They’ve Got the Power

NMH “Ecoleaders” Prepare to Educate the Community

August 30, 2019—All it took was a quick whiff from a couple of mason jars for Grier Calagione ’20 to understand why NMH uses recycled vegetable oil to heat its campus. 

She’s an Ecoleader — one of the students charged with educating the school community about environmental issues. Part of the group’s training before school began was a tour of the school’s power plant, where utilities operator Reggie Neff showed them a sample of what NMH uses to produce heat and hot water on campus. It’s a biofuel made from soy and canola oils collected from restaurant kitchens around New England and then refined for use. 

Calagione sniffed the liquid and immediately recognized the familiar scent of everyday cooking oil. Next, Neff gave her a quick whiff of No. 6 oil, a thick, sticky — and stinky — petroleum product that the school used to use. Grimacing, Calagione quickly pulled her head away, saying it was “a mix of asphalt and diesel.”

“No. 6 is actually pretty close to asphalt,” Neff said. “We use vegetable oil because it’s not only a renewable resource with no carbon emissions, it’s also cheaper and easier to use.” Plus, he said, holding up the jar of vegetable oil, “if this one spills, it’s not an environmental emergency.”

Becca Malloy, director of sustainability and a science teacher at NMH, organized the tour to help the Ecoleaders understand more about resource consumption in their community and how it’s affected by people’s behavioral choices. 

“Now you know that any time you turn on the shower in the dorm and it’s hot, it’s coming from the power plant,” Malloy said. “That’s one of your challenges as Ecoleaders, to start to think about how you’re going to educate people.” 

NMH’s switch from No. 6 fuel oil to vegetable oil is one of its efforts to improve its sustainability. Others include net-zero electricity use; a ban on single-use water bottles; and a campus farm that’s pesticide-free and largely powered by solar panels.

Annika Lotze ’21 became an Ecoleader because she has a background in farming. “My sister has horses, and I’ve worked on crops and with animals, like cows and chickens,” she said. “I really care about the environment because I can see the impact we can have.”

Jack Merrill ’22 worked at his middle school to educate people about good composting habits in the dining hall and has been interested in sustainability ever since. “We cut in half the amount of food we were throwing in the trash instead of composting it,” he said. “I’m motivated to do more of that.”

Alex Poplawski ’21 said he and his peers worry about the environmental “tipping point,” but is hopeful that his efforts as an Ecoleader will have a positive impact at NMH. “People need to wake up and realize what needs to be done,” he said. “We just have to keep working on it.”