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Profile: Cynthia Klein-Banai, campus advocate for sustainability

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Cynthia Klein-Banai
Cynthia Klein-Banai: “There may be people who want to donate money for renewable energy.”

Photo: Al DiFranco

She camps in the Adirondacks. She’s converting part of her lawn to wildflowers. She has two sizeable composters in her backyard and worms in the basement.

All of which fits just fine with Cynthia Klein-Banai’s new job as interim associate chancellor for sustainability.

Appointed by interim chancellor Eric Gislason, subject to approval of the Board of Trustees, she would be the first to hold the position. Her mission is to find ways to go about UIC’s business while having minimal effect on the environment.

Establishing a campus sustainability office was among the recommendations of a chancellor’s task force on sustainability, established last year by former chancellor Sylvia Manning.

Klein-Banai’s work will be in line with a document signed by Manning last fall, a challenge by the American College and University Climate Commission to become “climate-neutral.”

“There are campuses going in that direction,” Klein-Banai said.

“They may have wind farms, solar [power] or purchase offsets for whatever greenhouse gas emissions they have.”

Some of those campuses are in Pennsylvania, which has mandated that 18 percent of the electricity sold in the state come from renewable resources by 2020.

Students pay a fee at some universities to support “green” projects.

“Typically it’s a few dollars a semester,” Klein-Banai said. “I hope to have discussions with student groups here to see if there is interest in doing that.”

She has applied for a $55,456 matching grant from the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity to expand UIC’s recycling program.

This would add bottles and cans to the paper being collected at three buildings — the School of Public Health and Psychiatric Institute, the Disability Health and Social Policy Building and the Science and Engineering Office Building.

She plans to set up a campuswide committee that will work to insert sustainability concerns into many areas of campus life.

Fundraising, for example. “There may be people who want to donate money for renewable energy,” she said.

Sustainability can be part of the curriculum in such disciplines as engineering, economics and English. Students could read Tim Flannery’s The Weather Makers, a call to action for combating global warming.

Klein-Banai has been asked to tell students in an English class how to reduce their ecological footprints by consuming less gas and electricity, walking and bicycling more and changing their diets.

“Meat requires many more acres of corn to feed cattle than if you were eating the corn yourself,” she noted. “How far the food is transported also matters. You can get fruit from New Zealand.”

As part of a greenhouse gas inventory, she is completing a transportation survey on how people get to and around campus.

Klein-Banai, who recently was named a National Wildlife Fund Ecology Fellow for 2008, grew up in Urbana. She has a bachelor’s degree in biology from Washington University in St. Louis and a master’s in environmental science from Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

While in Israel she worked for the nation’s ministry of health and for biotech and chemical manufacturing companies. She was also an assistant conference organizer, “so I can type in Hebrew and English.”

Returning to the Urbana-Champaign campus, she worked in pollution prevention and hazardous waste management.

After six years she moved to UIC, where she’s been assistant director for chemical safety in the Environmental Health and Safety Office since 2000.

She’s also pursuing a doctorate in environmental and health sciences at UIC.

Klein-Banai lives in Oak Park with her husband, Effie (for Efraim), a senior financial analyst for U.S. Food Service, a restaurant supplier. They have three daughters, Alona, 23, a grad student in plant conservation and biology at Northwestern University, Rona, 21, who is studying chemical engineering at Cornell University, and Sara, 12.

Klein-Banai does vegetable and flower gardening, “which I’m trying to do in a more ‘green’ fashion,” she said. “And I’m trying to turn some of my grass into wildflowers.”

She has two “huge” composters outside; more composting goes on in the basement, with earthworms doing the work.

With her family she enjoys watching videos and playing games like Bananagrams, a form of speed Scrabble.

Last summer they camped four days and nights in the Adirondack Mountains.

“We went canoeing and it was quite windy — I was afraid we were going to capsize,” Klein-Banai said.

“I don’t think all five of us had camped more than one night for many years.”

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