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Nurturing a Greener Future

Nurturing a Greener Future

Taking TCC's sustainability initiatives to the next level


At Tarrant County College, going green started with the color blue.

Fifteen years ago, a recycling program—with bright blue bins dotting campus grounds and buildings—became the first official sustainability initiative in the TCC District. Plastic bags, batteries, cups, cans: Many items once tossed into garbage cans began to get diverted to recycling facilities. “We save tons of garbage going into landfills every year,” shares Margaret Lutton, the College’s executive director of Institutional and Strategic Development. “We have great buy-in, largely because we use single-stream recycling. Students, faculty, staff and visitors don’t have to separate different types of recyclable materials. They just toss and go. And our participation keeps growing.”

While recycling remains a key aspect of TCC’s pledge to lessen environmental impact, the College’s sustainability programs have transformed to become fully comprehensive, higher priority and more technologically advanced. There is also an increasing number of campus- and student-driven sustainability projects. These combined efforts produce a host of benefits—for the environment, the TCC community and local taxpayers.

The Way Forward

The College is in the process of categorizing, analyzing and expanding this work through the development of the Sustainability Master Plan. While TCC’s earliest sustainability projects primarily involved the Real Estate and Facilities division, the master plan will ensure the commitment permeates every aspect of TCC’s operations and culture. “The master plan was requested by the Board of Trustees, which recognized a need to focus and formalize sustainability efforts across the District into a ‘One College’ approach,” explains Walter Williams, director of Facilities Engineering and the sustainability program manager. “This approach will facilitate proper support from the College leadership, taking sustainability to a new level across all our campuses and facilities.”

The plan is divided into three phases. The first phase is scheduled to be finalized this fall, and the next phases are set to be complete in fall 2023 and fall 2024, respectively. The plan’s development incorporates input from students, faculty and staff, gathered through visioning sessions, focus groups, workshops and surveys.

woman standing near tent speaking with another woman

Phase I

This phase covers physical plant and facilities projects, with a focus on energy savings, water conservation and green building principles. The College’s involvement with green building began shortly after the creation of the recycling program. In 2008, TCC purchased the former RadioShack corporate campus, a 37-acre site featuring state-of-the-art technology, architecture and infrastructure, located on the banks of the Trinity River in downtown Fort Worth. It became TCC Trinity River—and TCC’s first campus to be recognized through LEED, a worldwide green building rating system.

LEED certification indicates that a facility’s design, construction and operation help protect and restore water resources, biodiversity and ecosystems; promote use of sustainable materials; reduce carbon footprint; and promote health and quality of life, among other goals. The system rates projects as Certified, Silver, Gold or Platinum.

“The former RadioShack headquarters was LEED Silver. That really got us into the idea of green building,” says Lutton. “Then we built a LEED Gold building at TCC Southeast followed by a LEED Platinum building at TCC South, and we learned which LEED elements are most effective for TCC. Whatever projects we undertake, whether we go through LEED certification or not, will incorporate those elements.”

Those elements are a major factor in the current rebuilding of the College’s Northwest and Southeast campuses, a component of the bond package passed in 2019. “We’ve done a lot in terms of sustainability with Northwest and Southeast construction and their mechanical, electrical and plumbing projects,” Lutton remarks. “These are advanced systems that will be extremely efficient and have a long life cycle. It’s both environmentally sound and fiscally responsible.”

On all campuses, TCC has worked hard to modernize energy systems and conserve water. Conservation programs include watering plants only to the level they need to survive, using detention ponds for irrigation and retrofitting low-flow fixtures in virtually all restrooms. The College also has installed motion-sensing faucets, a change that saves water (and is more hygienic, an important benefit during the pandemic).

man in green shirt speaking with group of people about sustainability

In addition, the College’s Environmental Management department has long worked to educate students and employees on stormwater pollution prevention in local rivers and streams. “We’ve had booths at campus fairs and put up flyers, sharing information about the dangers of letting potentially toxic substances run off into drains,” says Lutton. “We want to extend water conservation and preservation beyond our campuses and into the community.” For this work, TCC has won the SmartWater Award in the City of Fort Worth’s Environmental Excellence Awards for the last nine years in a row.


women standing in stream with netsThe College also has invested heavily in improving heating and cooling plants in the past decade. “We’re making sure our building automation systems actually do what they’re intended to do,” states Williams. “That makes our heating and cooling more effective and efficient and generates significant savings without large capital investment.” The conversion of fluorescent lighting to energy-saving LED lighting across the District has further reduced energy needs while enhancing the learning environment.

All these efforts have had a substantial effect. TCC’s water consumption—and thus its purchase of water from local municipalities—has decreased by 44 percent in the past 10 years. In that same time, TCC’s energy use index (a common metric that indicates relative electricity and natural gas use efficiency) has dropped by 46 percent. TCC continues to search for ways to conserve water and energy while maximizing cost savings.

Phase II

The next portion of the Sustainability Master Plan involves College planning and daily operations. Williams says a portion of Phase II involves evaluating current programs—such as recycling and fleet management—to determine if there are now better ways to achieve identified goals.

College staff also will develop additional ideas for infusing sustainability into planning and operations. “This could possibly include converting TCC’s fleet to electric vehicles and developing a process for ensuring our College purchases include more green products,” suggests Williams. “We’ll also be looking at what we do in terms of our grounds and housekeeping. It could lead to more organic pest treatments and fertilizing on the grounds side. In terms of housekeeping, this phase of the plan could outline the use of green cleaning products as well as overhaul our cleaning schedule.”

