From restaurants switching to compostable takeout containers and paper bags to musicians, actors and other celebrities using their platforms to raise awareness, sustainability has never been more relevant. From the local to the national level, leaders are creating legislation to reduce emissions, increase resiliency and address other issues related to global climate change.
Higher education plays a key role in the sustainability movement, as well, especially as more and more students prioritize these initiatives when it comes to choosing a school and as climate change education is integrated into higher education. Incoming students want to have a sense of belonging to a healthy, comfortable and sustainable campus.
In higher education some initiatives have a greater impact than others.
One example: switching to renewable energy through direct use on campus or net metering. Solar panels, wind turbines and other renewable sources reduce the emissions used to create energy and allow for a great visual marketing tool for their campuses. Renewable energy programs also save money, freeing up funds for other financial priorities academic programs and scholarships.
Johnson & Wales University (JWU) has offset 100 percent of campus electricity usage through six remote net metering solar projects across Rhode Island. The university also has a land lease on two wind turbines on the Harborside Campus and is working on a feasibility study to add solar carports to parking areas. Through the Strategic Energy Management Plan, JWU has partnered with RI Energy to reduce energy use in facilities and make equipment more efficient and cost-effective. JWU is also an active participant in the voluntary City of Providence RePower PVD program a collaborative, citywide effort to reduce building energy use index by 20 percent by 2025. As part of the RePower PVD, JWU’s Academic Center was recognized as the winner of RePower PVD’s top performer for 2020, by reducing energy by 44.6 percent% since 2015.
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The university-wide rightsizing initiative has also helped sustainability efforts. This ranges from grouping class schedules to maximize efficiency of HVAC zones to decreasing unneeded facility spaces to minimize unused areas. Universities must consider a full portfolio of these such initiatives to meet the net zero goals and attract students looking for the best college experience.
Recycling programs are another integral part of campus sustainability efforts, following the tenets of “Reduce, reuse, recycle.” The phrase is nearly always listed in that order, and for good reason: not only does it roll off the tongue nicely, but it’s also a ranking of the best ways to decrease waste. Foremost, reducing consumption helps stop the problem at its source, followed by reducing waste overall and, finally, recycling whenever possible. JWU analyzes how waste can be diverted from the landfill through participation in existing programs and, in some cases, spearheading new ones. These include single-stream recycling, mattress disposal, pallet recycling, composting and metal scrap.
In 2018, Johnson & Wales University became the first university in the state to take part in a plastic film recycling program. Students sort through the plastics to ensure they are not contaminated before they are weighed and baled at the Rhode Island Resource Recovery Corporation. The Fill it Forward Program reduces plastic water bottle usage by providing students with reusable tumblers that can be used at filling stations throughout the campus. Finally, JWU encourages the reuse of items through the “surplus store,” a twice-yearly sale that allows members of the JWU community to purchase lightly used items that are no longer needed.
It is the responsibility of every community to step up and do its part when it comes to sustainability initiatives, and colleges and universities are no exception. By undertaking these programs now, campus communities will reap the benefits for generations to come – saving energy and reducing waste, instilling in students’ lifelong habits of sustainable practices, and even saving money along the way.
Because each campus and community are different, sustainability initiatives will be of value depending on the needs or issues they face. Energy reduction and recycling programs are an important start to help build a better tomorrow for everyone.