By ELLEN GOLDBAUM
News Services Editor
That's because the students are sifting through coffee grounds and old memoranda at their request as part of a comprehensive environmental audit.
It is believed to be the first time in the U.S. that college students have been asked to conduct such an off-campus audit as a public service. An environmental audit is a detailed study of all of the ways that a particular institution affects its environment, and includes recommendations for improvements. A final report from the students is expected by mid-May.
Last year, after local news reports described the detailed audit UB environmental-studies students had conducted on their own campus, Buffalo Councilmember Barbra Kavanaugh contacted Walter Simpson, UB's energy officer and co-instructor of the environmental studies course, part of the interdisciplinary program in social sciences at UB, to see if the students could do something similar at City Hall.
The formal invitation to do the audit came via a resolution passed last year by the Common Council.
Simpson and Joseph Gardella, professor of chemistry and chair of UB's Environmental Task Force, immediately began working with Kavanaugh to arrange it.
"This seemed like it could be a great marriage," Kavanaugh said, "not only as a way to deal with environmental issues in City Hall, but also to use UB as a resource."
A team of 14 students was broken into two groups: one to work on solid waste and purchasing policies, the other to investigate energy use.
This project grounds the students in reality," said Bruce Kohrn, a Buffalo community activist, president of SBK Environmental Research and instructor of the UB course. In addition to Kohrn, Dennis M. Frank Sr., president of Energy Advantage; Edwin Marr, director of refuse and recycling for the City of Buffalo, and Tony Lup-pino of the Mayor's Office for the Environment also provide ongoing guidance and expertise for the students. All are working with the students on a volunteer basis.
"The students have to begin to understand the technical and political issues involved," continued Kohrn. "The audit creates a context for this."
Several times each week, students visit several floors of the 66-year-old Art Deco building, which houses 3,200 employees in its 26 stories.
Students on the energy team interview facilities managers about lighting, heating, air-conditioning and computer use. They are exploring improvements, such as zoned heating and central air-conditioning, that could reduce the cost of running City Hall.
"By the end of the project, we will be able to tell them, 'This is how much money you can save on energy and this is the payback period,'" explained Pete Acampora, a recent UB environmental science graduate on the energy team. He was hired by Dennis Frank after working with him last semester on a UB-sponsored environmental audit for the Buffalo Museum of Science.
Energy-team students also talk to employees about how office equipment, such as computers and copiers, are used and how they might be utilized more efficiently.
Students on the solid-waste team survey workers about office practices such as use of recycling bins and recycled paper, how much electronic mail is used, what they know about the building's recycling policies and how recycling efforts could be strengthened.
All of the information they gather, the students have learned, has a definite economic impact.
"City Hall has to pay for every ton of waste that's hauled away, so if they have less waste to landfill, that means less expense," said Glenn Delfish, a UB senior on the project.
Students also ask employees and managers in charge of waste policies in City Hall if they are buying and using recycled paper.
"If there's no market for recycled items, then there's no reason to recycle, so we are asking, 'Is City Hall buying recycled paper?'" said Delfish.
Down in the dumpsters, students pick through 55-gallon bins of garbage. They joke that they have seen far more coffee grounds than they ever expected.
"The mix of information that passes you by in a dumpster is interesting," said Delfish. "Once, I saw an empty box of cold cereal go by. I thought, somebody gets here real early in the morning!"
The solid-waste team expects to produce a report that quantifies in weight and volume the amount of waste that is generated, how much could be recycled, how much actually is being recycled and the average amount of waste that is generated per office in City Hall.
Kohrn, who holds class once a week, noted that the work is structured like most real-world, on-the-job assignments.
"A task is assigned and a quality product is expected, but you never really know what is involved until you start," he said.
Delfish said that he and the other students are experiencing the practical application of problem-solving techniques they may have learned in school, but never before had the chance to apply.
At the same time, according to Gardella, the project extends UB's sustainable-campus programs into the community, which helps to further the university's public-service mission.
"With our increasing emphasis on regional cooperation, we can start thinking about how to integrate public service into the educational experience for our students," Gardella said. "This project is unique in that it stresses hands-on access to real-world problems, while making a contribution to saving energy and increasing recycling."
So far, the students report that they have been warmly received by City Hall's employees and that people are willing to cooperate, signs that Councilmember Kavanaugh sees as extremely positive not only for this project, but for future cooperative efforts.
"I hope the audit serves as a pilot program not only to help us look at environmental issues in city buildings, but also to serve as a model for ways in which to involve the university and its students in municipal issues and municipal government," she said. "It's a model for our continuing relationship."
PHOTO BY DON HEUPEL