There are lots of things we would like to be able to have on campus that take a backseat during a tough economic period.

New student center — one that didn’t use to be an International Harvester dealership? It would be nice, but the Wishcampers, Abromsons and Oshers of the world will probably always opt to enhance facilities closer to the university’s academic mission.

But environmental improvements transcend the category of “luxury item,” and should be a major concern in the eyes of the university’s administration and students.

Institutions like University of Colorado-Boulder have pulled out all their stops in their efforts. Volunteers in dining halls act as “compost goalies,” advising students how to separate their food waste to help recycling efforts.

Bates College has done away with the disposable coffee cup, replacing the cardboard land-fillers with reusable plastic travel mugs, which students can fill up in dining halls, tote around campus, and drop back in a bin when they are done.

Of course USM cannot make some of the sweeping changes of larger universities, those with deep pockets and a motivated student body enrolled in environmental science programs, for whom such “green” improvements to their campus infrastructure are just another part of the homework.

USM hasn’t been a total slouch on this front. Dining services recently got on board with the idea behind Portland’s Buy Local campaign, and switched coffee and milk vendors to local companies, cutting down on transportation costs, both environmental and financial, and supporting the local economy to boot.

Like UC-Boulder’s president, USM’s Botman can also be seen cruising between campuses in a hybrid SUV, and while this choice of carriage seems equal parts sustainability and PR, we laud its symbolic importance.

But we have a long way to go if we want to appear as any kind of shining example of a “green” university, and students — the educational consumer — must be the ones to demand their their tuition dollars go to fund such improvements.

By the benefit of being (partially) located in Portland, USM has access to sustainably-minded start-ups aimed at helping businesses shrink their carbon footprint, and should seize upon the opportunity. Companies like Maine Biofuel produce a bio-diesel product from used fryer grease — a resource Portland has in spades — that could be used to power the school’s Portland-Gorham shuttle. Even just topping off a tank of regular diesel with some of waste-vegetable oil is shown to help engine performance.

A school of 10,000 produces a substantial amount of food waste, and if USM were to undertake a wide-spread composting program, it would have to look no further then the Muskie graduate school to find a team willing to do the job. Organic Alchemy Composting is a local composting service started by two USM grad students, and would allow the university to responsibly dispose of its food waste while promoting its own academic programs.

With so many resources available to help us improve our environmental efforts right here in Portland, is there really any excuse for USM not to turn a couple shades greener?

Changing the way we operate as a university sets an example of our commitment to improving the world around us. As an educational institution that disperses its graduates into a wide array of jobs, schools like USM can help ensure a greener future by integrating sustainably practices into campus life. If students get use to separating compostable food, riding on bio-diesel fueled buses, and sipping from reusable mugs, it will become the status quo for future generations.

While such changes might save USM money in the long run, they won’t be cheap to get running. It’s not USM’s responsibility to save the environment, but by making an earnest effort to do what we can, we can instill this sense of environmental stewardship in our students.

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