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Sustaining Your Sustainability Program

Colleges and universities have unique sustainability challenges, but careful planning can help ensure success.
University Business, Jun 2007

The last few years have seen tremendous progress towards sustainability. Whether fueled by surging energy prices or genuine interest in the environment, one cannot pick up a major consumer magazine--or a facility magazine for that matter--without seeing an article devoted to sustainability.

Of course, business officers and facilities managers in universities have been focused on sustainability all along. A combination of the presence of students who tend to be more environmentally conscious coupled with the natural progressiveness of the college/university environment has produced one of the most fertile arenas for sustainable facility practices. IHE facility managers are the ones who have been quietly implementing procedures that promote sustainability through energy management, green cleaning and landscaping techniques, recycling, and other initiatives.

Sustainability is also being embraced in commercial properties; forward-looking industrial organizations are implementing green facilities management and manufacturing processes, and retailers are managing energy and beginning to address packaging issues. Yet by some measures, colleges and universities are the most advanced.

'Complex facilities demands are generally set against capital budgets that are almost always too small.'

However, IHE facility managers face several unique challenges. Many of their facilities range from historic stone buildings to the most advanced research labs housing the latest technologies in controlled environments. They have extensive grounds and they have a mix of uses, from academics to athletics to research, that few commercial property managers have to contend with. These complex facilities demands are generally set against capital budgets that are almost always too small and that force managers to make tactical facilities investments that may not be the best long-term solutions.

Universities face a few other challenges. First, many of the people who use university facilities are not there from just nine to five--they live on campus, and with that comes the consumption habits and detritus of residential life. It's easy for people to follow sustainable practices for a third of the day in a corporate setting--it's another when dealing 24/7 with a student population.

That last point is one of the ironies of environmentalism on the university campus today. While students in general are highly aware of environmental issues in the abstract, today's typical American university freshmen are not tuned in to how their specific lifestyles and consumer choices directly affect the environment. They've been raised in a consumer culture--lots of consumption, lots of packaging, little thought to conservation. But it's not just arriving freshmen who pose a challenge. University populations are extremely dynamic, with faculty, staff, and students coming and going each semester. That means that university sustainability programs have to reset and restart each year and, to some extent, each semester.

So where to start? Effective sustainability requires at least an informal, if not a formal, condition assessment. Similar to a full facilities assessment project, the sustainability assessment should objectively evaluate the current status of recycling, energy management, transportation, facilities maintenance, and cleaning techniques, as well as landscaping, including sports/recreation facilities and fields--in short, every aspect of campus operations that has an impact on the environment.

The assessment will provide a new baseline from which to extend and enhance the sustainability program. It should not only look at usage, or even cradle-to-cradle management, but should look at ways to fundamentally reduce the inputs of consumption--to attack the waste stream by reducing it at the source. Fortunately, new technologies and process developments are available to help in this respect.

Recycling is an effective sustainability tool on many campuses. However, by definition, recycling requires special handling of the waste stream. Universities have to create trash removal operations that are parallel to regular trash removal and disposal processes. There is no question that recycling is here to stay; however, we must also accept the fact that recycling will only succeed to a certain extent; it will never capture all of the materials that should be recycled. So, although it is necessary and right to continue to enhance campus recycling programs, they have to be viewed as a component of a larger consumption management program.

'While students in general are highly aware of environmental issues in the abstract, today's typical American university freshmen are not tuned in to how their specific lifestyles and consumer choices directly affect the environment.'

The more comprehensive approach includes the entire waste stream by attacking the input side of the equation. How can packaging be reduced? How can the materials consumed be more environmentally friendly from the outset? How can one counteract some of the ambivalence that one is bound to find in some parts of the campus community?

Start by taking a hard look at the products that the institution and its vendors consume on campus. The truth is that mountains of trash are brought in each day. Virtually everything that arrives on campus must be disposed of in some manner. To address the limits of recycling, some suppliers are now coming out with new biodegradable products for food packaging that compost quickly in the regular waste stream. This opens the door to more efficiently handling many single-use materials that should be recycled but are not; it also opens the prospect of establishing an on-campus composting operation that can provide cost-free materials while improving campus grounds.

