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Thanks to volunteer student help, student fees and environmental grants, Southern Oregon University has built its own recycling center — a feat that boosted it to 38th in the nation on the Sierra Club's new Cool Schools list.

The recycling center — with bins across the campus — was built in 10 days for $60,000 behind SOU's campus security building on Wightman Street and will open Sept. 26, with a grand opening in October.

It will be used for commingled waste, to drain potentially toxic liquids, wash waste when necessary and funnel all glass, cardboard, metal and hard plastic to Recology Ashland Sanitary Service.

SOU jumped 61 places, from No. 99 last year to No. 38 this year, in a ranking published in Sierra Magazine. Four universities in Oregon made the list of 118 schools, including Lewis & Clark College, No. 37; Oregon State University, No. 43; and the University of Oregon, No. 50.

The Sierra Club bases its rankings on energy supply, efficiency, food, academics, purchasing, transportation, waste management, administration, financial investments and "other initiatives," with each category worth up to 10 points, for a possible total of 100. SOU's score was 63.3, according to the Sierra Club website.

The goal of the system is to make SOU waste-free within five years and, in accordance with SOU President Mary Cullinan's vision, to have a zero-carbon footprint by 2050, said environmental science senior Misty Munoz.

Seventy percent of SOU's waste can be recycled, Munoz said, at a savings of $49,000 annually.

The SOU system is modeled on the University of Oregon's pioneering efforts a decade ago and was carried out as a capstone project by Munoz and students Benji Nagel, Christina Becker and Charlie Chao, all now graduated.

Fashioned in an existing wood frame tool shed, the center used $23,000 from the Bonneville Environmental Foundation. Another $23,544 came from a student fee fund, which has been fattened recently by increased enrollment, Munoz said.

The Ted Turner Foundation also gave $5,000, the SOU general fund provided $5,000 and some $6,000 was donated in in-kind services from local sources, including New Horizon Woodworks, Ace Hardware, Ashland Lumber, Ashland Food Cooperative, Grilla Bites, Lowe's Home Improvement and Home Depot.

(Correction: The list of donors has been updated to remove an error and to include additional businesses involved.)

A carpenter from Master Recyclers oversaw construction. The students were mentored by Risa Buck of Recology and Paige Prewett of Jackson County SmartWorks, a conservation-recycling organization.

"The system helps educate students," said Munoz. "It's easy to use and understand. It gives them a way to recycle and it's comprehensive. It turns student dollars from trash dollars into sustainable dollars and goes to green jobs."

To read the Sierra Club's online report, see www.sierraclub.org/sierra/201109/coolschools/default.aspx.

John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Email him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.

Above: As part of her capstone project, Southern Oregon University's Misty Munoz helped put together a recycling center for the campus. The $60,000 center helped propel SOU to No. 38 in the nation on the Sierra Club's Cool Schools list. Mail Tribune / Jamie Lusch - Jamie Lusch