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Student Interns Could Be the Key to Sustainability

By Sharon Chen
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Higher ed’s focus on teaching sustainability to students is paying off in big ways. College students who take on internship positions working on environmental issues at corporations have saved companies an estimated $22 million over the past 7 years, working on everything from how to divert landfill waste new recycling policies. One intern at an electroplating facility even wrote a report of pollution prevention practices that the company is still using today, 12 years later.

For interns, the hands-on experience they gain from applying their sustainable education to real world issues is priceless. As one university internship director puts it, “the greatest impact of [these internship programs] is the potential contribution student interns will make as they join the workforce." 

Internship programs like the ones offered by the Environmental Protection Agency are proof that higher ed's sustainability efforts are succeeding. Students are applying their knowledge in real world settings and making huge contributions. By continuing to offer sustainability courses and provide hands-on opportunities for students to learn about climate action, higher ed will do much to ensure that we are solving our climate challenge. 

Interns: A secret weapon to curb corporate pollution

Cyrus Philbrick and Laura Barnes | GreenBiz | January 19, 2016

In 1989, as part of a new program, the Illinois EPA’s Office of Pollution Prevention placed a single student intern at an electroplating facility.

That student wrote a thorough report of pollution prevention (P2) recommendations. In 2004, one of the facility’s managers said that they were still using the report.

"Fifteen years later, they were still working through the list to implement one recommendation at a time," said Richard Reese, director of the IEPA intern program. "That’s remarkable. And it shows some of the long term value of the program."

Although many businesses and organizations want to become more sustainable, they often lack the time and money to implement specific projects. In many states around the country, intern programs are filling this demand by placing engineering and environmental science students at companies to conduct focused research on specific pollution prevention and energy efficiency projects.

As of November, about 44 pollution prevention internship programs exist in states around the country. IEPA currently places about 15 students per year at manufacturing facilities, trade associations, business development centers, government facilities and military installations.

Each intern selected for the program is required to attend a one-week training class, which covers topics such as: net zero waste; energy efficiency (lighting, boilers, HVAC, motors/VFDs and air compressor systems); water conservation; process mapping; and renewable energy. Once on the job, the intern must adhere to a work schedule, follow company policies and regulations, work with other staffers and prepare bi-weekly progress reports.

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