Cultivating the sustainable campus
April usually means spring in Minnesota (although that’s been debatable this year). It’s also the month where people across the country and the world celebrate Earth Day with events and cleanup efforts. The environmental movement has changed a lot since 1970, moving to the mainstream in the public consciousness — in no small part due to the advocacy of college students and the campuses that listened to them.
We reached out to Suzanne Savanick Hansen, sustainability manager at Macalester College, to learn what sustainability looks like on campus today and how it continues to evolve.
And since sustainability is a focus at private colleges across the state, examples of recent news on the sustainability front at other member institutions are included at the end of this article.
Q: At the most basic level, what does sustainability mean when it comes to college campuses and their students?
A: The term “sustainability” comes from the term “sustainable development,” first coined by the 1987 Brundland Report Our Common Future: “Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”
Sustainability includes three areas (sometimes known as the triple bottom line): environmental health, social well-being and economic vibrancy. At a college campuses, sustainability also includes “education for sustainable development,” which means educating our students to have the knowledge, values and skills they need to lead the transition to a sustainable world.
Q: When did Macalester embrace sustainability?
A: Macalester has given a lot of attention to sustainability issues since the 1960s. Students started a recycling program in the 1970s, and the college founded the Environmental Studies program in 1973. In 2007, President Rosenberg signed the American College and University Presidents’ Climate Commitment, now known as the Carbon Commitment. The Sustainability Office was established a year later, and we developed our first Sustainability Plan.
Q: What does your position as a sustainability manager entail?
A: I am charged with tracking progress on all of our sustainability commitments. Our office does this by calculating our annual greenhouse gas emissions and working with our Sustainability Advisory Committee to develop and update our Sustainability Plan. I also help students and staff implement sustainability policies and projects on campus. In addition, I teach occasional classes for the Environmental Studies Department and assist faculty who are interested in using the campus as a sustainability living laboratory.
Q: What are the common types of sustainability efforts that campuses use?
A: Colleges often save money through energy efficiency and waste reduction. At Macalester, the Facilities Services staff members are finishing a major LED light conversion that has already saved $92,000. In fact, energy efficiency projects undertaken since 2015 are projected to save over a million dollars by 2022. We also have a “Zero Waste by 2020” goal. The Zero Waste International Alliance considers anything above a 90 percent diversion rate from landfills and incinerators to be “zero waste.” At 83 percent, our current diversion rate puts us close to reaching that goal. Since 2008, we have reduced the amount of waste by 65 percent. We have done this in two ways: by giving our dining hall food waste to a pig farmer and campus-wide composting. We are working to redouble our education efforts so that all the compost and recycling gets in to the correct bin.
In the long run, sustainability education is the most impactful when students take what they’ve learned at Macalester and apply it to their daily lives. Currently my office is helping faculty use the campus as a living laboratory for sustainability education. I keep a website with student projects and links to sustainability data so students who want to work on a new project can build upon what has been done already.
Q: What factors do you consider when proposing a sustainability initiative? How do you measure effectiveness or success?
A: We factor in initial costs, upkeep, ease of implementation and educational benefits when we develop projects. Every three years, we use the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education’s Sustainability Tracking Assessment and Rating System (STARS) to benchmark our progress, and in 10 years we have gone from a silver to a gold STARS rating.
Q: How does Macalester engage students, faculty and/or staff to participate in sustainability efforts?
A: We have both a sustainability staff network and a sustainability student network that helps support projects across campus. We also have a sustainability small project fund for projects across campus. We recently finished a three-year grant that was successful in hosting sustainability faculty development seminars and increasing the sustainability content in individual classes.
Students have been instrumental in implementing sustainability projects:
- In 2003, the senior class gift was applied to installing a small wind turbine, the first in the City of Saint Paul.
- Students designed and built two green roofs on campus that are still functioning.
- Students advocated for all of the sustainability commitments that the college presidents signed.
- Students were instrumental in banning bottled water and have brought forth two fossil fuel divestment proposals.
Q: How do you respond to those who say making a few changes on one college campus won’t add up to anything?
A: Colleges educate future leaders. If these leaders have seen good examples of sustainability practices, they will apply them to their workplaces and communities.
Q: How has sustainability as an idea evolved? What other types of efforts are you seeing emerge or see on the horizon?
A: Waste and energy projects were usually the main topics of conversations when I began my career. Even though these are still important topics, the emphasis has shifted to education and how we can use our campus and community as a sustainability education tool, or a “living laboratory.” Social justice’s connection to sustainability and the environment are also current topics.
