and global change” as critical to the future of sustainable practices. Mills College models green activism to individuals and the world, and prepares students to lead this global change.