Two weeks before MU’s spring break, Ben Datema is buried in work: plan and prepare for meetings, keep track of local sustainability gatherings, finish homework for biology and chemistry classes, pack for a trip to Ecuador, tend to the plants. The to-do list goes on. Friends hound him: You need to get some sleep. Hey, Ben, get a secretary; better yet, a personal assistant.
But on this Saturday in early March, Ben stands calmly behind a group of friends and students. He is wearing his usual plaid shirt and black rubber boots. Rubber gloves hang on the back of his jeans, tucked next to an orange net bag he carries in case he spies any trash. He listens as Adam Saunders, a colleague in Sustain Mizzou, lays out the plan for planting 200 trees along Hinkson Creek.
“Look up to the sky before planting a tree to make sure that when it grows, it won’t interfere with the power lines,” Saunders says. “There needs to be soil contact with the root, so step around it. And set a flag where you’ve planted the tree.”
Saunders is a past president of Sustain Mizzou, a student organization that works to promote an environmentally friendly way of life on campus and in the community. Now, as a senior adviser, Saunders helps with projects. It is a role Datema will assume as a senior, but there’s time for that. He is still a sophomore and the newly elected president of Sustain Mizzou. His aspirations for the job are as endless as his to-do list.
But now, at the tree planting, he listens quietly with the rest of the group. It is modesty of this sort that friends say sets Datema apart. He’s not in this for personal recognition or power. His passion is for the cause — and for change. As he says over and over: “Sustainability applies to everything; I don’t know if I’ve thought of something yet that it doesn’t apply to somehow.”
Passion for the cause
Every Friday afternoon, Datema leads the executive committee of Sustain Mizzou: him, Vice President Alexis Malone, Treasurer John Nichols, and Secretary Chris Burrows. Their general meetings, which are held every other Wednesday, usually draw 25 to 30 students.
Datema arrives at Tucker Hall an hour early, his laptop open and a pile of paperwork nearby. He’s drawn the March calendar on the blackboard, noting upcoming events and projects the executive committee needs to discuss. Every time he sits down with his papers, he pops back up to add something else to the calendar, filling it so there is barely an unscheduled day. He does, however, use especially big letters to note SPRING BREAK. As his colleagues join him, their talk quickly turns to biking.
“I haven’t figured a way to ride my bike with an umbrella,”
says Malone, who is wearing waterproof gaters over her jeans as some protection against the late-winter rains. “Maybe I can put it in my bag somehow.”
“Yeah, have it like a sombrero,” Burrows jokes.
Datema is distracted by his list on the blackboard. “That’s all the stuff that has to happen,” he mumbles. Burrows snaps to: “Yes, sir!”
Their shared love for biking — healthy for them and for the environment — inspired them to set up a quick bike-repair event at Lowry Mall, which took place April 10 and 11. It’s just one example of the group’s joint efforts — part work, part fun — and of Datema’s drive to come up with an idea each day to promote sustainability on campus.
Even so, it’s not enough.
“I find it frustrating that I can’t do everything that I want to do,” he says. “I love what I do. It is undoubtedly my passion.
The only bad part about it is that I can’t do it all, and our organization can’t do it all either.”
Impacting the future
Datema’s love for nature can be traced to his childhood, but not necessarily to his family. He takes care of his mother’s plants, often having to revive them after he gives them to her.
“I’m a biology geek,” he grins. His passion took root as a kid during summers at church camp. He’d wander outside, enchanted by the living creatures surrounding him. He still attends Camp Aurora, north of Springfield. But now he teaches other kids about the environment and hopes they will develop the same love for their surroundings that he did.
“Just going every summer and seeing these crazy bugs and crazy plants, being outside — I try to connect the kids to that,” he says. “Because if you don’t have that connection to nature, then ‘sustainability’ is just a word. If you don’t actually see what you’re affecting and what you’re trying to preserve, then it’s much harder to say, ‘Oh, my actions are affecting the rivers that I went canoeing on at camp.’”
For Datema, it boils down to a quote by Aldo Leopold, who is considered the father of wildlife ecology: “One of the biggest problems is when people think that their food comes from the store and their heat comes from the furnace.”
