With campus virtually abandoned during fall and winter breaks, a gang of students crept into dozens of deserted dorm rooms. They noted whether windows were open and made a list of all the electronics in the room. Unplugging appliances and shutting off lights, they fled the scene.

A rash of breaking-and-entering incidents? No, these students (accompanied by building-services employees, who unlocked the doors) were working for the “Pull-the-Plug” campaign, keeping tabs on energy usage. Introduced by Students United for a Responsible Global Environment (SURGE) and the conservation group Greening Princeton, this project was the latest weapon in Princeton’s campaign for sustainability.

The “College Sustainability Report Card,” released in January by the Sustainable Endowments Institute, placed Princeton’s eco-friendly use of resources in the top third of the 100 wealthiest universities in the United States and Canada. The report lauded the University for hiring a full-time sustainability manager, Shana Weber, and for creating energy-conscious guidelines for new buildings on campus. It criticized a lack of transparency in investments by the University. What the report didn’t mention, though, are the efforts by students to make the verdant campus even greener.

Sitting outside Frist Campus Center last month, in prime viewing territory for students on the way to class and pre-frosh hopefuls on Orange Key tours, was a massive pile of cardboard boxes and plastic bags, all topped by a giant tent. The display represented the volume of recyclable waste that is thrown out every day, explained Mark Smith ’09, a coordinator of Princeton’s entry into Recyclemania, a contest among 201 U.S. colleges to see which could collect the largest amount of recyclables over a 10-week period.

Princeton finished 22nd overall with a 30.2 percent cumulative recyling rate and fifth in the category of food-service waste. This was the second year Princeton took part in the competition, and Smith said he noticed “considerably greater awareness” this year. “Recycling is a really tangible way for people to make a difference,” he said.

Among the backers of Princeton’s Recyclemania entry is Greening Princeton, one of the University’s most active environmentalist groups. Aside from single-shot projects like the recycling contest, the group focuses on long-term initiatives. Its success, said former group president Kathryn Andersen ’08, “speaks to the cohesiveness of Princeton University as a whole, [in terms of] how approachable people in facilities or building services or dining services are.” 

As part of an ongoing effort to improve food sustainability on campus, the group recently succeeded in getting dining services to offer hamburgers from grass-fed cows once a week in all residential dining halls. Greening Princeton also has introduced organic chicken and seafood into the dining halls, and is exploring more vegan options as well as local organic food.

Eventually, some of those environmentally friendly foodstuffs may sprout among the collegiate gothic buildings. Greening Princeton and the Office of Sustainability are working to establish an organic garden at Forbes College. Once the effort is in full swing, said Ruthie Schwab ’09, who is leading the project, the crop schedules will give rise to new student activities during the year, such as make-your-own-pesto nights, harvest dinners, and cooking demonstrations.

In addition to nurturing edible flowers, peas, beets, and the like, the project aims to “cultivate interest in students about the many issues surrounding our food system and sustainable agriculture,” said Schwab. “The garden is meant to provide a fun hands-on way of reaching students who are not necessarily concerned about sustainability.”

While pilot organic gardens grow under lamps in Forbes and in the Lewis Thomas Greenhouse, students working for the “Cool Bulb Initiative,” sponsored by the Princeton Prospect Foundation together with Greening Princeton, set out to install compact fluorescent lightbulbs in the eating clubs. “The PPF agreed to fund $500 of lightbulbs for each club to get started,” said Greening Princeton co-president Kelsey Stallings ’09. Members of the group delivered the bulbs to the clubs April 16 in conjunction with a number of Earth Week events, including an environmental fair in Frist.

Weber, the sustainability manager, said she hopes to better communicate — especially to alumni — “the cutting-edge energy conservation programs existing on campus, and the growing number of truly laudable sustainability programs.”

Some students choose to unite environmentalism with their studies inside the classroom. Last fall, students taking “Toward an Ethical Greenhouse Gas Emissions Trajectory for Princeton University,” the first student-initiated course offered through the environmental studies program, researched ways to reduce CO2 emissions on campus. Among their suggestions: installing more energy-efficient windows and using geothermal heat on campus.

The research is being reviewed by a Woodrow Wilson School task force, taught by associate professor Denise Mauzerall, that is developing policy recommendations for how Princeton can reduce its emissions of carbon dioxide. “President Tilghman has said that she will be receptive to our findings,” Mauzerall said. “We’re delighted.”

Mauzerall is excited about the student activism she has seen. “They’re passionate about addressing climate change and they’re passionate about Princeton. They want to see Princeton in a leadership position reducing greenhouse-gas emissions,” she said. “And they’re very optimistic.”