The accelerating use of data made available from TCC’s Smart Building Program will advance all sustainability efforts, including the cleaning schedule Williams mentions. “There may be some classrooms that are cleaned more frequently than they are used,” he says. “By using occupancy data, we may be able to reduce labor and use of cleaning chemicals.”

Employee installing a free charging station

Phase III

The third phase of the master plan covers instruction and engagement. Projects will include the expansion of learning opportunities as well as enhanced communication with students, employees and the community, intended to create a deeper understanding of sustainability and greater awareness of TCC’s efforts.

A recent Collegewide survey revealed an opportunity to more closely align course offerings and even learning objectives with TCC’s commitment to environmental stewardship. “We want to fill that gap,” says Williams. To do so, the College may consider expanding the availability of classes that train students for careers related to sustainability and the environment—whether that’s for a program already taught, such as biology, water resources technician studies and renewable energy technology, or developing programs that reflect new green careers. The College also will explore the value and viability of integrating certain sustainability knowledge and information in other, more tangential fields of study.

The sustainability survey also led to the engagement portion of this phase. “We’ve made measurable progress that the College can be proud of and are building a strong plan for the future of sustainability at TCC,” Williams notes. “It’s important to get the word out about that.”

This phase will focus on supporting student- and employee-led green projects and initiatives happening at the various TCC campuses. “It’s terrific that our students, faculty and staff are getting involved, and we intend to support those grass-roots efforts at all campuses and facilities,” Williams states. “This is about connecting the dots on a District level.”

Campus-Level Impact

Students and employees who have devoted their time to sustainability programs are eager to collaborate with their counterparts on other campuses. “Coordinating our work will allow us to bring new ideas to Southeast Campus, and we can share what we’re doing,” says Laurie Ertle, an assistant professor of biology at TCC Southeast and chair of the campus’ sustainability committee.

Formed in 2014, the committee consists primarily of Southeast staff and faculty from various departments and disciplines. Meeting multiple times a semester, members devise ways to support current campus sustainability initiatives while planning future projects. “We want to expand our work,” Ertle states, “and help the people on our campus get involved, even in simple ways.”

After learning some people weren’t sure what kinds of items were able to be recycled on campus, the sustainability committee created and shared a short, funny video to address the questions. “Drama students volunteered to star in the video and our campus president, Dr. [Bill] Coppola, even made his debut,” says Ertle. She and other committee members are now putting together an informational resource to indicate community locations where people can dispose of certain items such as toner cartridges and pharmaceutical drugs, so they don’t contaminate the water system and cause pollution.

students planting a magnolia tree

TCC Southeast’s sustainability committee also supports an on-campus community garden. The garden is divided into plots that student clubs, academic departments and even individuals can rent to grow food for their own consumption or to donate to those without dependable access to fresh fruits and vegetables. In addition, there is an aquaponics system that cultivates water-based plants and provides a place to raise aquatic animals such as fish, crayfish and prawns. The campus is an affiliate of Bee Campus USA, so the committee also ensures the presence of pollinator-friendly plans and raises awareness of the importance of bees to the ecosystem.

Dozens of TCC Southeast students also play a role in sustainability on campus and in Tarrant County through the new Environmental Club, established in fall 2021. “I’ve always been interested in the environment, so that’s why I joined,” says Jason Rodriguez, a freshman studying information technology. “It’s been great to make friends and connect with people who share that interest.”

One of the club’s ongoing projects is helping the sustainability committee maintain the garden and weed it. It’s been a big job lately, according to Celeste Ortega-Rodriguez, a TCC Southeast biology instructor, sustainability committee member and advisor to the Environmental Club. “In the early part of the pandemic, everything was online, so no one was really on campus to tend to the garden,” Ortega-Rodriguez points out. “It was in disrepair, but we were excited to tackle the challenge of cleaning it up.”

field of wildflowersThe fresh produce grown by the club is given to the on-campus food pantry. Club members have collected gently used clothes to donate, and they are planning an Arbor Day event that will include selling unneeded geodes provided by the Geology Department—in both cases, ensuring those items can be reused and not just thrown away. Members also volunteer in the community; they helped at the Botanical Research Institute of Texas this spring. “We’re always looking for more projects,” says Rodriguez.

The commitment of the club’s members to bettering the world around them inspires advisor Ortega-Rodriguez. “I’m really proud of them, and I know they’ll continue to have a positive impact on the environment after they graduate,” she smiles. “The students’ enthusiasm fuels me to do more too.”

Club members appreciate the Collegewide commitment to better environmental practices. “Taking care of the Earth is an important value,” says Rodriguez. “It’s great to see so many people come together to support that.”

Unfinished Business

Even as TCC works to complete the master plan document, it won’t ever truly be finished, Williams says. “The plan will morph over time. We have to ensure it continues to line up with the College’s overall strategic objectives. Technology and scientific knowledge will advance, and that could change our plan and how we accomplish the goals.”

Still, the commitment to sustainability will remain. “Caring for our environment is important, and so is being a good steward to taxpayer dollars,” observes Lutton. “Millions of dollars can be saved with the right systems, modern systems that conserve resources and save time and manpower.”

TCC’s sustainability experts know that it is relatively easy to put in place physical projects such as updated heating and cooling equipment. The bigger cultural shift—getting more and more people to understand the profound importance of sustainability and participate in green initiatives—will no doubt take more time. Step by step and day by day, though, progress is happening.

“Even small, individual contributions make an impact,” emphases Rodriguez, the student who belongs to TCC Southeast’s Environmental Club. “And when you share what you’re doing, talk about it with others, the cause just gets bigger. And that’s how we’ll really change things.”

Learn more about sustainability initiatives at TCC Southeast.