In 2003, a comprehensive research study on African-American attitudes towards environmental issues was published. Dispelling Old Myths: African American Concern for the Environment laid to rest lingering stereotypes about black American ecological detachment with surprising facts - African-Americans were less likely to buy food treated with pesticides, as likely to join environmental groups, and more likely to express concern about their local environment than white Americans.
But that same survey indicated that only four out of every 10 African-Americans were likely to recycle, a trend that, 11 years later, appears to be rapidly declining on historically black college campuses nationwide.
With the uptick in federal private funding available to colleges and universities in support of sustainable initiatives, HBCU students are actively promoting recycling programs to engage participation in community sustainability. According to the 2009 United Negro College Fund’s Minority-Serving Institutions Green Report, more than 30 percent of MSIs (including HBCUs) recycled paper, glass, cardboard, aluminum and plastic at varying levels of participation and execution.
HBCU advocacy organizations like UNCF and the Thurgood Marshall College Fund have partnered with corporations to spur and incentivize sustainable campus programming, with a particular emphasis on recycling. Alliances with the Kresge Foundation and Environmental Defense Fund have benefited a number of HBCUs looking to create or enhance campus recycling programs.
Delaware State University is among a select few colleges and universities to receive national recognition for their recycling efforts. In 2011, the university was cited in the American College & University Presidents’ Climate Commitment (ACUPCC) annual report for its Green Ambassador program, in which undergraduate students develop, market and execute recycling initiatives among the campus community.
Last year, then-Grambling State University senior Corban Bell earned the university $5,000 for his grand prize winning recycling plan submission in the Toyota Green Initiative contest. His concept - a one dollar per semester fee for all students to develop one of the area’s most comprehensive recycling programs over the next five years. The win was a part of the automaker’s annual RecycleMania Challenge, drawing interest and volunteerism from dozens of HBCU students every spring.
But not everyone thinks that sustainable programming is the path to success for historically black colleges. Norris McDonald, President of the African American Environmental Association, believes that HBCU communities, like many in the black community, are divided on the issue of recycling in comparison to issues of public health, social justice and economic disparity.
"Ideally, for the sake of being preservationists, of course we should be more concerned. But from a practical standpoint, (recycling) is unlikely to get many students on the campuses constantly thinking about that or other preservation efforts,” says McDonald.
McDonald, who has spent more than 30 years lobbying and advocating for environmental justice policy reform at municipal and federal levels, believes that revenues are at the heart of any sustainable recycling program, but that a lack of interest, manpower and technologies makes it difficult for a campus to jumpstart a program for long-term, or even immediate success.
“It is really hard to gather enough paper, glass and cans, even on a college campus. Where are you going to recycle? How are you going to make money off of it? More importantly, how are you going to invest in it to make it all happen?"
McDonald says that HBCUs are the ideal institutions to receive federal funding and private research support for development in fossil fuel technologies and energy outcomes. Finding practical and environmentally sound ways to incorporate coal, natural gas, and oil harnessing methods, he says, are the key to the economic future of HBCUs, and to America’s energy debate.
"From a research standpoint, HBCUs are in a prime position to expand research in securing national resources. Coal, oil, natural gas are still the industries in which we can explore solutions that can complement sustainable and renewable options,” McDonald says.
But some HBCU officials say that recycling will remain at the core of their environmental outreach programming, and a growing part of student development. In 2012, Alcorn State University partnered with Coca-Cola and former all-pro running back Deuce McAllister, a partner with WastePro USA, to sponsor Earth Day events on the campus.
The program was created by the university’s Office of Sustainability, which works to bridge the gap between green volunteerism, academic infusion of sustainable industries, and career opportunities in green jobs.
“At Alcorn, we understand that sustainability must be a core value and a guiding principle in all that we do,” says Vice President for Media Relations Clara Ross Stamps and member of Alcorn’s Sustainability Committee who co-chaired its Earth Day event last year. “The Office of Sustainability was established to insure our culture of sustainability, which is aimed at increasing awareness of our environmental responsibility and protective actions.”
“When I notice a member of Alcorn recycling, reading our sustainability updates or passing by while riding one of our Brave People, Go Green bicycles, I am full of pride for the work we all do to make a difference. And I know the lessons learned at Alcorn will stay with our students as they go forward into the world of work, which may include sustainability jobs.”