Five questions for the Live Green leader

Director of sustainability Merry Rankin in her office

Director of sustainability Merry Rankin and the initiative she leads passed the decade marker in January. Photo by Christopher Gannon.

The basics

Name: Merry Rankin
Position: Director of sustainability (since July 2010, 25% of her time has been contracted to the city of Ames to assist with its initiatives)
Time at Iowa State: 10.5 years
Education: B.S. in business, M.S. in wildlife biology, both from Iowa State
Staff: Up to seven student interns at a time; five at Iowa State, two at the city

As a staff of one, how have you learned to have influence or impact?
I think things get done and stay done and are embraced and impactful at a community level, not by someone pushing through an agenda. I try to support goals rather than institute mandates. The challenge when you say "Do good things" is people do the things they think make a difference. You get this incredibly impressive scatter plot with no tangent line on it. One of the things in the back of my head for all of these 10 years has been "How do we get the tangent line in place?"

We are in the process of establishing guiding principles, procedures and best management practices as a reference tool everyone could use. This plan would be used by campus units and also shared with vendors and contractors. The plan is based in STARS (Sustainable Tracking, Assessment and Rating System, sponsored by the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education).

Why STARS for Iowa State?
My interest in it (initially in 2012) was because we had no guiding framework for campus sustainability. STARS provided a benchmarking framework, from a third party that was well-vetted, so we could evaluate ourselves and highlight areas where we could put more effort. Initially, I used it just to cast light on what colleges and universities were doing and how we stack up. I also used it to look for opportunities that make good sense for Iowa State. The more we worked through the instrument, we realized we could go after certification.
Editor's note: Iowa State has twice received a STARS gold rating, 2013 and 2016, and will seek a third this fall.

Do you see your job as more about operations or education?
Some years, big policy-making components just weren't in the picture, so I'd look at areas where I could have an impact. And some years, that was in providing empowering experiences and opportunities for students. I now have a team of student interns. That's allowed us to grow our reach in student education that shapes their worldview when they leave Iowa State -- something as simple as when you go home at night, what types of decisions do you make? As a university, we have a responsibility to be a role model for the things we're asking people to do. But we're here to educate students. I think that's my more important role, and that's changed in my 10 years here.

What accomplishments are you most proud of in your first 10 years?
Not to take anything away from accomplishments like our LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) platinum buildings, our rich diversity of local foods, investments in wind and solar energy or STARS certification, my favorite projects hit the breadth and depth of "community."

The first is the solar trash and recycling compactors. They have decreased campus litter and increased awareness. That project hits environmental, social and economic sustainability, and it's transferable to many environments. It shows you can make an impact with a small package in the seemingly mundanest of ways. At the end of the day, it's a trash can.

The Tidy Cat containers (to recycle used laboratory glass) were another example of making a big difference in the smallest of ways. It brought together so many people -- residents, businesses, animal shelters -- who wouldn't have known how they could support sustainability, but they all love cats. Stacks of the containers still show up in my office. An ISU alumna goes through one container a month, and once a year she FedExes 12 containers to the environmental health and safety staff. I love that these projects give people an opportunity to support a sustainable future.

Lots of people "take the job home." If I went to your house, could I tell what line of work you're in?
This was a job of extreme passion when I took it. It's who I am and how I was raised. So, yes, at home we have electronics on power strips we turn off when we're not using them, we have recycling and composting bins and pollinator plantings. I drive a car lacking many bells or whistles for better mileage, and I trip chain to be mindful of my travelprint. I use small amounts of leftover water, from meal prep or even the bottom of the dog dish, to water house plants. We invested in SunSmart Ames. We have lots of little stashes of things I need to take to someone who can use them -- wire hangers back to the dry cleaners, for example. Lately, we've been challenging ourselves to get plastics out of our life and reduce the volume we recycle. Still, there's plenty to do and I'll never stop challenging myself.