Going Green at School: A Guide to Sustainability in College and in Life

In the past 10 years, college campuses have focused their efforts to confront the challenges of climate change, energy consumption, natural resource depletion, and environmental crises. Colleges and universities have become testing grounds for new approaches to living, for new ideas about how we utilize the natural bounty of our planet, and for new initiatives about how forge a better, more sustainable future. This development has created new avenues for interdisciplinary research and study, created new opportunities for constructive social networking, and opened up new career paths in the realms of art, science, and business.

Sustainability has many facets that go well beyond environmental activism: it embodies, incorporates, and engenders everything from intellectual growth and social responsibility, to emotional maturity and physical wellbeing. And, while "going green," as it’s often called, involves some effort, it also can also translate into better food options at the dining hall, nicer dorms, and more meaningful ways of engaging with other members of the college community.

What is Sustainability?
The Meaning of "Going Green"

It’s a hot topic. A buzzword. A cutting-edge concept that’s trending heavily. It comes up in corporate boardrooms and at the federal level, where President Obama recently issued an executive order on "Planning for Federal Sustainability in the Next Decade." It’s also a major concern in states, municipalities, and local communities, where economic realities are clashing with challenges inherent in allocating scarce resources.

The Environmental Protection Agency defines it: "Sustainability is based on a simple principle: Everything that we need for our survival and well-being depends, either directly or indirectly, on our natural environment. To pursue sustainability is to create and maintain the conditions under which humans and nature can exist in productive harmony to support present and future generations." The UN Commission on Environment and Development, in a report published in 1987 titled "Our Common Future," also took a broad view on sustainability, characterizing it as, "development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs."

These notions are being translated into a growing number of initiatives from stepping up local recycling efforts to curtailing global carbon emissions, from changing light bulbs to changing the way we think about a resource as elemental as water, from sharing rides to sharing in the responsibility of maintaining the environment. As is often the case with issues of looming social importance, colleges and universities are on the forefront of forging a greener, more sustainable future. There are sustainability courses, interdisciplinary degrees in sustainability, campus-based organizations and events dedicated to various aspects of sustainability, and myriad ways to get involved, informed, and in tune with what it means to live sustainably.

Sustainability on Campus:
How Colleges are Going Green

In many ways, sustainability is essentially a new, more all encompassing term for an idea or a number of related ideas that have been around for quite some time. Famed naturalist John Muir planted the seeds of the Sierra Club, an environmental preservation organization that goes by the motto "Explore, enjoy, and protect the planet," in 1892, and the National Park Service was created during the Progressive Era, under President Woodrow Wilson in 1916. By the 1960s, environmental studies departments had a foothold in academia, and in 1969 the National Environmental Policy Act was signed into law, pledging to "create and maintain conditions under which humans and nature can exist in productive harmony, that permit fulfilling the social, economic and other requirements of present and future generations." But, concerns over oil resources and the impact of carbon emissions on the Earth’s ecology and humanity’s future on this planet, have brought a new immediacy to the issue of sustainability, which has broadened the definitions of environmentalism to include nearly every aspect of human endeavor, from art and literature, to science, mathematics, business, economics, and law.

At the college level, the urgency surrounding sustainability and the heightened concern over environmental issues have coalesced in several key ways, outlined below:

Interdisciplinary Research

Sustainability is founded in environmental science, which is itself an interdisciplinary field, drawing on biology, chemistry, physics, ecology, geology, oceanology, meteorology, and other natural sciences. And yet, it goes further, incorporating the theories and methodologies of economic modeling, behavioral science, social science, and other disciplines. As De Soto explains, "Sustainability touches everything we do in our lives and our work. People in the private sector tell me they’re interested in hiring people who understand sustainability and its importance, but they also want candidates who are trained in a specific academic discipline or a skill, like forestry management or accounting or engineering or biology. In other words, they’re looking for students who can view their area of expertise through a lens of sustainability."

Expanded Sustainability Curricula

In keeping with the interdisciplinary nature of sustainability, and the growing interest in the field, colleges and universities are offering more courses that are tailored to sustainability. Classes in the sociology of sustainability, sustainable architecture, the economics of sustainability, sustainability and health, and sustainable farming and agriculture are becoming more and more common at the undergraduate level. At Randolph College, the organic garden that sustainability coordinator Ludovic Lemaitre oversees is also the basis for a course in organic gardening. The Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE) has issued guidelines for sustainability courses, which emphasize, "the effects on humans and on the biosphere of human population dynamics; energy extraction, production and use; and other human activities such as agriculture, manufacturing, transportation, building and recreation," as well as "The relationship of population, consumption, culture, social equity and the environment," and "Social, cultural, legal and governmental frameworks for guiding environmental management and sustainable development."

Greening of the energy supply

Behind the scenes, and sometimes quite publically, colleges and universities are undertaking major initiatives to transition to more sustainable energy sources. At older institutions like Virginia Tech, this can mean everything from phasing out coal burning furnaces to turning to cleaner coal and natural gas for power needs. Wind and solar power are also being integrated into the power grids on campus. In 2014, Randolph College was recognized by the EPA’s "Green Power Partnership" program, in large part because of a contract to purchase electricity generated by burning landfill gasses from Collegiate Clean Energy, a subsidiary of Ingenco. "Having a person to fully work on something like renewable energy really helped because it takes a lot of negotiating with the power companies, with lawyers, and with the college’s business office to get a deal like that done," explains Randolph’s sustainability coordinator Ludovic Lemaitre.

