Environmental sustainability means meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has been urging education institutions to embrace sustainability concepts in their day-to-day operations and long-term planning.
College and university campuses are excellent candidates for adopting sustainability. They use fossil fuels, chemicals, water, ozone-depleting substances and electricity; they generate solid, hazardous, radioactive and biomedical wastes; they discharge hazardous air and water pollutants; and they frequently have construction projects. Striving for environmental sustainability can deliver important benefits to institutions of higher learning, and any campus can carry out a successful sustainability program.
Here and now
College communities may choose to focus on a variety of priorities, goals and ideals: education, community building, campus aesthetics, enrollment, endowment, capital projects, new buildings and athletics. Environmental stewardship, green initiatives, and sustainability typically do not top this list. So why does striving for sustainability merit time, staff resources and funds? Campuses with effective sustainability programs find that environmental sustainability improves compliance with federal and state laws and regulations, saves money, and provides competitive advantages in recruiting faculty, staff and students. More important, it's the right thing to do.
Colleges and universities must comply with a bevy of federal, state and local environmental regulations. In many regions, federal and state regulators have determined that colleges and universities generally are not in compliance with applicable environmental rules. Dozens of enforcement inspections have resulted in significant fines.
Many applicable regulations, such as the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, Toxic Substances Control Act, Clean Water Act and Clean Air Act, require regulated activities to minimize potential environmental impacts. Adopting and implementing a Hazardous Waste Minimization Plan (which is required of all large-quantity hazardous-waste generators) not only reduces associated regulatory burdens, but also minimizes waste, disposal costs and potential environmental impacts.
- Cost savings
Many sustainability initiatives result in significant cost savings. Some initiatives pay for the initial investment quickly (typically less than two years). Time and resources invested during new building construction can result in considerable cost savings. Poorly designed buildings waste electricity, water and fuel; negatively affect their surroundings; potentially cause indoor-air problems; and contribute to local air-quality problems.
Buildings constructed using green building practices save money, resources and energy, and have less negative impacts on building inhabitants and the local community. Other opportunities to save money through green initiatives are limitless. Some of the more significant cost savings are associated with reducing energy and water use.
- Competitive advantages
Many prospective students, faculty and staff are attracted to schools with green initiatives, and strong records of environmental compliance and sustainability.
If prospective students learn that a university has been fined hundreds of thousands of dollars for environmental violations, they may assume that the university not only violates environmental rules, but also is not minimizing environmental impacts. Sustainability can be a competitive advantage for a school that wishes to attract students with environmental savvy.
Cases in point
Many specific examples may help convince the green-wary of the economic and institutional benefits of striving for a sustainable campus. Many colleges and universities in the United States have green initiatives, from small, energy-savings measures to fully developed sustainability programs.
The results of many of these initiatives bring substantial economic benefit and increase a school's environmental conscience.
For instance, in Brunswick, Maine, Bowdoin College's “Dump & Run” program encourages students to donate usable materials at the end of the semester for a yard sale.
Instead of going to the local landfill, furniture, clothes, rugs, books and other items are sold for reuse. Last year's “Dump & Run” raised $19,200, which was donated to local non-profit organizations. Additional cost savings were realized through the reduction of solid-waste-disposal costs. More information about the program can be found at http://www.bowdoin.edu/sustainablebowdoin/dumpnrun.shtml.
Cornell University, Ithaca, New York, provides another example. It recently upgraded its chilled-water system by using the cold water of Cayuga Lake instead of purchasing new chillers. The Lake Source Cooling project eliminates ozone-depleting substances and saves 23 million kilowatt hours of electricity per year (enough for 2,500 homes). The system takes advantage of gravity and a closed-loop system to minimize energy use. Built-in mechanisms and routine monitoring safeguard the lake's ecosystem. Visit http://www.utilities.cornell.edu/LSC/default.htm for more information.
Many campuses are researching and using biodiesel — a cleaner alternative to traditional fuels. Biodiesel is a renewable resource and generates lower emissions. Biodiesel also provides an opportunity for students to research sustainable alternatives while decreasing the amount of fossil fuels used by the school. Schools involved in biodiesel projects include the University of Colorado, University of Vermont, University of Idaho, University of Missouri and Iowa State University.
Just do it
The following steps are integral for any institution seeking to establish sustainable practices:
Overcome initial hurdles. Potential obstacles include misperceptions, lethargy, insufficient funds, budget cuts, lack of administrative support, and frequent staff and student turnover. Detractors often are quick to say, “we're too small to be the leaders,” “this is the way it's always been done,” or “we can't afford to do this now.” These obstacles can be difficult, but are not insurmountable. Economic obstacles can be overcome with the realization that green initiatives can pay for themselves. “Attitude” obstacles can be overcome by allowing the concept of sustainability to permeate all aspects of campus life. Start small with enthusiastic supporters and volunteers.
