Energy, Water, Waste, and Campus Engagement: Sustainability Practices on College Campuses
Second-year journalism student
Henry W. Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communications
University of Georgia
205 Baxter Street, Athens, GA 30609
Sustainability on college campuses is an emerging topic concerning students, faculty, and stakeholders. Large schools like the University of Georgia use a large amount of resources and therefore need to be consuming, disposing, and treating those resources in a sustainable manner. This semester I will be researching sustainability on college campuses. I will focus on three sustainability issues: energy, water, and waste.
The University of Georgia emits 350,000 tons of carbon dioxide emissions each year. UGA’s forest land offsets those emissions by taking in 77,000 tons of CO2. UGA also consumes more than 500 million gallons of water each year. Finally, Athens-Clarke county recycles more than 15,000 tons of materials each year.
During my initial research I discovered the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE). This website helped me find peer-reviewed journals and studies related to energy, water, and waste management on college campuses.
The overall production of waste at Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) throughout the world is very large and presents significant challenges as the associated legislative, economic and environmental pressures can be difficult to control and manage. In this journal, Zhang, Williams, Kemp, and Smith critically review why sustainable waste management has become a key issue for the worldwide HE sector to address and describes some of the benefits, barriers, practical and logistical problems. They argue that holistic approaches provide a realistic, successful and practical solution for institutions wishing to effectively and sustainably manage their waste.
This study aims to comprehend Portland State University (PSU)’s green campus strategies, and students’ level of knowledge and living practices relating to green campus. This study used a survey to understand students’ level of knowledge and practices. The survey results show that the level of students’ understanding about PSU’s green campus strategies was somewhat low, but the amount of practice of a sustainable lifestyle was higher. Students who had taken courses related with sustainability or were engaged in sustainable activities had more knowledge about green campus strategies than students who had not. Therefore, it would be important to focus more on educating students and developing related programs in order to have more positive effects of green campus projects.
Over the past two decades, colleges and universities have embraced numerous programs to minimize their environmental impact. The annual State of Sustainability in Higher Education report produced by Sightlines and the University of New Hampshire aims to quantify and celebrate the sector’s progress, as well as outline specific and actionable opportunities for continuous improvement. Key findings across the building life cycle include 1) the decrease in operational energy consumption and related emissions, 2) how higher education institutions consistently underestimate the impact of carbon emissions due to incomplete measurement, 3) The need for formal policies like LEED in the daily operations, capital reinvestment, or demolition of buildings, and 4) The strategies institutions are currently employing to manage the impact of campus facilities and increase overall institutional sustainability – from an environmental & financial perspective.
WaterSense at Work is a compilation of water efficiency best management practices (BMPs) that help commercial and institutional facilities understand and better manage their water use, establish an effective water management program, and identify projects and practices that can reduce facility water use. Each of the 36 BMPs includes an overview of the technology, tips for operation, maintenance, and user education, options for retrofits and replacements, and calculations for potential water, energy, and dollar savings and payback periods.
My two objectives for my research project are to explore sustainability practices and policies implemented by other universities and UGA and gather information on UGA’s student understanding of our sustainability methods on campus. This information has the potential to help the university (and institutions within the university, such as UGA Housing and UGA Student Affairs) figure out which methods are working, which methods need improvement, and which methods have the potential to make a difference on campus.
I will be analyzing energy, water, and waste databases provided by the STARS program of “AASHE”. STARS is the Sustainability Tracking, Assessment & Rating System used by AASHE to evaluate and rank institutional implementation of sustainability practices. AASHE also has a campus sustainability hub that provides raw data on these topics. To gather information about our student population, I will be collecting and analyzing data through a survey sent via Google Forms. I hope to survey students from all academic backgrounds and undergraduate grade levels. We have about 28,000 undergraduate students at UGA,and I’m hoping to survey between 200-500 students.
Using the STARS database, I found data on GHG Emissions, water, waste, and campus engagement for five universities: the University of Georgia (UGA), Auburn University, Florida State University (FSU), University of Tennessee Knoxville (UT), and North Carolina State University (NC State). Each of these universities are land grant universities (except for FSU, which is a space and sea grant university) and have a student population that is similar to UGA. The STARS program takes the data provided by the university, looks at what they are doing, what they’re not doing, and what they are capable of doing, and scores them accordingly. I converted the numbers in percentages, or grades, so they would be easier to read. Because the data is self-reported and universities only have to update their data every three years, the data from each university was not reported in the same year.
Overall, these five universities can improve in greenhouse gas emission reduction and waste management. This doesn’t mean that the universities aren’t doing anything to reduce GHG emissions or waste management, but they simply aren’t doing everything possible. This could be due to a lack of funding or incentives to utilize new technology. These universities are seeing significant improvements and efficiencies in their campus engagement and water management practices. NC State, for example, has a nearly perfect water score. Since 2002, they have reduced their water consumption by 50%, and in 2016 they installed a reuse water pipeline on their Centennial Campus that will provide the university with a cheaper source of nonpotable water for irrigating the Lonnie Poole Golf Course and other uses on the 1,100-acre research campus. UGA saw a near perfect score with campus engagement. This means we have programs such as a student educators program, sustainability student life organizations, an outreach campaign, an employee educators program, sustainability events, sustainability courses, and other sustainability-related activities that students and faculty can engage in. While it is true that UGA has all of these resources, this does not mean that they are being used effectively or that students and faculty even know that they exist. Through my student survey, I discovered that students aren’t necessarily aware or taking advantage of these resources.
