The Nature Conservancy logo. Protecting nature. Preserving life.When was the last time you had the urge to spend your entire summer with 11 other people on a 20-year-old bus? Perhaps when you were in college? For 12 Dartmouth students, spending a summer on The Big Green Bus was a chance of a lifetime. 

For the sixth year in a row, 12 students are traveling the country in a 1989 coach bus that has been converted to run on waste vegetable oil. The bus also features a number of other green features, including solar panels for electricity, bamboo floors and deep cycle batteries to store their solar energy. They are stopping in more than 30 cities across the country to talk to people about sustainability and green living.


I spoke to David Peterson, who was on a stop in Birmingham, Ala., about the bus, changing hearts and minds and the importance of individual action.

Cool Green Science Blog: What actually happens when you pull up to a stop? Are you handing out flyers, just talking to people, or what?

David Peterson: The bus itself acts as a museum on wheels. We clean it up and open it up to the public. We try to use the bus to get people’s attention. It’s big and green, so it gets people interested. The inside has been retrofitted to look like a house. We can tell people a lot of things about sustainability just by showing them around the bus.

Our theme this year is the little things you can do in your life to be more green. We try to not hand anything out because we are promoting less consumption in general, but we do sell T-shirts and have magnets.

Our little things you can do idea is based on an NRDC [National Resources Defense Council] study that found that if every household in America made just seven small changes, we could reduce U.S. carbon pollution by 15 percent. These are really just small actions — like replacing seven lightbulbs with CFLs and giving up red meat two days a week.

We try to get people to sign an Energy Pledge to take these seven actions, and they’ll take a magnet that lists the seven items to act as a constant reminder.

What has been the general response to the bus?

Most of the time if we’re going to a particular place, it’s because the people there are excited that we are coming. We’re preaching to the choir. 75 percent of people are saying “I am so happy that you are doing this.” But what is most exciting is when people have no idea what we are talking about or they disagree with us in some way.

And it’s not that people are ignorant about issues of sustainability – people tend to have really reasonable reasons to disagree. For example, there is an issue with mercury in CFL lightbulbs, and we are essentially telling people to put CFLs in their home. One woman in Savannah, Ga., said she wasn’t going to put them in her home because of this health concern. Then you get a chance to step back and say, the important thing isn’t just CFLs, it’s being innovative and thoughtful in the way you are impacting the environment. You realize that environmental issues are so perverse and confusing, you never really know when you are making a positive impact. But it doesn’t really have to be just about those complex issues, it’s about the little things we can do.

Do you feel like you are telling people things that they don’t already know about?

It’s hard to say. Part of me hopes that we are changing people’s minds. I think every single person on the bus would say they’ve had a few really good conversations where they’ve convinced someone. A lot of people don’t want to change their lives, and won’t until there is an economic or moral incentive to do so.

Have you had a chance to talk to former crew members to compare notes on what people were talking about in past years?

Dartmouth held a five-year reunion the day before we were leaving. All the original members were there and we could talk to them about what was happening. Everyone was really excited about the program. The general feeling among past crew members is that yes, there is the possibility that we are changing minds, but everyone wishes that they could do more.

One of the things that we are trying to tell people to do is to take individual action. We met with senators in D.C. and talked about the American Power Act. We realized that many senators don’t really know what’s going on in the country. They aren’t fighting in the same way we would imagine. That’s when I became convinced that you can’t wait for the policy to change, we have to change our lives and then push the policy.

The most progressive environmental action has always come after a crisis. This is kind of what we need to do now — we need to get up in arms. Then maybe the politicians would be pushed to create legislation.

Do you think the BP oil spill is making people more receptive to these ideas? Are people talking to you about it?

I’ve been surprised about how little people are up in arms, especially about the oil spill. We were on the coast in Florida and we tried to talk to people about it, but it’s surprisingly not on the radar of a lot of people. Just now we are getting closer to the Gulf, so maybe we’ll have more conversations about it starting now. But I’m surprised that we haven’t seen a real movement in general.

What was your moment when you felt like you’d changed someone’s perception?

The same woman in Georgia who said she wouldn’t change her lightbulbs to CFLs, we ended up having a long conversation about the power of individual and that side of environmentalism. We talked for half an hour, and I felt like we connected. Those are the kind of conversations you live for.

There must be a lot of kids who are interested in the bus — what’s different about talking to kids?

With kids it’s kind of a challenge, because you can’t have the deeper conversations. Often it’s just talking about the bus running on vegetable oil and convincing them it’s real. They have a moment of wonder and excitement that a bus running on vegetable oil is even possible – that’s when you can tell them that there are so many wonderful things that are possible.

Did you have to learn a lot about the technical aspects of renewable energy?

There was definitely a learning curve to give a tour of the bus. One of the students is the official mechanic, and he has taught us a lot. It’s not as complex as you think, but it’s really cool. Our A/C, a touchscreen computer, a fridge and other devices all run off of four solar panels on the roof of the bus.

Tell me about refueling the bus. How do you do that?

We just go to diners and restaurants and ask if we can use their waste oil. There is a dumpster out back that is filled with oil and we just put it into our holding tank. Our tank holds about 200 gallons. We’ve only filled up six times so far. The bus gets about 6-8 miles per gallon, which is the same as diesel.

The problem is that it’s getting harder and harder to get waste oil because many restaurants have contracts with companies that also use the oil for producing bio-diesel. But we’ve been calling ahead and enlisting our network to help us out, and so far it hasn’t been an issue. But future tours will definitely have to start thinking about it.

What’s been the hardest part about having 11 roommates?

You just have to accept the fact that you have no privacy. It’s all 12 of us, all the time. There is no escape.

Whenever we live in it, it’s a huge mess, and then whenever we’re pulling up to an event, it’s a frantic five minutes where we are cleaning faster than you can imagine.

What’s going to be your biggest eco-change when you get back to school?

We were thinking, “well, we’re trying to get people to sign Energy Pledge, so why don’t we create our own?” It’s kind of the Energy Pledge on steroids. I’m definitely creating new habits this summer. We’re keeping all of the trash that we make this summer on the bus – it’s forcing us to create much less. We have mugs, water bottles, and meal kits, and that’s what we use to eat all our meals. We also pledge to take less than 5-minute-long showers, which is definitely different than my normal habits. That’s where the lasting impact is going to come for me.


Text by Margaret Southern, Cool Green Science Blog

The Big Green (living) Bus
It's not your typical college road trip. Find out how a dozen students driving around the country on a bus actually helped the environment.