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Going Green
Environmental stewardship is a top priority at the University of Washington

By Kathy Witkowsky
Seattle

Krysta Yousoufian is serious about her commitment to the environment. This is why the 19-year-old University of Washington sophomore turns off her lights and unplugs her computer monitor every morning before she leaves her dorm room, and uses the computer labs whenever possible, even though her mother has offered to buy her a new, more energy-efficient LCD monitor. (It would be wasteful, she says, to get rid of her old one.) That is why she volunteered last year to help feed the university’s worm bins at the school’s urban farm. And why she has spent time educating new students about the university’s aggressive recycling and composting program, and why she religiously saves her apple cores and other food scraps to contribute to it, even though it sometimes means keeping them in her dorm room overnight.

“I think my friends think I’m a little bit crazy,” Yousoufian admitted. Perhaps. But Yousoufian, a computer science major and Seattle native who is also the webmaster for SEED (Students Expressing Environmental Dedication), a volunteer student group that works to promote sustainability in residence halls and dining operations, is hardly alone in her desire to make the University of Washington a more ecofriendly place. And it is not just her fellow SEED members who share her enthusiasm. From the president to the janitors, many of the university’s faculty and staff are devoting time and energy to what Michael Meyering, who has been at the forefront of the university dining halls’ “zero waste” campaign, describes as “a noble cause.”

It is part of a nationwide movement among institutions of higher education to improve their environmental stewardship and focus on sustainability, a movement that the University of Washington is helping to lead.

In part, that is because it’s the smart thing to do: In the long run, going green saves money—and in the case of wise investments, can even make money. Sustainable practices also promote better health, less absenteeism and more productivity. And they attract students, who are paying increasing attention to schools’ environmental policies. (In a nod to the latter development, The Princeton Review, which rates institutions of higher education on selectivity, quality of life and other aspects of interest to prospective students, this year began issuing “green ratings,” too; the University of Washington was one of 11 schools that earned a top grade.) But beyond being the smart thing to do, University of Washington administrators say repeatedly, with an earnestness familiar to anyone who has visited the Pacific Northwest, it’s the right thing to do.

“This is a place where people spend a fair amount of time worrying about what the right thing to do is. And we actually act on it,” said UW President Mark Emmert. “It’s an important part of our identity as a university.”

Indeed, environmental stewardship is an inescapable fact of life here—and not just in the academic and research arenas, although it is there, too: Dozens of UW-affiliated faculty and researchers shared in the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize for their work on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change; this year the university’s College of Architecture and Urban Planning created a professorship in sustainability; and the university recently announced a new College of the Environment, which will encourage students interested in environmental science, policy and management to study across disciplines.

But even students whose academic focus has nothing to do with the environment can’t miss the lessons at work on the 700-acre Seattle campus.

 
University of Washington President Mark Emmert believes the university must “act as a positive force for enhancement of the local and global environment.”
(Photo by Doug Wilson, Black Star, for CrossTalk)
 
The dining halls serve local produce— some of it grown in a rooftop garden—in compostable take-out packaging, with compostable cutlery; in the past year, more than 500 tons of waste has been diverted away from landfill and into compost, thanks in part to signs posted in the dining halls exhorting people to “Strive for Zero Waste.” A robust recycling program boasts a 40 percent participation rate, which last year saved the university some $200,000 in landfill fees it avoided; the university escaped further landfill fees (and earned $500,000) by selling used and outdated furniture and equipment at its surplus store. The custodial staff uses green cleaning supplies; Procurement Services buys local office products when possible, and requires vendors to provide information about their internal sustainability efforts.

The university’s U-Pass program (short for “Universal Pass”) heavily subsidizes public transportation for students, faculty and staff; that and other measures designed to discourage them from commuting by car have resulted in a 16 percent decrease in the number of vehicles coming to campus over the past 17 years, despite a 24 percent increase in the campus population.

A capital projects sustainability manager ensures that, in accordance with Washington state law, all new state-funded buildings and major renovations are at least LEED silver-certified. (LEED, which stands for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, is a nationally accepted program administered by the U.S. Green Building Council; silver is the second level of four possible certifications.)