Using Google Forms, I sent out a survey to UGA students of all undergraduate levels using various social media and communication platforms such as Facebook, GroupMe, and mass email. The survey had four sections: personal information, sustainability initiatives at UGA, personal sustainability practices, and a survey about the survey. Each section was prefaced with directions, and no questions were mandatory to answer. The sustainability initiatives at UGA section asked students to indicate their understanding of the initiatives/programs/topics on a scale of 1 to 5 with "1" meaning "no knowledge" and "5" meaning "extensive knowledge." The personal sustainability practices sections asked students to indicate how often they participate in an activity or practice on a scale of 1 to 5, with "1" meaning "never" and "5" meaning "daily/frequently." I chose to use this sliding scale for most of the questions because I think it offered a better indication of what students actually know about sustainability initiatives (especially at UGA). There is a difference between “I know what this is,” and “I can explain what this is,” and by ranking knowledge of topics on a scale of 1 to 5 I was able to encompass that distinction.
I received 225 student responses. Here are some of the demographics for the survey pool:
Overall, students showed very little knowledge of sustainability initiatives at UGA. The most well-known campus initiatives were the UGA Office of Sustainability, Campus Kitchen, UGArden, single stream recycling at UGA, and bulldog bikes. These five topics received a majority ranking of 3 or higher. Students admitted to not feeling well-informed of sustainability practices on campuses -- 87% ranked their knowledge of campus sustainability initiatives as a 3 or below. However, more than half believe that UGA is a sustainable campus, or at least is doing well but has room for improvement.
Despite not knowing much about sustainability on campus, students seemed to act sustainably on their own. Many walk to campus, reducing CO2 emissions, as well as use public transport or carpool. Water consumption can be difficult to measure, so I asked students how long their typical shower lasts. Eighty-one percent of students surveyed take a shower in less than 15 minutes, which equates to about 13,500 gallons of water. This sounds like a lot (and it is); however, if all these students took 20 minute showers, they would use almost 5,000 more gallons of water. Most do not use disposable cups or bottles, and more than half said they recycle nearly every day. Using reusable bottles and recycling when possible helps cut down waste accumulation. Many students felt comfortable about their knowledge of recyclable material as well, which means that most likely materials that can’t be recycled aren’t going into a recycling bin. Many apartments and residence halls have recycling bins, and those who live in houses own a standard-sized recycling bin that ACC Waste Management picks up.
I would like to acknowledge that the survey pool might be skewed based on my personal access to the student body. For example, I am a second-year student; therefore, most of my classes are with second-year students which may be why the largest percentage of students surveyed are second-year students. I am also a resident assistant in a first-year dorm which may be why the second-largest percentage of students surveyed are first-year students. Finally, most of my peers and friends are either journalism students or students related to the sustainability certificate program here at UGA because of my personal academic curriculum. That being said, I tried my best to combat these student access problems by encouraging my peers to share the survey with their friends and posting the survey to platforms that many different types of students have access to.
It should also be mentioned that a majority of the students who took the survey are first and second year students. These students have not been exposed to campus activities as much and therefore might not know about all the different resources UGA has available; however, the five most well known initiatives that I mentioned earlier were the only initiatives that received a majority ranking of 3 or higher; many topics had more than a hundred students answer with a 1. This indicates that it is not just first and second year students that lack knowledge of campus sustainability initiatives.
I believe the survey was a huge success; despite the small survey pool in comparison to UGA’s student population, the results showed an accurate depiction of students’ understanding of sustainability both on campus and in their personal lives. The link to the survey results is provided in the references section, and a list of all questions asked is included at the end of this paper.
Despite our competitive campus engagement score according to the STARS database, there is a clear disconnect between what sustainability resources are available and accessible to students and what students actually know about in terms of campus sustainability at UGA. Students know how to be sustainable on their own, but they don’t know what on-campus resources are available or really what UGA is doing to be a sustainable campus.
Ultimately, sustainability in higher education is an interdisciplinary approach. We can achieve economic and environmental sustainability on campus, but without the social aspect, students will lack a valuable understanding of what sustainability is and how it can improve campus life (as well as life beyond college).
Zhang, N., I. D. Williams, S. Kemp, and N. F. Smith. "Greening Academia: Developing Sustainable Waste Management at Higher Education Institutions." Greening Academia: Developing Sustainable Waste Management at Higher Education Institutions. N.p., 29 Mar. 2011. Web. 12 Mar. 2017.
Choi, Yoon Jung, Minjung Oh, Jihye Kang, and Loren Lutzenhiser. "Plans and Living Practices for the Green Campus of Portland State University." MDPI. Multidisciplinary Digital Publishing Institute, 10 Feb. 2017. Web. 12 Mar. 2017.
Sightlines, Inc., and University of New Hampshire. The State of Sustainability in Higher Education 2016: The Life Cycle of Higher Education Facilities. N.p.: n.p., n.d. 1 Feb. 2017. Web. 12 Mar. 2017.
Eastern Research Group, Inc. "WaterSense at Work: Best Management Practices for Commercial and Institutional Facilities." (2012): n. pag. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, 1 Oct. 2012. Web. 12 Mar. 2017.
Campus Sustainability Survey Results: https://goo.gl/NxUnhb
8. List of survey questions
This section will ask you questions about your knowledge of UGA sustainability practices. Please indicate your understanding of the following initiatives/programs/topics, with "1" meaning "no knowledge" and "5" meaning "extensive knowledge." No knowledge means you haven't heard of/don't know anything about the organization/topic/initiative. Extensive knowledge means that you could explain this topic/program/initiative it to a friend or family member with ease.
This section will ask you about your habits. Please indicate how often you participate in an activity, with "1" meaning "never" and "5" meaning "daily/frequently."
This section will ask you to evaluate the survey itself and your thoughts.