Sustainability gains foothold on campus

March 7, 2012

Over the past three years, the University of Chicago's Office of Sustainability has been making great strides towards reducing the environmental impact of campus operations. From incorporating sustainability into University-wide contracts to establishing and expanding the nationally recognized recycles bike share program, to publishing the University's first Greenhouse Gas Inventory, sustainable practices and policies are gaining a foothold on UChicago's campus. This progress speaks to an evolving campus culture. Since the fall of 2008, there has been an observable increase in interest and participation in sustainability initiatives, which has been instrumental in the accomplishments of the Office of Sustainability.

All of this work does not just happen within the confines of the Office of Sustainability, but has been made possible through partnerships with various departments and enthusiastic individuals across campus. Building awareness about sustainability on campus was one of the first goals of the Office of Sustainability. The popular recycles bike share was the inaugural program launched by the Office, which served as a positive and engaging introduction to what it can mean to be sustainable. Just past the Office's third birthday, we thought it was a good time to catch you up on some of the ways we are making UChicago more sustainable.

So what are we observing on campus?

More bikes. The University's cycling infrastructure has improved as interest in cycling on the south side grows. In operation for over two years, recycles is expanding, as is our partnership with Blackstone Bicycle Works. Two more bikes will be added to the campus fleet this spring and we are hopeful that there will soon be another bike share location on 53rd street. Last year, UChicago received an honorable mention as a Bicycle Friendly University while increasing department participation in the Active Transportation Alliance's Bike to Work Week by 77%! Sustainability staff recently approached the UChicago bookstore about offering bike gear to the campus community. The bookstore was happy to begin selling bike accessories such as helmets and lights—look for those on the racks this spring.

More green leaders. In less than two years, SAGE, the University's green leadership program, has trained over 200 students, staff, and faculty to serve as sustainability ambassadors to their peers. In a 90-minute training, these SAGE Ambassadors are briefed on the campus's current green initiatives and how they can raise awareness about and contribute to this work while inspiring their peers to integrate sustainable actions into their daily life. Ambassadors are encouraged to bring this information back to their office, dorm, classroom, or RSO, and share it with others. These Ambassadors volunteer their time by sharing their knowledge and developing programs for their peers such as moving to double sided printing, composting at student events, banning plastic water bottle purchasing, and consolidating office supplies orders.

New business practices. According to Colleen Lanier Christensen, Sustainability Program Coordinator, "more and more frequently, sustainability is being taken into consideration when University-wide decisions are made." For example, the Office of Sustainability works with Procurement and Payment Services to green the University's purchases, including office supplies and water delivery. Sustainability staff are collaborating with the University's new office supplies vendor, Staples, to improve ink cartridge recycling on campus. The University is now encouraging more sustainable drinking water options as part of a campus-wide effort to address the environmental impacts of water consumption. Furthermore, cleaning solutions used on campus are more eco-friendly and janitorial paper products all contain recycled content.

Greener buildings. While water conservation and recycling are popular topics of conversation on campus, the University's buildings have the largest impact on greenhouse gas emissions. Sustainability staff partners with colleagues in Facilities Services to improve energy efficiency and indoor air quality while decreasing construction waste. Significant this year is the development of the University's comprehensive Facility Standards. "Sustainability has been integrated throughout the building standards," reports Katie Anson, Sustainability Program Coordinator. Rob Jones, Director of Planning for Facilities Services, led the development of the Facility Standards and is an advocate of sustainability. "Architects and contractors must adhere to these standards when working on building and renovation projects," Jones states, "which means they will have to address the environmental impact of the buildings they design, the materials they use, the life cycle costs to operate and maintain the building, and how they dispose of waste."

Less waste. Facilities Services SAGE Ambassadors introduced some friendly competition into waste reduction efforts by hosting a March Madness-style Print Sprint Tournament to reduce the amount of paper used in the building. According to Anson, "the effort raised awareness around paper use and prompted participants to examine how we generate waste on campus and find ways to shift their habits." When it comes to disposing of waste, the Office's Recycling Directory, launched in January 2011, has helped to spread awareness of the wide array of materials that we can divert from our landfills, especially electronic waste. Over 18 months, the University community has recycled over 80,000 pounds of e-waste at collections hosted by the Office of Sustainability. Look for more details soon on this spring's collection!

Comprehensive planning and reporting. A climate action plan for the University is being drafted with the Sustainability Council. Designed as a response to the Greenhouse Gas Inventory, the climate action plan will set goals and strategies for mitigating the University's carbon footprint and is estimated to be complete by the end of spring quarter.

The Office has also completed a multi-year Sustainability Strategic Plan (SSP), which sets a vision, goals, and key steps for moving the campus toward sustainability. The SSP includes over 100 metrics, which allows for benchmarking and tracking progress of the University's environmental impact. Using Fiscal Year 2011 as a baseline, the metrics include things like how much local or organic food is served in the dining halls, the average recycled content of paper products purchased, and the amount of fuel used on campus for transportation. The SSP is much more comprehensive and quantitative than many peer institutions and will allow the University to measure its impact and maintain the UChicago tradition of rigorous inquiry.

While we are pleased with this progress, we know that our interactions with the environment will continue to evolve and change, and this work will continue to be a gratifying challenge. We look forward to working with our partners across campus as we continue to develop initiatives to create a more sustainable campus that meets the present and future needs of the University.