Green Colleges: The Quest for an Environmentally Friendly Campus

With mounting evidence of global warming underscoring our dependence on fossil fuels and with the health benefits of organic foods being touted by nutritionists, America’s colleges and universities are more seriously beginning to investigate how environmentally friendly their campuses are. Once upon a time, “does the school recycle?” was the first question people asked to determine whether a college was “green.” But now that technologies have improved and students are more engaged, faculty, administrators, and trustees are coming on board, helping colleges take a lead on community sustainability.

Green Colleges: Why Colleges??

Because they are not-for-profit entities and because many of them are wealthy enough to take risks with their buildings and procedures, colleges and universities can serve as early adopters when it comes to implementing new technology and new business practices. Campuses are also diverse in their development: they combine residential components like dorms and dining halls with offices, classrooms, laboratories, sports venues, theatres, and all kinds of other spaces. Since young people are often at the vanguard of the pro-environmental movement and since much of the research on environmentally friendly existence is being conducted in academia anyway, it makes sense for colleges to demonstrate their greenness to all.

Green Colleges: New buildings

One question that the green-minded can ask is about new growth: what kinds of materials are used in construction and furnishing? More and more campus buildings are pursuing “Green Building” certification, including residence halls and classroom facilities. Check out the US Green Building Council for more details on requirements (http://www.usgbc.org/). Everything can be made greener – insulation, lighting, heating and cooling systems. Even windows!

Want some examples? Northland College, a small school in Ashland, Wisconsin, received national attention for its uber-green residence hall built in the late 1990s, a dwelling that even featured waterless, composting toilets alongside other (less dramatic) elements. Middlebury College in Vermont touts an environmentally friendly dining hall with a vegetated roof that opened in 2005.

Yet small schools aren’t the only ones tackling environmentally friendly dormitories. Consider the new green residence hall built at the University of South Carolina, which used recycled materials (right down to the carpets) and keeps energy use to a minimum through good engineering and usage changes. Think lots of natural light, low-flow faucets, and motion-detected lighting.

Green Colleges: Food Service Changes

We all know college students like to eat. So what is being done to ensure that university food service operations remain environmentally friendly? Look at UC-Santa Cruz, an institution recognized for reversing the outsource trend by moving from a food service company contract to an in-house operation.

Now, instead of using national mega-suppliers, the dining halls buy organic produce grown on local farms, which supports the area economy and reduces transportation time (and thus gas emissions). The institution takes care to educate students about food waste through literature. They’ve changed their service delivery to minimize excess. UCSC has even developed connections with local food banks to provide support when they do have extra provisions. Heck, they’re green down to the so-called paper plates they use, which were selected for their low environmental impact.

Green Colleges: Transportation Improvements

Another issue that colleges must tackle is transportation – whether that’s transportation to and from the campus for faculty, staff, and nonresidential students or whether that’s transit from one end of the campus to another. By supporting improved pedestrian infrastructure, building bicycle paths and storage, and ensuring adequate links to public transportation, campuses can limit the amount of needless car use. The University of Colorado is one of many schools that has taken a critical look at its parking policies, its bike-friendliness, and its transit offerings with an eye on reducing emissions. Other colleges have pursued more fuel-efficient vehicles for their university fleets.

Green Colleges: Other Thoughts

New construction, food service, and transportation are only three of the aspects involved in the green college question. There’s also the digitization of paper resources. And the improved recycling of technology (i.e. old computer equipment). And more efficient campus lighting and landscaping. The list goes on and on, with the obvious lesson being that colleges of all sizes and budgets can take steps – both dramatic and detail-oriented – to become greener.

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