A Model of Sustainability

All Natural: Pepperdine’s soccer field, pictured above, is organically landscaped and maintained. No artificial chemicals, pesticides or herbicides are used; rather than raking them up, fallen leaves and plants are left to decompose naturally on the field. Photo by Judith Brister

“While protecting the environment constitutes a large part of sustainability, it is by no means the full picture,” states Pepperdine University’s Center for Sustainability on its website. The university has implemented sustainable practices beginning as early as 1972.

With an enrollment of nearly 8,000 students on approximately 830 acres, Pepperdine University operates like a small city. Located about 12 miles from Topanga at the foot of Malibu Canyon, the campus faces many of the same ecological problems. 

“Sustainability is a moving target,” Camila Pupparo, Director of the Center for Sustainability, said. “There are always new solutions that become implemented to fix certain problems, but then other problems arise.” 

Those ecological issues include pest control, light pollution, waste management, conservation and irrigation. 

In 2019, Malibu banned the use of rodenticides, as they are linked to the deaths of native predatory animals like hawks and mountain lions, who eat the poisoned rats. Pepperdine eliminated rodenticides in 2014 and installed perches throughout campus as a way of encouraging natural predation by native birds of prey such as hawks and owls. 

China’s trash ban in 2018 also pressured Pepperdine to think more ecologically. 

“What that’s doing is forcing us, in a positive way, to think creatively about what we do with our waste,” Pupparo said. “Whereas I think a lot of our, not just Pepperdine, but [nationwide] practices were focusing on recycling, recycling, recycling, I think we need to move more towards alternative waste-diversion methods.”

Pepperdine still actively recycles through their trash hauler, Waste Management, but it’s unclear where the recycling ends up. 

“They don’t give us those details,” Pupparo said. “It’s basically propelling us to shift our mindset from recycling to reduction, waste reduction.”

Pepperdine has already been recycling water since 1972. “[The University] was constructed with this system in mind,” Pupparo said.

Recycled water is wastewater that has been chemically treated and repurposed as non-potable water for irrigation. The two lakes located on Alumni Park hold this treated wastewater that is then distributed throughout campus as needed. The lakes also serve a purpose within a greater hydrogeological monitoring project to reduce runoff into the surrounding hills. 

That being said, not all 830 acres of the Malibu campus need irrigation; 500 acres are reserved for conservation to help maintain the natural landscape of the Santa Monica Mountains, Pupparo said. Everything that is not in the immediate developed campus is in its natural state. 

Fresh Enough: Pepperdine’s reclaimed water sits in two ponds on Alumni Park awaiting distribution. Photo by Judith Brister

Pepperdine also measures groundwater and soil moisture to avoid over-or under-irrigating. “Ninety percent of our campus irrigation is using that recycled water, which would otherwise require fresh water, so it saves billions of gallons of clean, fresh water per year.”

In terms of light pollution, which has become an ever-increasing issue in Los Angeles County, Pepperdine has steadily replaced many of their street lights, which are traditional “globe” lights, with downward facing LED lights, known to contribute less to light pollution. The LED lights are phased in during new construction projects around campus.  

“These LED lights use about half the energy of the previous ones and they last six times as long,” Pupparo said, “so it’s just kind of a win-win.”

Students are also making efforts toward a more sustainable community. Grace Palmer, a Pepperdine senior and president of the Pepperdine Food Recovery Network, strives to reduce food waste on campus by recovering food from catered events and redistributing it to homeless people, as well as to food-insecure students. Palmer works with Pepperdine’s food provider, Sodexo, to accomplish this goal. 

“The Sodexo staff has become much more accommodating and willing to work with us over my four years,” Palmer said. “When we first started, they were very resistant to having us recover catered food, and now, at this point, they’re excited about having us recover from the cafeteria.”

Sodexo’s forty-year contract expires this year and it is unclear whether or not Pepperdine will renew it or turn to a new provider.

Palmer, however, also recovers food from the Malibu community.

“We’ve actually just started recovering from Coffee Bean and Cafe Luxe,” she said. “The main issue right now is getting enough volunteers to do it, but we’re really excited about the idea of expanding to restaurants and other things in Malibu because they have lots of food waste as well.”

Anyone with an event or restaurant who wishes to have food recovered can contact the Food Recovery Network at pepperdinefrn@gmail.com

Looking forward, Pupparo seeks to focus on sustainability education, waste diversion and reduction, as well as organic landscaping, a means of landscaping that avoids the use of artificial chemicals, pesticides and herbicides, as well as allowing fallen leaves and plants to decompose naturally as opposed to raking them up and throwing them away or recycling them through Waste Management’s green waste.

“Organic landscaping programs take a little bit of work, but once you get them established, they’re kind of self-maintaining,” Pupparo said.


By Judith Brister


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