All about the ‘footprint’

by Zhi Xiong – The Daily Iowan

March 9, 2007

A footprint usually depends on the size of the foot, but the average environmental footprint of a typical American is around 24 acres. While average American consumption is staggeringly high, some niches are doing a better job of reducing environmental and carbon footprints – and they’re not tree-huggers.

From “The Compact” – a movement toward an environmentally friendly lifestyle – to the UI’s methods of energy conservation, Iowa City and the UI community have become more conscious about environmental input and output.

The Compact is a movement that began in 2005, and it has recently gained popularity in Iowa. Its lifestyle focuses on buying fewer material things in order to reduce clutter in one’s life and decrease one’s environmental footprint.

“It depends on how much pollution, energy, and trash you produce,” said Stephen Hendrix, a UI biology professor and the academic coordinator of environmental sciences. “Or how big your SUV is, in the case of Al Gore.”

Hendrix said an environmental footprint is a fairly new term that measures the amount of natural resources an individual, a company, or a nation consumes. According to the Ecological Footprint Campaign, 24 acres of Earth, with water, land, and other natural resources, is required to sustain the lifestyle of an average American. In comparison, worldwide averages come out to only 4.5 acres per person.

The average UI undergraduate student, who lives in an apartment and walks to class, has a surprisingly small environmental impact, said Craig Just, UI associate research scientist in civil and environmental engineering.

“Students do pretty well, actually,” said Just, who teaches students about sustainable systems. “The university also has a commitment to purchase and generate renewable energy.”

Though UI students tend to take public transportation and travel less in general, the university’s initiatives are necessary to sustain the considerable cost for heating and cooling, Just said. Some UI energy-conserving methods include burning oat hulls from Quaker Oats in Cedar Rapids and recycling vegetable oil to turn into biodiesel, among others.

Dawn O’Brien, a publisher for Sage Publishing in Coralville who started a local webpage of The Compact in February, has embraced a green lifestyle – she and her family switched to using biodegradable laundry detergent and dish soap, turning down the thermostat, and using compact fluorescent lightbulbs.

The mother of four, she was inspired by Al Gore’s Oscar-winning documentary, An Inconvenient Truth, and she said the important thing is to act with more “intentionality” rather than mindless consumption.

Her site, which mostly draws bloggers from California, allows writers of “different shades of green” to discuss topics ranging from the environmental effect of iPods versus CDs to the environmental impact of the number of tampons used at women’s shelters.

“When you think several generations ahead, we’ve done a lot,” O’Brien said. “We can’t stop, but we’re so ingrained that we don’t recognize the consequences of our actions.”

E-mail DI reporter Zhi Xiong at:



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