Dear EarthTalk: What initiatives are taking place on college campuses to reduce the footprints of these large users of energy and other resources? -- Shawna Smith, Hamilton, NY
Microcosms of the world at large, college campuses are great test beds for environmental change, and many students are working hard to get their administrations to take positive action. The initiatives that are emerging are models for the larger society, and the students pushing for them will be taking these lessons with them, too, as they enter the work force after graduation.
Foremost on the minds of green-leaning students today is global warming, and many are joining hands to persuade their schools to update policies and streamline operations so that their campuses can become part of the solution. Largely a result of student efforts, for example, nearly 500 U.S. colleges and universities have signed the American College and University Presidents (ACUP) Climate Commitment.
This agreement requires schools to put together a comprehensive plan to go "carbon neutral" in two years of signing. (Carbon neutral means contributing no net greenhouse gases to the atmosphere either by not generating them in the first place or by offsetting them somehow, such as through tree-planting or by buying "offsets" from companies that fund alternative energy projects.)
ACUP also commits schools to implementing two or more tangible (and easily implemented) policies right away, such as improving waste minimization and recycling programs, reducing energy usage, providing or encouraging public transportation to and from campus (and switching campus buses over to bio-diesel fuel), constructing bicycle lanes, and implementing green building guidelines for any new construction.
Signatory schools also pledge that they will integrate sustainability into their curricula, making it part of the educational experience.
One place where students are forcing green changes on campus is the dining hall. According to the Sustainable Endowments Institute's 2007 report card, which looks at environmental initiatives at the 200 colleges and universities with the largest endowment assets in the U.S. and Canada, 70 percent of such schools now "devote at least a portion of food budgets to buying from local farms and/or producers," while 29 percent earned an "A" in the "food and recycling" category. Yale University even has organic gardens that are student-run and that supply an on-campus farmer's market for use by campus food services, the local community and students alike.
Another area where college campuses are leading the way is in water conservation. Colleges consume huge quantities of water in dormitories, cafeterias, at athletic facilities and in maintaining their rolling green grounds. According to Niles Barnes of the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE), most of the 3,800 institutions of higher education in the U.S. have engaged in some sort of water-saving program. Low-water-volume toilets and urinals, as well as low-flow showerheads and faucets, are "pretty much standard practice across U.S. colleges today," says Barnes.
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