Craig Benson: Bridging sustainability science and solutions

January 23, 2014

Craig Benson has always been passionate about environmental issues and he’s built his career on taking action and making a difference. A faculty affiliate of the Nelson Institute and professor of geological engineering and civil and environmental engineering, Benson directs research and education for UW-Madison’s Office of Sustainability.

His mission is to integrate campus operations and sustainability initiatives into coursework and research across the university, using as case studies efforts to reduce waste, conserve energy, cut carbon emissions or offer more locally produced foods.

Benson says his professional sustainability goals include physical improvements in infrastructure and industry through his research, as well as advancing students toward a sustainability ethos through his teaching.

What is the focus of your current research?

Benson: My research throughout my career has been working on the interface between the built world and the natural world. I work on environmental protection and conservation with a sustainability thread that goes through it. It's really about how to use our resources properly and how to manage our society in a way that allows others to have the same opportunities we have.

My work historically has been in looking at the material cycle. One of the biggest things in sustainability is how to minimize waste and I've spent my whole career managing waste streams for society. We try to minimize and repurpose waste and find ways to reuse things that are normally put in a landfill. This saves energy, reduces emissions and is more cognizant of our natural resources.

What attracted you to a profession in sustainability?

My research...is really
about how to use our
resources properly and
how to manage our society
in a way that allows others
to have the same
opportunities we have.

Benson: I grew up in two different locations, not living a very sustainable lifestyle. We had two homes as a family and we went between them. One was in the city in a very industrialized area in eastern Pennsylvania. The other home was in the mountains of Pennsylvania with stunning beauty.  

It was clear to me how juxtaposed these very different environments were. I felt we needed a way of separating them, and that's what drove me into this field. I wanted to be somebody at that interface that was going to allow our industrial world to be successful but also protect our natural world. It was something infused in me from my childhood. 

When I was in my 20s, things were changing a lot, and in the 1980s, environmental business in the United States was changing very rapidly. The whole thing was taking off and I jumped into it. There was a lot of growth and it fit into my passions as a person.

It's fun when you feel like you're doing something important for people. It's about quality of life and health, not only for people but for the whole ecosystem. What a great opportunity to provide that kind of service to society.

What do you think your background and approach bring to UW-Madison?

Benson: I'm very pragmatic. I'm an engineer, so I'm fundamental in my science but practical in my solutions. One of the things I think my research community brings is the ability to blend basic science with application.

Being able to bridge novel development of new ideas to deployment at full-scale in industrial practice is one of the things that I do, and a number of us here on campus do, really well.

How do you think your work at UW-Madison can be extended beyond the campus?

Benson: Both in my role in sustainability and in my scholarly role, the things that we do here on campus are just a microcosm of what we can do in the broader world. Things we try out here, we can scale to other industries and institutions.

One of the things that we're trying to accomplish through the development of new curricula is building a sustainability ethos in our students. This way they are not just in practice to make money; they are building other constraints in the way they go about their professional and personal lives. We want our students to think more broadly about how they affect the world around them. 

Also, our research in the sustainable management of mine wastes, radioactive management, and repurposing of high volume industrial waste streams for sustainable infrastructure is used globally.

The Office of Sustainability is now a little over two years old. In the time you've spent as the co-director, what would you consider to be the office's biggest accomplishment? What are you most excited to continue working on?

Benson: I think there's three parts to that. One of our biggest accomplishments is developing a curriculum that is for everybody but can be customized into different disciplines. It gets back to the idea of creating students who build a sustainability ethos into their thinking. 

"Your education sets
you free, and one of
the greatest gifts you
can give somebody is
the ability to think
critically on their own."

The other thing I'm really proud of is we've done a lot to stimulate and facilitate sustainability research and curriculum development across campus. For instance, our Sustainability Innovation in Research and Education (SIRE) program has really been successful. It helps develop courses and provides new grants for faculty and students to explore ideas in sustainability that they can then scale up into larger-scale initiatives.

Our internship program has also been great. We have about 15 students working with us who are very much involved in hands-on experiential learning in the Office of Sustainability.

What has been the most rewarding part of your work?

Benson: The most rewarding part of my work on campus is developing the intellectual capacity of young people.  We create new classes, we do research, we do all kinds of science stuff, but it's all about people – that's where the value is.

In the end, the university is about pushing the frontiers of knowledge and helping young people develop their intellectual capacity.  It's hard to measure, but it's really important. Your education sets you free, and one of the greatest gifts you can give somebody is the ability to think critically on their own. We develop critical thinkers here and it makes society better.

Elise Bayer is a junior majoring in journalism and environmental studies.