Q: As more campuses look at sustainability, where would you recommend they focus their attention? Is there any particular low-hanging fruit?
A: Campuses should become members of the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE). This organization has a wealth of resources. There is also a regional network — the Upper Midwest Association for Campus Sustainability — that works to support colleges in our region.
A good place to physically begin would be to look into saving money in energy efficiency and waste reduction projects on campus.
And don’t forget the students, faculty and staff. Developing a potential student projects list with sustainability project ideas can be very helpful for all three groups.
Finally, I have found that just a few interested staff, students or faculty can have a big impact on the sustainability of the college.
Examples of sustainability news at Minnesota private colleges:
- Augsburg University
Augsburg is phasing out the use of bottled water to demonstrate a commitment to consume local tap water readily available to everyone on campus. Augsburg’s Environmental Stewardship Committee launched a #LoveLocalWater initiative in May 2017. This new policy aims to reduce waste and greenhouse gas emissions, and supports the provision of water as a human right, not a commodity. Since February 1, bottled water purchases have no longer been reimbursed or available at most events. Read more on Augsburg's website.
- Bethel University
Sodexo — the provider of Bethel’s campus dining services — maintains the Royal Honey Hives as part of the Royal Gardens, which are on-campus gardens that produce vegetables and herbs for the campus dining center. The bees were installed in Sodexo’s Royal Gardens to produce honey, add to the aesthetic of the gardens and involve the Bethel community in fostering a healthy environment for bees. Read more on Bethel's website.
- Carleton College
Carleton started installing two geothermal well fields this past summer, with a goal to transition to a low temperature hot water system. Carleton is the first college campus in Minnesota to have a geothermal-based district energy system. The new hot water geothermal system will reduce annual central plant operating expenses by 35-40 percent. This will generate around $40 million in operational savings over a 30-year period (escalated), and the project will break even in 15-20 years when compared to the cost of maintaining the current steam system. Read more on Carleton's website.
- The College of St. Scholastica
St. Scholastica has launched a new undergraduate major, Sustainability Studies and the Environment, for the 2018-19 school year. The program will revolve around the three “E’s” of sustainability: environment, economy, and equity. Students will be able to follow one of two tracks: (1) environment and behavioral change or (2) public policy, community action and advocacy. Read more on St. Scholastica’s website.
- Gustavus Adolphus College
In March 2018, Anderson hall achieved LEED Gold certification from the U.S. Green Building Council after a renovation of the 70-year-old building. Additionally, the campus continues to demonstrate dedication to environmental issues by offering free bike rentals for students, composting food and disposable tableware and maintaining the beauty of the award-winning Linnaeus Arboretum. In addition to solar arrays on six buildings and being named the first Fair Trade College in Minnesota, the campus also operates Big Hill Farm, a sustainable, student-run garden that grows fresh produce for the cafeteria. Read more on Gustavus' website.
- Saint John's University
A new and improved photovoltaic solar field started at Saint John's Abbey and University. The new solar field, which went online Jan. 4, 2017, will provide just over 13 percent of Saint John's annual electrical needs. It covers 23 acres, and is almost six times bigger than the initial two solar farms (a combined four acres), which opened in 2009 and 2014, respectively. The three fields combined will provide almost 19 percent of Saint John's annual electric power needs. In the summer months, it will provide just over 88 percent of peak electrical needs. Read more on Saint John's website.
- St. Catherine University
The St. Kate’s community garden provides food for students across campus. This spring, student Natalie Nation ’19 organized an event for members of the St. Kate’s community to come together to plant and raise seedlings in their own individual pots. The sprouts will be transplanted to the larger outdoor garden later this spring. The produce grown in the garden is donated to the St. Kate’s food shelf, where students who otherwise may not have enough to eat can receive fresh vegetables grown for them by their community members. Read more on St. Kate's website.
- St. Olaf College
St. Olaf leases 40 acres of college-owned land to a solar developer and has subscribed to 40 percent of the Community Solar Garden's output. The college's solar and wind subscriptions, combined with the energy generated by its 1.65 megawatt wind turbine, have enabled St. Olaf to achieve 100 percent carbon-free electrical power. Read more on St. Olaf’s website.
- University of St. Thomas
St. Thomas started a composting pilot program at the Binz Refectory dining hall in Fall 2017. Approximately 1,600 pounds per week are composted from this location. In 2014 the campus switched 100 percent of its hot beverage cups to a biodegradable solution made from recycled materials. These coffee cups integrate the sleeve into the cup which eliminates materials and transportation emissions from additional shipments. Read more on St. Thomas website.