 
Sophomore computer science major Krysta Yousoufian, shown working on the University of Washington’s urban farm, is an enthusiastic participant in campus efforts to improve the environment.
(Photo by Doug Wilson, Black Star, for CrossTalk)
 
The school uses a natural-gas fired steam plant to heat its buildings, has upgraded most of its lighting systems to be more energy efficient, and its electricity purchases are from 100 percent renewable energy (not difficult to do in Seattle, where almost all electricity is generated from hydropower). Since 2001, it has cut water usage by 35 percent. It invests in renewable energy funds and energy conscious real estate funds. And an Environmental Stewardship Advisory Committee, made up of students, faculty and staff from the university’s three campuses, reports to the provost and executive vice president with recommendations about how the institution can improve its environmental practices.

There are also grass-roots efforts at work. A group of staff from the university’s Office of Strategy Management and the financial and treasury departments has volunteered to train their peers about “greening” their office practices; suggestions include setting printing margins wide and printing double-sided documents; buying in bulk to reduce packaging; and turning off electrical equipment at the end of the day.

Students, faculty and staff collaboratively tend an urban farm on campus alongside a pedestrian/bike trail. University gardener Keith Possee, explaining why he co-founded the urban farm, said, “If we’re promoting sustainability, and we have all this land on campus that’s not being used, why shouldn’t we grow food on it?” This past spring, SEED, the student group, started a garden, too, doling out ten individual plots to students living in residence halls. Interest far outweighed the number of plots available.

All of which pleases President Emmert, who shortly after taking office in 2004 formally adopted an environmental policy stating that as the state’s preeminent research institution, the university has a responsibility “to act as a positive force for the enhancement of the local and global environment.”

Since then, Emmert has continued to ramp up the university’s public commitment to the cause. In 2006, the university became a founding partner of the Seattle Climate Partnership, a voluntary pact among Seattle area employers to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions so that the Seattle community can lower its overall emissions to seven percent below 1990 levels by 2012. Last year, Emmert became a charter signatory of the American College & University Presidents Climate Commitment, which pledges institutions to move toward carbon neutrality. The university has already inventoried its carbon emissions, and is in the process of developing a climate action plan. The university recently established an Office of Environmental Stewardship to encourage and coordinate the university’s efforts, although budget constraints and the gloomy economic picture have thus far prevented it from being funded.

Why make environmental stewardship a top priority? With nearly 39,000 students, and an additional 27,600 faculty and staff, “we have a large footprint in Seattle,” said Emmert. “It’s incumbent on all large organizations these days to do what they can to be good corporate citizens.”

As an educational and research enterprise, the university is already addressing questions of environmental degradation and climate change, Emmert said. “And if we’re going to be leaders in the classroom and the laboratory, it only makes sense that we try to be leaders in practice,” he said. “It’s in many ways a perfect teachable moment.”

It is also an easy sell. Known as the “Emerald City” because of its lush landscape, Seattle has a long history of conservation, which is reflected in the people who attend and work at the University of Washington. “One of the intangible assets at the University of Washington is the dedication of the staff, students and faculty to environmental stewardship and sustainability,” said AJ Van Wallendael, who has served as the university’s part-time environmental stewardship coordinator since the position was created in 2005. “There’s just a passion for it on campus. It’s inherent in the culture.”

That has not gone unnoticed. The university has received numerous accolades for its efforts. This fall, for the second year in a row, UW received an A-, the highest grade given, in the Sustainable Endowments Institute’s latest College Sustainability Report Card—one of just six public institutions out of 300 colleges and universities surveyed in the U.S. and Canada that did. (Nine private schools also achieved the top grade.)

To do so, a school had to be a leader in all nine categories that the Institute looked at, which included administrative commitment, food and recycling, climate change, green building, student involvement, transportation and investment policies. “It’s important for us to be researching this and holding colleges and universities accountable for their actions, because they do control a lot of resources,” said Lea Lupkin, a research fellow at the Sustainable Endowments Institute, a non-profit organization. Not only do schools have the ability to influence vendors and students through their practices, they can also leverage their endowments to invest in green companies, she said.

But those involved with the University of Washington’s efforts are quick to point out that long before organizations were issuing “green” report cards or ratings, the school had been taking important steps. “Sustainability, now that we’ve coined a term for it, has always been a priority for the university,” said John Chapman, executive director of engineering and operations, who has been at the university for 23 years.