Yet Datema has found it much more complicated, a litany of connections that resemble his endless to-do list. His take: “The water doesn’t begin at the faucet. The water had to come from a storm somewhere, then it ran through some drain-pipes into a creek, then a bigger creek, then a river. Then a treatment facility sucked some of the water out and put it through some chemicals, and then a pumping station took it to a water tower, and then it got distributed to hundreds of homes, and then it came out of the faucet. The only reason the light turns on in the house is because somewhere there is a power plant burning coal, or a wind turbine or dam or nuclear reactor generating electricity. None of these are necessarily bad things. Technology is not at all inherently bad, but it does have a price, and it does mean that people are several steps removed from seeing the direct ecological impact.”
Datema began making sense of how things work during high school through a girlfriend’s mom, who had an organic garden. He learned the nuts and bolts of activism in high school, too, when his biology teacher and four other students started an environmental club. Their first project was a recycling system: They placed cardboard boxes in classrooms for paper and a Dumpster behind the school building for recycling. That’s where Datema also learned the basics of administering a project, although he’s not that proud of how it ended.
“I really dropped the ball with leadership transition there because I didn’t tell anybody when I left how to do all the things I’d been doing,” he says. “The next president had to kind of bumble his way through and relearn everything.
So then I came to Mizzou and thought ‘OK, we’re gonna do it right this time.’ Apply the lesson.”
Practicing what is preached
He joined Sustain Mizzou his freshman year, determined to “set things straight,” and he has no plan to stop. During last fall’s seven home football games, through the Tiger Tailgate Recycling project, Sustain Mizzou gathered 19.6 tons of material — beverage containers, aluminum cans, plastic and glass bottles — consolidated in a recycling container behind the stadium. The group provides a how-to-recycle tutorial on its Web site. According to the “Solid Waste Audit of the University of Missouri-Columbia” conducted in 2003, MU’s campus gathers 7,293.14 tons of trash per year, out of which 1,894 tons are recycled. More than 32,000 pounds of trash are generated on campus each day, 27 percent of which is recyclable but is discarded as trash.
The site explains how students can recycle on campus: paper in the green bins in various buildings, cardboard in drop-off containers behind Schurz/Hatch and beverage containers in cream-colored sidewalk containers.
Datema and his Sustain Mizzou posse go even further. They make the rounds of university printers every other week. Left-behind paper that doesn’t contain personal information is bound into notebooks. The notebook covers are fashioned from empty cereal and pizza boxes. The notebooks are sold for $2 each at Sustain Mizzou’s table at Brady Commons every Wednesday. Datema wears his yellow T-shirt that has a triangle formed from three black arrows on it — a reminder to recycle. At the table in Brady, students drop off used batteries, ink cartridges and other paper for recycling. And wherever Datema goes, he’s on the lookout for discards he can recycle or reuse.
Datema and Malone have begun investigating the benefits of MU hiring a coordinator to work on sustainability issues on campus. Their claim is that sustainability has the potential to benefit the university in multiple ways, including financially.
For example, Datema says the average cost per ton for trash hauling is $75; the cost per ton for recycling is about $25.
“But if you just recycle and there is no market for it, then the system won’t work,” he says. “You have to complete the loop by buying recycled content products. If the market isn’t there to sell the recycled material again, then there’s no point recycling because it just sits in a warehouse somewhere instead of being reused.”
That could start to change, he says, if MU would do more to drive the movement toward sustainability by buying recycled paper for standard use and providing recyclable food trays at campus dining facilities.
Sustain Mizzou tries to practice what it preaches. The group’s quarterly magazine, Footprint, is printed on recycled paper. During campaigns to gather student support, it prints a minimal number of fliers and places them only where they are certain to be seen.
Last fall, group members worked with the Community Garden Coalition on a half acre of land donated by a local farmer. They harvested more than 6,000 pounds of food, which they donated to the Central Missouri Food Bank. They also organized a local food drive and raised $3,000 over the course of a week to buy food from local farmers within 60 miles of Columbia. This food was also donated to the food bank.
Datema’s own refrigerator is filled with organic cheese and locally produced milk. He washes out plastic storage bags so they can be reused, washes his dishes and clothes with biodegradeable detergent and buys toilet paper made from recycled paper.
His work has won him the Peter H. Raven Environmental Leadership Award from MU’s Environmental Studies Department, which goes to a student or student organization that shows outstanding leadership on environmental concerns within the community.
He shared the award with junior biology major Lauren Ryan.
But despite Datema’s lengthy to-do list, he says his efforts boil down to a simple principle: “It doesn’t take a lot of work to live sustainable.”