For many universities, lighting is the single largest electricity user. Today there is a low-energy alternative for almost all indoor and outdoor lighting applications. Several advances have enabled IHEs to significantly reduce lighting-related energy consumption and costs. For instance, for years, commercial, industrial, government, and educational institutions have been encouraged to supply fluorescent fixtures with the latest reduced wattage T8 lighting. This requires an actual retrofit but is well worth the investment, since it delivers both dollar savings over time and environmental benefits. These types of programs often pay for themselves and have an extremely short ROI.

Compact fluorescent lamps (CFLs) generally use one-third of the energy of standard bulbs, throw off a lot less heat, and last up to ten times longer--saving both energy and labor. They are coming down in price, so the relative cost of upgrading is steadily dropping. They are easy to implement, since they generally work in existing lighting fixtures. Furthermore, facilities managers can either conduct programs to replace all incandescents with CFLs, or gradually replace bulbs during the general maintenance process. Be aware that CFLs contain some hazardous materials, so you should have a return/recycling program in place from the outset when you move to CFLs.

Motion sensors, timers, and other long-available devices should also be reevaluated to see where they can be effectively used on campus.

Be sure to check with government agencies and local utilities to see if there are grant programs that underwrite lighting upgrades. Although these programs are not as prevalent as they once were, many locations still have attractive programs, and nonprofits are sometimes eligible where for-profits are not.

On residential campuses, a large proportion of the light fixtures and usage is not under the direct control of the institution. Student energy consumption, including lighting, is often wasteful. Encouraging sustainable practices can help. Many IHEs go beyond that by offering free or reduced-cost CFLs to students as they arrive on campus. This can greatly reduce incandescent use, with the attendant reduction in energy use and costs. It also makes sense to encourage on-campus retailers to offer only CFLs for sale.

There are thousands of ways to save energy, but they all begin with proper maintenance. Comprehensive predictive maintenance programs help IHEs get the highest possible motor, compressor, and engine efficiencies from current equipment. Attention to manufacturers' recommended maintenance schedules, as well as filter and lubricant replacement schedules, pays dividends. Beyond maintenance, there are cost-effective retrofits, such as variable-speed electric motors and advanced compressors that increase efficiency and significantly reduce energy consumption.

Students also have a role to play through the equipment choices they make. In fact, many of them are already helping without knowing it. More and more consumer products are carrying Energy Star ratings. Newer electronics tend to be more energy efficient, which is partly due to the efforts of manufacturers and partly due to consumer preferences. Desktop computers are being replaced by notebook computers or cell phone/PDAs, large stereo systems are being replaced by iPod base units, and TVs and computer monitors are being replaced by LCD and plasma screens. These are relatively efficient technologies that reduce overall energy consumption.

As mentioned above, effective maintenance is a major component of any sustainability program. Beyond that, however, improvements in the entire facilities services process can significantly reduce environmental impacts. From efficient dispatch procedures to choosing the appropriate equipment for a given job, careful management of services operations can reduce energy consumption and the amount transferred to the waste stream.

There has also been significant environmental progress in developing solvents and cleaning chemicals. Coupled with new sustainable operational practices, worker and occupant health and safety can be significantly enhanced by properly using the right products. Facilities service contractors and product suppliers have the information to help IHEs keep up to date on developing trends.

Of course, capital projects present the opportunity to do it right from the start. Be sure to question traditional designs. Look for emerging technologies, such as photovoltaics, that are becoming more cost-effective each day. Invest in the most efficient building systems and use environmentally friendly materials. It is important to complete an energy impact study for all new projects. This enables business officers to estimate operational costs and environmental impact; it also allows them to more accurately assess the relative value of up-front investments in order to justify the cost. By understanding the impact, IHEs can design for sustainability.

Sustainability is a journey, not a destination. There will always be innovations that will enable us to do more with less. As university administrators, you have the potential to make a tremendous impact--an impact on the way institutions are run and an impact on the environment, to be sure, but also an impact on a generation, by educating them on the practices and effects of sustainability.

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