University reviews sustainability initiatives

By Genevieve Hummer, Daily Staff Reporter
Published February 22, 2015

In 2011, President Emerita Mary Sue Coleman introduced a new set of sustainability goals to be completed by 2025 and University President Mark Schlissel aims to keep it moving.

According to the University’s Office of Campus Sustainability, the goals include reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 25 percent, transportation emissions per rider by 30 percent and waste tonnage by 40 percent, all measured against a baseline from 2006.

Additionally, according to the initiative, the University is committed to ensuring 20 percent of dining hall food is “sustainable” — purchased from local producers within a 250-mile radius of Ann Arbor or certified by third parties, among other criteria.

Last semester, University President Mark Schlissel announced the University would review the sustainability goals in 2015 — a year earlier than initially scheduled.

In an interview with The Michigan Daily earlier this month, Schlissel said he wanted to address campus sustainability as early as possible.

“I figured if I was going to take a serious look and try to either re-energize or alter some of what we’re doing, it would make sense to do that serious review before I made changes in our program,” Schlissel said.

Three committees of faculty, staff and students are conducting the review. One team is reviewing greenhouse gas emissions, another waste reduction and the final group is focusing on the culture of sustainability on campus.

Nicole Berg, coordinator for the Planet Blue Ambassador program at the University’s Graham Sustainability Institute, said the review is expected to generate discussions on existing initiatives and the challenges they have faced.

“We’re doing a good job, but I think these committees are opening up that conversation between faculty, staff and students on the academic side and on the operation side and really help shape where those barriers are and how we can overcome them,” Berg said.

Andy Berki, manager of the Office of Campus Sustainability, said he appreciated Schlissel’s interest in sustainability and looks forward to the recommendations yielded by the review.

“President Schlissel showed up on campus and when he arrived he very quickly demonstrated his commitment to sustainability and our efforts on campus,” Berki said. “I would expect to see some exciting recommendations come out of the teams in June and I would think we should hear something on campus about the direction and recommendations of these teams by fall.”

Existing goals have achieved varying degrees of success. Berki said one of the more challenging initiatives has been reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

In 2006, the University emitted approximately 700,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide, Berki said. According to a report published by the OCS, the University emitted roughly the same amount in 2013.

Berki said the University plans to invest in a high efficiency natural gas turbine project over the next several years. The initiative is in the “design phase,” and he said it could significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions when implemented.

“A large project we’ve been working on for the last three or four years is to increase the amount of turbines at our power plant,” Berki said. “By doing this project with the turbines … we should reduce our overall carbon emissions by at least 100,000 to 120,000 metric tons. So that will have a significant effect on moving our way toward our climate action goal of 510,000.”

Berki said another challenge has been reducing waste production on campus. In 2006, the University’s total waste tonnage totaled about 13,170 tons, and in 2013 it was 13,508 tons.

However, he acknowledged that the University’s continued expansion has made achieving these targets more difficult. While he said the University’s sustainability practices have grown more efficient on a whole, the increase in facilities means total tonnage doesn’t reflect those improvements.

“We’ve gone from about 28.5 million square feet of infrastructure to about 35.5 million square feet of infrastructure over that time,” he said. “So actually, like a lot of our goals, we’ve kind of stayed steady but it’s a worthy note we’ve made some progress even though the University expanded significantly.”

Berki said while the University has developed a robust recycling program, the next step is to jumpstart a composting initiative.

“One area of our waste stream which we need to address is the waste that’s leaving our facilities that’s compostable,” he said. “Right now our institution does not have a University wide composting program. Through our analysis we’ve identified that about 30 percent of our waste that’s leaving our facilities could be composted.”

Berki said the Student Sustainability Initiative, a collaborative group of sustainability organizations on campus, promotes zero-waste initiatives at the University. SSI sponsors zero-waste events where napkins, utensils, plates and food are all composted.

Other goals have achieved more success. Berki said emissions from University transportation operations have decreased significantly.

In 2006, 1.17 kilograms of carbon dioxide were emitted per ride, according to data reported by OCS. By 2013, the amount had decreased to approximately 0.91 kilograms of carbon dioxide emitted per ride. The ultimate goal is to reduce emissions to 0.82 kilograms per ride.

Berki attributes these accomplishments to the University’s joint bike share program with the city, the 10 hybrid-electric buses used on campus and the vanpool program that allows University employees to carpool to work in University-sponsored vans.

Over the next several years, the University plans to build larger bus facilities. These facilities will accommodate new buses that can accommodate more riders, ultimately decreasing the number of bus routes needed.

Berg said the Planet Blue reusable water bottle initiative has also proved successful. The student-led initiative provides all students living on-campus with a reusable water bottle and has worked to establish water bottle-filling stations across campus.

“If you look around today compared to three years ago I really just see everyone carrying a reusable water bottle and I think that’s a great way of sustainability really getting into culture,” Berg said. “That’s a very visible success story there.”

LSA junior Nicholas Jansen, an environmental science major, wrote in an e-mail interview that up until this year he was disappointed by the University’s sustainability efforts.

“I think the University up to this past year has done a sub-par job to improve sustainability on campus,” Jansen wrote. “Most of the sustainability improvements were applied to just a few buildings, we only focused on reducing our greenhouse gas emissions instead of trying to get more renewable energy on campus.”

However, he wrote that Schlissel’s decision to convene the sustainability review committees is a good sign.

“If the university actually listens to what these working groups recommend then I believe in the next few years, U of M can become a leader and model for sustainable campuses,” he wrote.

Berki also said it’s important that the University lead the nation in its sustainability efforts.

“As one of the renowned institutions of higher learning in the country and in the world, we need to set an example,” he said. “We are the leaders and best and I think a lot of people look to the University and the institution to see what we’re doing.”

Berg said the challenge moving forward would be expanding sustainability efforts without adding a financial burden to the University’s budgets.

“There’s always a balance between helping people operate more sustainability without adding to work loads or to cost,” she said.

Correction appended: A previous version of this article misstated the type of turbine planned for the power plant. It is a natural gas turbine, not a wind turbine. The article has also been updated to clarify that the transportation goal aims to decrease emissions per rider by 30 percent, not on a whole.