Big Green Bus tour highlights environmental awareness

The Big Green Bus visited the Rio Hotel Wednesday, August 3, 2011. The old Greyhound coach bus has been converted to run on waste vegetable oil and outfitted with solar panels to transport the 13 Dartmouth College students around the country to talk and teach about sustainability.

The Big Green Bus

The Big Green Bus visited the Rio Hotel Wednesday, August 3, 2011. The old Greyhound coach bus has been converted to run on waste vegetable oil and outfitted with solar panels to transport the 13 Dartmouth College students around the country to talk and teach about sustainability. Launch slideshow »

Over the past six weeks, 13 students from Dartmouth College have been driving across the country in a former Greyhound bus, at various times sleeping on the ground, in tents or on benches in the bus.

But tonight, they’re sleeping in style at the Rio.

This isn’t just the story of a summer road trip. It’s a lesson in mechanics, architecture, engineering, politics, business, culture and the environment. Especially the environment.

And in Las Vegas, they have the attention of the largest casino operator in the world.

It’s called the Big Green Bus.

In 2005, a group of 15 friends from Dartmouth — members of the Ultimate Frisbee club, as the story goes — wanted to take a road trip.

But driving across the country is expensive and bad for the environment, so they came up with a grand plan: find an old bus, make some improvements and run it on used vegetable oil, mostly solicited from restaurants that at the time were having a hard time getting rid of the stuff.

It worked, and it was a chance to educate the public about the environment, so a tradition was born.

Four years ago, Dartmouth alumnus Jeff Solomon heard about the program. The vice president and assistant general manager of the Rio made sure the next time the bus came to Las Vegas it got lots of used cooking oil.

Then this year, Caesars Entertainment, owner of the Rio, became one of the main sponsors of the program as part of its Code Green effort.

And so 13 students ages 19 to 24 are in the middle of an 11-week, 12,000-mile tour of the country.

David Garczynski, one of the students traveling on the bus, was in New Zealand for a study abroad program last winter when the group got the sponsorship.

When he got back to the U.S. and first heard Caesars was sponsoring the group, he was surprised there was a even a green casino in Las Vegas. “I didn’t know that was possible,” he said.

So it was even more of a surprise for the first-time Vegas visitor when the group got a tour of all the green efforts at multiple Caesars properties today.

“I did not expect this in Vegas,” he said.

The company sorts all of its garbage to pull out recyclables: about 181,000 pounds of aluminum, 679,000 pounds of plastic and 4.5 million pounds of glass annually, said Jessica Rossman, who oversees contracts and sourcing for the company.

Plus, thousands of pounds of paper are donated to Opportunity Village, office supplies go to the Clark County School District, and 123,000 gallons of cooking oil is recycled here. Nationwide, the company recycles 640,000 gallons of oil.

“I couldn’t believe how entrenched it was,” said fellow traveler Nick Devonshire. “I think a lot of companies just do one or two things for show.”

As a plus, the group got to spend Tuesday and Wednesday nights in rooms at the Rio, a major improvement over the tent they were sleeping in a few days ago.

The students are trying to be as environmentally responsible as possible, including taking short showers, but paying $1.50 for a “cold 5-minute shower … wasn’t in the contract,” Devonshire said with a laugh.

“To be put up in the Rio is like a kid in the candy store. It’s incredible,” he said.

The group gave tours of the bus to employees outside the casino today before going to the Strip, where they parked in front of the Flamingo to bring their green message to the masses.

They will stop at Caesars’ properties in five states by the time their trip is over in September.

The students had just six weeks to convert the donated bus so it would run on the vegetable oil, or “veg.” Plus, they remodeled the inside, adding a bed, kitchen area and small cubbies, which hold all their individual belongings. The old Big Green Bus died on the trip last year.

The bus’ custom 260-gallon oil tank holds enough fuel to travel about 2,000 miles. Four solar panels on the roof power 10 batteries in the cargo area, which power the onboard electronics, including an energy-efficient refrigerator.

The students did most of the work themselves, including the mechanics and engineering. They have to test the oil before pouring it into the tank to make sure the water content is OK.

But watching the vegetable oil flow feels much better than stopping at a gas station where you watch the dollars add up on the pump, Devonshire said. When filling up the bus, “You sit there and think: ‘free and clean, free and clean.’ ”

“After driving around on vegetable oil, I can’t image going back to a regular petroleum car,” he said.

The bus’ major mission is educational. The students love giving tours and explaining in great detail how everything works.

They also have displays and demonstrations to show how people can save money and help the environment and they are profiling successful green projects they see along the way.

A lot of environmental news is focused on the negative, what is wrong in the world, Devonshire said. They’re trying to focus on the positive.

“We highlight all the effective solutions for the environmental problems as opposed to focusing on the negative consequences of inaction,” he said.

Garczynski said his main motivation in signing up for the trip was to have fun and see the country, but he has since realized that it has been a self-improvement experience for his own activities and how they affect the environment.

But he doesn’t want to seem proud.

“I’m just a normal kid having an adventure on the road, showing people what’s possible,” he said.

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