 
Tracey MacRae, executive chef for a popular University of Washington dining hall, uses locally grown, organic and natural foods as much as possible.
(Photo by Doug Wilson, Black Star, for CrossTalk)
 
Twenty years ago, for instance, Chapman convinced the university to switch its coal-fired steam plant over to natural gas, even though coal was less expensive. “The argument was, ‘What business do we have burning coal in an urban environment?’” recalled Chapman, who ran the plant at the time. Although carbon dioxide emissions were not on anyone’s radar back then—the university was instead concerned about other pollutants— the result was a 50 percent drop in greenhouse gas emissions from the power plant, Chapman said.

And that was just the beginning. In 1995, the university entered into a $10 million cost-sharing agreement with its public-owned utility, Seattle City Light, that allowed it to upgrade much of the building lighting with highefficiency florescent lighting systems. More recently, the university has been trying to do the same with so-called “task lighting” such as desk lamps and equipment lighting. Thanks to a rebate agreement with Seattle City Light (Seattle’s publicly owned electric power utility), students, faculty and staff can trade in incandescent bulbs used on campus and get a compact fluorescent light bulb for free; the rebate winds up covering the university’s costs.

The program has been a huge success: Housing and Food Services, as well as the university’s fraternities and sororities, have changed out thousands of bulbs. Not only are the new compact fluorescent bulbs four times more efficient in terms of energy, they also last six to seven times as long as incandescent bulbs, saving the university money in terms of both replacement bulbs and custodial time to install them, said JR Fulton, capital planning and sustainability manager for Housing and Food Services, who is still trying to figure out what to do with 8,000 incandescent bulbs that he has collected over the past year and a half as a result of the program.

Meanwhile, in 2000, the university modified its thermostat settings, lowering them from 72 to 68 in the winter, increasing them from 72 to 78 in the summer, resulting in an estimated 4 percent drop in energy usage. At the same time, the school changed the way it operated the power plant, cutting out back-up boilers so that they were not constantly using energy. It also invested $900,000 to replace 1,750 older toilets with low-flow models, which use between one-third and one-half the amount of water. (The university also experimented with 150 water-free urinals, but discovered they cost too much to maintain.)

The efforts worked: Between 2000 and 2005, total UW direct greenhouse gas emissions declined nine percent, according to the university, even though the campus population increased by seven percent during the same time period. The conservation measures also resulted in considerable cost savings: The university estimates that between 1996 and 2007, it avoided $58 million in utility costs.

Nonetheless, overall energy consumption continues to increase, due to growing enrollment and additional electricity demands from computers and other sophisticated equipment, Chapman said. So the university still has a long way to go if it is to reach its goal of carbon neutrality. Although there is not yet a timeline for reaching that goal, the plan is due in September 2009.

Purchasing carbon credits will likely be part of that plan, Chapman said. But in the meantime, “We’re going to take a more strategic look at going after some of the more difficult conservation measures,” he said.

Meanwhile, to encourage better conservation habits, the university plans to create a building benchmarking program that will allow users to track data relating to energy consumption of each building on campus. “We want people to be able to go onto the computer, click on any building, and see what it’s doing,” said Clara Simon, the university’s sustainability coordinator for capital projects.

 
Clara Simon, the university’s sustainability coordinator for capital projects, says UW plans to create a program to monitor energy consumption in every campus building.
(Photo by Doug Wilson, Black Star, for CrossTalk)
 
But conservation is only one aspect of a sustainable building, said Simon, whose job is to ensure that the university’s LEEDcertified projects—four have been completed; 18 others are currently in the works—are in compliance. Sustainability, Simon said, is about creating great spaces where people feel good, because when people feel happy in an office or classroom, they’ll stay there longer, work harder and learn more. So when it comes to the university’s new buildings and renovations, Simon must make sure that energy efficiency is just one aspect being considered. Natural lighting, water conservation, non-toxic materials, air flow, access to public transportation, and bicycle parking also need to be priorities, she said. “My goal is to get this to be business as usual, because this is how buildings should be built.”

Already, more than 75 percent of the UW population commutes to campus in something other than a single-occupancy vehicle. That’s no accident: The university spends $16.5 million a year on its U-Pass program, which subsidizes public transportation and uses innovative parking fee structures to encourage people who choose to drive to do so less.

