BU Geneva Program Lives Sustainably, Like the Locals

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BU participants in the Geneva study abroad program, adopt sustainable habits common in Switzerland while spending a semester away from Boston.


By Carla Rachman

This year is the tenth anniversary of Boston University’s Study Abroad program in Geneva, Switzerland. Four- and six-month programs focus on international relations/law, public health, and physics. All students that stay for a full semester have a mix of classes and practica, either working on a research project at the CERN Laboratory, or an internship in one of the Geneva-based international organizations. All tracks touch on issues of sustainability, whether from the legal persepctive (the shared use of natural resources), health (environmental factors in disease), or scientific (clean energy), and many student interns work in environmental agencies.

As a small country with no natural resources, Switzerland is more vulnerable to environmental shifts than the US. Winter sports are part of national culture, as well as a pillar of the economy, and climate change is having a devastating effect on glaciers and snow coverage in the high mountains.  This has had a real impact on environmental policies. Fuel costs are much higher, and houses and cars are smaller and more fuel-efficient. Most workers use public transportation to get to work, and most children walk to school. There are far fewer cars in the city centre – driving is actively discouraged to cut pollution. Buses and trams run on green energy. All major roads are required to have cycle paths, and electric bikes are popular, for those steep Swiss hills and mountains. Recycling and sorting domestic waste is mandatory and all non-recyclable materials are burned, rather than buried as landfill. Plastic bags for groceries are increasingly rare and some major supermarkets don’t provide them, so it is normal to bring your own. Swiss energy consumption per head is less than half of that in the US.

“The view of Lake Geneva and the stately Alps that surround it constantly inspires the people of Geneva to keep sustainability in mind. My peers and I all live together at the BU Geneva residence and collectively strive to be conscientious about reducing, reusing and recycling everyday. At first, cultural differences like separating PET plastic from the rest, seeing people walk, bike or roller blade to work every day and being able to drink clean water from nearly any fountain seemed unusual, but now these sustainable practices feel like second nature,” said resident Lindsey Chew.

“Our first class in ‘Principles of International Health’ was a reflection on public health in Geneva. We noted many positive aspects of the natural and built environment like efficient and clean energy-fueled public transportation, effective recycling protocol, monetary charge for grocery bags, municipal compost system, ample green space and more. Although there is always room for growth, Geneva has made sustainable action a priority.”

The BU Geneva student body is keenly aware of the need to conserve energy, and in the Geneva residence, staff and students have adopted sustainability@BU’s Ten Sustainable Actions and adapted them to local circumstances. Staff and students recycle paper, glass, PET (polyethelene plastics), and aluminium by providing containers on every floor of our residence for easy collection and disposal. An energy audit was done by the city, which resulted in the installation of a high efficiency boiler and plans to add insulation to the building to avoid heat loss. Motion-sensitive lights have been installed in common areas in the dorm to avoid waste, and all fixtures are being changing all lights to LED.

Staff have put the 10 actions in every welcome pack and ask all students to help conserve energy by switching off appliances when not in use, turning off their lights when they leave the room, and taking short showers. By following these principles, students are helping to conserve the planet.  They are also living like the locals, and following the example set by the US Mission in Geneva, home to many multilateral diplomatic negotiations. The greenest US government building, the Mission, actually generates enough solar energy to power itself and sell some back to the national energy grid in Switzerland. Upon visits to the Mission, State Department officials always stress the importance of small steps taken by individuals and the need to take common responsibility for our shared resources. Here in Geneva, students can put theory and practice together to get a fuller understanding of the role each one of us can play in these vital efforts to assure a healthy future for all of us.

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