You are here


Sustainability Trends on Campus

Turning off lights in an empty room, changing to compact fluorescent bulbs, and implementing recycling programs might be the low-hanging fruit of reducing a campus' carbon footprint, but they are also very effective steps. Read on to learn ways some campuses are turning a deeper shade of green by taking commonsense measures to a higher level.
University Business, Jun 2010
Environmental living and learning community students encourage their classmates to switch to environmentally-friendly light bulbs.

Students at the University of Albany (N.Y.) are being challenged to calculate their carbon footprint and then make strides to reduce it. This fall will be the third year UAlbany is providing two living and learning communities--one for freshmen and one for upperclassmen--focusing on the environment. They emphasize energy in the fall and recycling and waste reduction in the spring.

Efforts include making residents aware of their energy use and how to reduce it. The 100 upperclassmen in the community reside in individually metered apartments. "We send them fake energy bills to give them an awareness of what they should be prepared to spend upon graduating," says Mary Ellen Mallia, environmental sustainability director. Students who used the least amount of energy received a gift certificate to the local mall: $30 for first place, $20 for second, and $10 for third.

Students living in the community are expected to sign an agreement committing themselves to living a green lifestyle and pledge to participate in campus-wide programs. They can also opt to volunteer on councils that collaborate with faculty and staff to plan awareness events. Past initiatives include changing all washers to cold water, providing students with information about local food, and organizing a sustainability fair.

Solar panels that formerly sat atop the White House in Washington make an appropriate backdrop for 2009 graduates at Unity College, which has made commencement greener.

For an environmental school such as Unity College (Maine), commencement is an opportunity to "showcase a commitment to sustainability," says Jesse Pyles, Unity's sustainability coordinator. Boasting the greenest commencement in the school's history, and possibly the United States, Unity marked this year by sending out e-invites, providing 75 percent of food from local farmers, giving only one program to each family, printing diplomas on 100 percent post-consumer recycled paper, and using graduation gowns made from recycled bottles.

"We've tried to make commencement just one snapshot of our efforts towards sustainability," says Kate Grenier, alumni relations and events planner. Students graduating were also asked to sign a pledge committing themselves to live environmentally friendly lifestyles.

Because Unity has only 560 undergraduate students, they are able to test run sustainable practices larger universities might later adopt.

"We're small and flexible and able to try new ideas to see how they work on our scale," says Mark Tardif, associate director of college communications. "And then you put them out eventually on the larger scale. You have to be committed to what you want to achieve in being green, not just going through the motions."

Other colleges and universities, such as Quinnipiac University (Conn.), are jumping on the green commencement bandwagon with some help from academic apparel manufacturer Oak Hall Cap & Gown. Oak Hall is now providing dozens of schools with completely biodegradable graduation gowns (with the exception of the zipper and button on the cap). Though gowns cost six percent more than previous ones, Quinnipiac is willing to pick up the extra cost, explains Maria Bimonk, director of shared services for the university. "It's near and dear to the students. The most obvious thing [is that] it's an all-around better product. They feel better, look better, and there are 23 less bottles per gown in the landfill. How could you not choose it? That's 45,000 less bottles [for a Quinnipiac graduation]."

The university also provided bins to give students the choice to donate their gowns back to the university to be reused.

UCSD's Sustainability Resource Center teaches students how to care for their campus and world.

For a university as large as the University of California, San Diego, administrators and students felt a central location was needed for sustainability efforts. After two years of planning, the Sustainability Resource Center opened in the student center in fall 2009.

"The whole concept is that it's a place where students, faculty and staff, and the surrounding community can come and brainstorm ideas about sustainability," says Maggie Souder, campus sustainability coordinator. With 20,000 people passing through the student center, it is doing just that. The space allows staff members to empower students to set goals and give them the tools and resources to achieve them.

The center itself is a collaborative effort funded by the university and donations. It includes floors salvaged from demolished buildings, walls made of recycled plastic, and cabinets constructed from bamboo plywood. The space is powered via solar energy from donated panels and includes a computerized system of light sensors that detect the amount of natural light and adjusts the florescent lights according to need.

Since the opening, response from the community has been overwhelmingly positive. "The participation by students is immense," says Souder. "They're very proud of the space, they like being here, and we have more opportunity to work with them because they're here working all the time. The Center allows them to partner with others they might not have otherwise."

Student-grown food is served in the cafeteria at Colorado College.

Colorado College, located in Colorado Springs, is one of many institutions that have made a commitment to supporting local farmers--from students on campus to ranchers throughout the state and beyond.

Sustainability efforts include purchasing as much local food as possible under the Farms to Forks program, labeling food based on distance from campus, trayless dining, and the Earth Tub, a compost area for biodegradable products. Colorado College and food service provider Bon Appetit have also made student farming education a priority.

The school employs three summer interns for the student garden, with Bon Appetit paying the expenses for students to stay on campus. In return, $4,500 worth of produce from the student garden is given to the dining hall. Through this collaborative relationship, students learn the logistical side of running a farm and what the professional market looks like for farmers.

"We're making an effort to educated students in and out of the classroom by empowering them to make good decisions. We're glad to be a part of their education," says Beth Gentry, general manager for Bon Appetit at Colorado College. In 2009, Bon Appetit also published a student handbook outlining how to establish an effective student garden. The guide ( includes everything from tips on talking to administrators to a blank invoice template.

Gentry believes receiving produce from the student garden and local farmers will be particularly beneficial this summer. "Produce such as tomatoes and green peppers will be up 100 and in some cases 200 percent for the summer, but our local farmers aren't going to be affected by natural disasters in other countries."

Fans are one solution for cutting down on cooling costs, as the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, has learned.

Eastern Michigan University has found an opportunity to set the bar high for sustainable practices in construction. When designing plans to renovate their 180,000 square foot science complex and add 30 percent more space, EMU worked with Lord, Aeck & Sargent Architecture and Peter Basso Associates Consulting Engineers to provide innovative cooling technology, saving both money and energy.

"There are two distinct functions of an HVAC system: the first is ventilation and the second is heating and cooling. With chilled beams, we're decoupling those two functions and treating each in the most efficient manner possible," says Brian Runde, vice president of Peter Basso Associates.

Chilled beams and a dedicated outdoor unit actually have a lower initial cost, and the system results in a 44 percent reduction of total energy costs when compared to a ASHRAE 90.1-compliant baseline building. "There are a number of benefits including cost containment and budget assurance," says Steven Moore, energy and sustainability manager of EMU. "It shows what kind of technology is out there and also shows students on campus a good way of approaching construction and building for the future."

Other universities are going back to basics to reduce cooling and heating costs. Big Ass Fans provides large ceiling fans for open spaces such as auditoriums, student centers, and gymnasiums. By moving large quantities of air, these fans bring hot air down from the ceiling in winter reducing the amount of heat needed and allow for less A/C use in the summer.

"Fans are slowed in the wintertime, not reversed, and pull warm air down which can save 30 to 40 percent of energy used for heat based on the size of the fan, how high it is, how many there are, and the size of the room," says Alex Reed, marketing analyst for the company. In the summer, "the fan provides an evaporative cooling effect which makes occupants more comfortable, thus decreasing the reliance on A/C for comfort," he explains.

These quiet, low-speed fans have been used in many university dorms, theaters, and libraries. The University of Nevada, Las Vegas was able to forego purchasing additional air conditioning by installing a fan in one of its residence hall common areas.