The department is also downsizing its own fleet of 700 vehicles, which is possible in part because of an innovative vehiclesharing arrangement it started two years ago; through this “U-Car” program, departments share vehicles that are dispersed around campus, and are only billed for the hours they use them. About a third of the fleet runs on biofuel blends. The university also has half a dozen electric vehicles and three plug-in hybrids, and plans to buy more. It is also trying to encourage more bicycle commuting—already, some 5,000 students, faculty and staff pedal their way to campus on any given day—by adding indoor bicycle enclosures to existing outdoor bicycle racks and lockers.

The goal, said Josh Kavanagh, director of transportation services, is to avoid committing more infrastructure to cars. “If we can forestall that infrastructure, people will find another way,” he said. Keeping the car culture to a minimum is key to the university’s future, he said. Not only does it result in a healthier and less stressful environment for students, faculty and staff, but it ensures that the university can get the community and political support it needs to continue to expand. So while environmental stewardship is near and dear to Kavanagh’s heart, “the true underlying passion for me,” he said, “is higher education and keeping that accessible to people.”

Michael Meyering is equally passionate about his work. He is project manager for UW’s Housing and Food Services composting and vending, and since January of 2007 has been trying to reduce the amount of waste it produces, researching and testing new ways to package and serve products. Styrofoam is out; compostable cups coated with polylactide or cornstarch are in. Polystyrene forks, spoons and knives are out; compostable cutlery made of corn and potatoes is in. Soon plastic wrap will be out, too, replaced with biowrap made from cornstarch.

Meyering estimates that there is a 75 percent participation rate in the composting program, up from about 40 percent when, spurred on by concerned students, faculty and staff, Housing and Food Services instituted the program a year and a half ago. (The dining halls had been composting their kitchen waste and coffee grounds since 2004). Not only has UW kept more than 500 tons of material out of the landfill, including an estimated three million pieces of cutlery, it has also seen its disposable packaging costs drop by nine percent, according to Meyering. That’s partly because the university requests that vendors reduce and improve their packaging. “We want to hold them responsible,” said Meyering. And that has implications far beyond the University of Washington: By networking with other colleges and universities that have similar concerns, Meyering hopes to influence the way those vendors do business off-campuses, too.

Now Housing and Food Services, encouraged by SEED, is beginning to expand its composting program from the dining halls to the residence halls, which is where much of that take-out packaging winds up. At this point, only one residence hall is part of a pilot program; eventually the idea is to have composting available in all of them, so the university can achieve its goal of zero waste—either recycling or composting everything that isn’t used.

“It’s a very noble project,” Meyering said. “If we can create an environment with zero waste, I think we’ll impact how students look at the planet and how they treat it.”

That’s how Tracey MacRae feels. As general manager and executive chef of the university’s popular McMahon 8 dining hall, she’s doing what she can to minimize the university’s footprint and promote healthy eating habits, taking into account the nutritional content and environmental impacts of the ingredients she’s using. Given budgetary considerations, that’s not always easy, but it’s important, she said. “The way I can effect change is in my own house,” said MacRae, who came to the university six years ago when it was revamping McMahon to reflect a new food consciousness.

Today, the university’s Housing and Food Services spends 26 percent of its budget on local, organic and natural foods. MacRae said that translates into 25 to 35 percent of the food she serves, and that the figure increases by two to three percent each quarter. In season, most of the produce comes from within 200 miles of Seattle. MacRae also makes use of a rooftop herb and vegetable garden atop her dining hall, where, per her request, campus gardening services tends a wide variety of crops, from squash and tomato plants to basil, sage, garlic and horseradish. Also local is the chicken, the cage-free eggs and the natural beef she serves. And she doesn’t stop there: She refuses to stock Frito- Lay products, instead offering all-natural Kettle Chips and Tim’s Cascade snacks, which are trans-fat free. In the future, she’d like to stop carrying bottled water, too, and instead have customers fill up compostable cups or re-usable containers from a water station.

MacRae knows she can’t stop serving chicken strips and French fries—that would never fly at a college campus. But she does sell the waste oil from the fryers to a company that converts it to biodiesel.

“I take what I do in my personal life to my professional life,” said MacRae, a former vegan who has long paid attention to environmental issues and who becomes impatient with people who do not. Like so many of her peers at UW, MacRae thinks the course of action, while it may prove challenging, is obvious. “It’s not a complicated thing,” MacRae said. “Let’s save the planet.”


Kathy Witkowsky is a freelance reporter in Missoula, Montana.

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