Gain environmental compliance. Nascent or weak environmental compliance programs do not preclude the development of a sustainability program; however, environmental compliance is the first step in reducing environmental impacts. For example, if the dining halls at your school are pouring waste cooking grease into a storm sewer that discharges to a nearby pond, the school is breaking a number of rules and is vulnerable to enforcement.
Moreover, this will have a definite adverse environmental impact. Many campuses that are in substantial compliance have participated previously in a multimedia environmental compliance audit to identify areas of non-compliance. Whether conducted internally or by a third party, audits are an excellent way to identify applicable requirements, understand areas of non-compliance, and design corrective actions to maintain compliance.
The “GREEN” plan (see sidebar). Institutions of all sizes can establish such a plan. Of course, the available resources, goals, institutional attitudes and program methods will vary.
For example, if a university has decided to develop an environmental compliance management system (EMS or ECMS) to establish a systematic approach to maintaining environmental compliance, the university also may choose to incorporate elements of the sustainability program into the EMS.
Developing a successful sustainability program does not require inordinate amounts of resources, time and energy. Program development should, in itself, be sustainable.
Virtually every campus in the United States is involved in a “green” initiative, whether it is large energy-reduction efforts or a small student-run recycling club. Encourage students and staff to get involved, be encouraged by small successes, and communicate your efforts with the campus community.
Perry is a member of the Environmental Compliance Services Team of Woodard & Curran, a consulting firm in Portland, Maine. Her primary focus is helping college and university clients comply with environmental regulations and strive for sustainability.
Colleges and universities are not the only educational institutions with environmental impacts and opportunities to reduce them.
The seeds of environmental awareness and green thinking can be planted early. The concept of sustainability can flourish in elementary and high schools, where student energy, enthusiasm and openness to new ideas are high.
Educators can identify interested students and encourage small or large sustainability projects. A school assembly to introduce a paper-recycling program can be an excellent opportunity to introduce the concept of sustainability and identify students who are willing to help.
Even schools with tight budgets and scarce resources can support sustainability projects through fundraising — one of the foundations of “grass roots” efforts. Students involved in sustainability projects in elementary and high school are more likely to consider sustainability second nature for the rest of their lives.
Developing your program
The steps to developing a sustainability program will vary from school to school, but will most likely involve the following “GREEN” steps:
|G||▸ G Get Support. Obtaining support from environmental health and safety, facilities management, academic departments, deans, upper administration and students will ensure that the program will have stakeholders throughout the institution and a diverse supply of ideas, energies and experience.|
|R||▸ R Realistic Goals. Establishing realistic, measurable goals is a critical step in creating a successful program. Success can be measured in many ways: a significant reduction in fuel use, electricity use or water use; a 25 percent decrease in the amount of solid waste that is generated; a 50 percent decrease in the quantity of hazardous waste generated over the course of a decade; or the development of several “core” curriculum courses that allow students to earn credit for carrying out “green” concepts (such as composting, organic gardening or student-run recycling programs). The goals you set can be simple or complex, but should be tailored to the level of effort and amount of resources your school can afford. Goals should be realistic, measurable and obtainable.|
|E||▸ E Environmental Sustainability (ES) Audit. This audit measures environmental impacts and develops a baseline for measuring future impacts and successes. A comprehensive ES Audit will consider environmental impacts from the following: energy use (fuel, electricity, etc.); water use; air (outdoor and indoor); solid waste/recycling; hazardous waste; chemical use (pesticides, solvents, cleaning chemicals, etc.); building design/construction/demolition; transportation; and purchasing. An ES Audit will qualitatively and quantitatively assess impacts with respect to academics, facilities, purchasing, athletics, buildings and grounds, dining services, power plants and computer services. It is essential that the ES Audit Report present environmental impact findings and data; evaluate existing green practices; identify additional data necessary to complete the baseline; and provide specific recommendations for sustainability initiatives, reducing impacts, and increasing the green conscience of the institution.|
|E||▸ E Everyone. It is vital that as many people as possible are involved in the ES Audit and the development of a sustainability program. A diverse group of faculty, staff, administrators and students can help ensure that the program does not lose momentum. At the beginning of a semester, everyone is enthusiastic. Toward the end of the semester, students, faculty and staff have less time and are under increased pressure as various deadlines approach. The more people who are involved and committed to the success of the program, the less likely the program will lose momentum. Also, at least one designated coordinator may help maintain momentum and focus. This person does not have to do everything, but must know about what is happening, who is responsible, and what schedules need to be met — some level of accountability is crucial.|
|N||▸ N Next Steps. Once the ES Audit is complete and the baseline has been established, you can begin developing a program. Next steps may involve carrying out recommendations in the ES Audit Report, gathering support for student-run initiatives, or committing to achieving one or more of the goals for the program (i.e., energy reduction, green building design, waste reduction).|