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Green Campuses - What Schools Are Doing to Create Sustainable Environments

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Over 300 institutions of higher education worldwide have signed on to the Talloires Declaration, a commitment made by university presidents toward sustainability. The declaration states “Stabilization of human population, adoption of environmentally sound industrial and agricultural technologies, reforestation, and ecological restoration are crucial elements in creating an equitable and sustainable future for all humankind in harmony with nature. Universities have a major role in the education, research, policy formation, and information exchange necessary to make these goals possible.” This agreement to make campuses “carbon neutral” says that sustainability is nor longer an elective, but normal operating procedure.

The motivation behind the Talloires Declaration was not simply to reduce waste and energy consumption. Higher education has a responsibility to encourage environmental stewardship. Even if a student does not pursue an education in environmental studies, they will learn simply from being on a green campus, living in green buildings, eating sustainable food, and absorbing messages of conservation.

The words “sustainability” and “green” are coming up more often in discussions about the management of resources and business practices. The concept has been around for many years, but has become more visible. While the definition of sustainability varies depending on who you ask, it has to do with reducing our footprint on the future. Most people will agree it contains the following main components – 1) improving economic efficiency, 2) protecting and restoring ecological systems, and 3) enhancing the well-being of all peoples.

The driving forces behind the implementation of sustainability are many. As energy prices continue to climb, the focus is on strategies that consider the entire economic life of facilities including operating costs. Some “green building” strategies actually have little effect on the initial cost of a new facility. Building retrofits that replace old technology with new and more efficient ones have an immediate payback in terms of operating costs. Green buildings are less expensive to operate because they consume less energy and water. This benefit is immediate. The new design standards for new buildings include low-wattage lighting systems, envelope insulation, high-performance glazing systems, efficient heating and cooling systems, high performance windows, solar design, daylighting, and building orientation, and microprocessor-based temperature controls. Retrofitting facilities may include piping insulation, high-efficiency motors, heat recovery systems, and window films.

A common myth of the new green building approach is that saving energy means you have to give up comfort or risk health issues. This myth is false. You can save money by lowering your thermostat, but you run the risk of poor comfort, health issues, and eventually productivity concerns. This leaves out the social wellbeing component of sustainability. The green building approach uses technology that requires less energy to achieve the same results or better. Properly commissioned buildings can improve the comfort, indoor air quality, and energy efficiency. Better design in the use of daylight harvesting has been shown to increase student performance by over 20% while greatly reducing energy consumption.

Brief periods of energy shortages and high energy prices are not new. The reasons for it are different than in the past. Some experts predict that “cheap” oil will no longer be available 30 to 50 years from now, causing prices to rise and a transfer to coal usage. Many communities are facing decisions to build new coal fired energy plants instead of the cleaner burning natural gas plants due to cost and availability of those resources. Sustainability options include wind, solar, or water-generated electricity. One wind turbine would produce 2 million kWh of electricity and would save an estimated 1,400 tons of carbon dioxide emissions, 14,000 pounds of sulfur dioxide emissions and 10,000 pounds of nitrogen oxide emissions annually if compared to the same amount of electricity produced by burning fossil fuels.

There is a growing body of evidence that the additional increase of green house gases and particulates added to the air while producing electrical energy and manufacturing commercial goods is significant and is having some impact on the earth’s natural climate. The effect on ecosystems caused by acid rain is already evident. As more and more utility companies go to coal-based plants the outside air quality will continue to deteriorate. Reducing energy consumption creates an immediate reduction in air-pollution.

Many universities and colleges are replacing their vehicle fleets with passenger vehicle hybrids that get 60 to 70 miles per gallon. Some schools are experimenting with hybrid electric buses. The preferred modes of on-campus transportation are, walking, bicycling, transit, and driving. Schools must encourage environmentally friendly transportation, meaning best use of land, minimizing air pollutants, and maximizing safety. A pedestrian-oriented environment and biking paths are ways to promote transportation that doesn’t leave a carbon footprint.

Hazardous materials—such as laboratory chemicals, chemical by-products, chemical handling supplies, paints, and solvents—can cause pollution and risks to health, safety, and the environment. The improper use and disposal of hazardous chemicals have consequences on both the health of those who handle the material and those whose water, air, and land may be polluted by leaks, spills, and volatile emissions. Universities and colleges must develop plans to reduce usage of these chemicals and dispose of this waste in an environmentally friendly manner.

The nation’s universities spend over $185 billion annually. Responsible purchasing decisions can profoundly influence markets for goods and services. By carefully choosing what we buy, we can use this purchasing power to encourage the development of environmentally responsible industry, rather than inadvertently paying for harmful practices. Numerous examples of environmentally-responsible purchasing exist around the country. An Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) survey of 90 colleges and universities found 44% had active procurement programs for recycled products. California’s system of higher education for instance, purchases over $5.9 million in recycled products annually. Environmentally responsible purchasing should recommend, and in certain instances require, adherence to environmental specifications in vendor contracts, campus stores and departmental purchases. Adopting an environmental purchasing policy would reduce solid waste and pollution, cut energy consumption, and create markets for environmental goods. These standards should specify products which are of comparable price, quality, and availability and have one or more of the following attributes:

  • high post consumer content
  • low embodied energy
  • recyclable
  • non-toxic
  • energy efficient
  • durable and/or repairable
  • produced in an environmentally-sustainable manner

Recycling is one of the easiest and most popular ways to go green. Schools must commit fully to develop a convenient, cost-effective recycling and composting operation which diverts some of the campus waste stream. They must develop waste minimization efforts. They will also need to spread the word and create education and outreach programs which instill sound consumption and recycling behaviors at the individual and institutional level.

Some of the most effective lobbying for sustainable campuses comes from students themselves. Students are prodding colleges to purchase renewable energy and set ambitious carbon targets. Undergrads at dozens of schools have gone so far as to vote for increases in their activities fees to help finance green initiatives. At St. Mary’s College of Maryland, for example, 93% of students voted last spring for a $25 annual increase in fees, which will raise approximately $45,000 a year for the purchase of renewable energy. This is a very important issue to many students and schools are responding.

For those who want to formally study the environment, the possibilities are expanding. Sustainability has become a multidisciplinary field that goes beyond ecology and biodiversity to embrace architecture, engineering, urban planning, economics, and public health. Arizona State has just opened an entire School of Sustainability that draws faculty from 25 departments.

Sustainability, if you get it right, reduces dependence on foreign oil, cuts carbon emissions, takes care of pollution, reduces health-care costs associated with pollution, and creates jobs. This makes good sense for higher education.

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