Reducing drive-alone rates

Car-pooling has long been high on the list of objectives in large urban areas, and dedicated fast-lanes for carpoolers are now the norm. But colleges and universities, especially those with large campuses, have also been working to cut down on drive-alone rates by encouraging students to use public transportation and shuttle services, and by implementing car-sharing programs and other initiatives, like bike-share programs, that cut down on car use. "We now have a car-sharing program on campus," says Iowa State’s Merry Rankin. "A student came with the idea, I had him research it, we were able to take that research into an administrative meeting, and ultimately to implement it."

Increasing landfill diversion rate

The dirty little secret about trash is that, along with being dirty, smelly, and just generally unpleasant, it ends up in landfills, where it produces methane, a greenhouse gas that is a major contributor to global climate change. Reducing the amount of garbage that ends up in landfills, or increasing the diversion of that trash from landfills to recycling and composting programs has become a major priority at colleges and universities. The AASHE encourages colleges and universities to increase landfill diversion through its STARS, or Sustainability Tracking, Assessment, and Rating System, and an annual Recyclemania competition.

The Benefits of
Sustainable Living for College Students

Sustainability is by its very nature a long-term goal, a strategy for preserving the precious resources of the planet for ourselves and for future generations. Indeed, once you understand the concept of nesting interdependencies — that the Earth is a closed system with finite amounts of clean air and water, fossil fuels, living space, and other natural resources, and that all of our social and economic activities must take those limitations into account — the long-term benefits of sustainability are fairly obvious. If the payoff can feel somewhat remote, abstract, and distant, that’s because sustainability is also a process, and an end unto itself. And, if that’s not convincing, think about the projected impacts of climate change: coastlines and even huge chunks of entire states under water, droughts and wildfires, stronger and more destructive weather patterns, water shortages, mass population migrations, war and famine. That may sound a little extreme, but look at what’s happening in California just five years into a record drought. Think about the massive snowfalls of 2014-2015, Hurricane Sandy, the list goes on.

In that sense, sustainability is something of a moral imperative or an ethical responsibility. What kind of world do you want to be living in twenty years from now? What kind of planet do you want to leave for the next generation? That said, and asked, there are some fairly compelling, if not always entirely obvious short-term benefits that are directly related to sustainability, and that have a particular relevance on college campuses. Let’s look at several lifestyle components that can be enhanced through sustainability:


Physical Health

There are two major components of sustainability that contribute to better physical health and fitness. The first involves food. You are, as they say, what you eat, and eating heavily processed foods isn’t what doctors recommend. It’s why we have an obesity epidemic in this country, and it also leaves a fairly outsized carbon footprint. The manufacturing of processed foods takes energy; transporting those food products uses more energy; and processed foods also tend to have more packaging than food in its natural form, which also contributes to carbon emissions and energy use. Locally sources, naturally grown, unprocessed foods are generally nutritionally superior to processed foods, less fattening, and they leave behind less trash for the landfill. At Iowa State, Merry Rankin has also found that, “Buying locally is something that is interesting to students and that seems to make them feel good about themselves.”

Another area in which leaving a smaller carbon footprint is also likely to leave you more physically fit is transportation. For general wellbeing, at least 30 minutes of daily physical activity is what most health professionals recommend. This can include walking or biking to and from class, and doing that instead of driving a car is yet another way to reduce your carbon footprint.


Mental Health

The statistics and the headlines about college student mental health issues have grown rather alarming. In February of 2015, CBS’s “MoneyWatch” ran a story titled “College Freshmen’s Mental Health Hits New Low.” The American College Health Association’s National College Health Assessment in the spring of 2014 found that 86.4% of college students reported feeling overwhelmed by all they had to do, and 54% reported feeling overwhelming anxiety. One effective treatment for anxiety is physical exercise, like the kind of walking or biking you could be doing instead of driving a car back and forth to class. Another coping strategy for anxiety is spending time outdoors, which correlates well with walking and biking. And all of that helps to reduce your carbon footprint. Eating well is another factor that contributes to mental and emotional wellbeing. And, while it’s difficult to measure the impact of doing the right thing on one’s daily frame of mind, there is anecdotal evidence to suggest that using the recycling bin, and simply stopping for a moment to be more mindful and caring in the decisions you make can build self-esteem and lead to feelings of self-worth.


Cleaner Environment

Clean air and clean water shouldn’t be taken for granted. Look at China and the air-pollution in Beijing. Look to the Cuyahoga River in Ohio, which was so polluted in June of 1969 that it actually caught fire. That’s a true story. Sustainability is often referred to as “going green” for a number of reasons, but one of them is that sustainability initiatives often foster the growth and conservation of plants and trees, which can lend an element of beauty to a college campus. Cleaning up the environment is certainly one of the long-term goals of sustainability, but it’s something that can be enjoyed and appreciated in the process as well.


Better Housing

A big part of sustainability on college campuses, particularly campuses that have a long, storied tradition and building and dorms to match, involves retrofitting those structures with better windows, more efficient lighting and plumbing, and new heating and air conditioning systems that use less energy and operate with greater efficiency. This has the additional benefit of making those dorms, classrooms, offices, libraries, and public spaces more comfortable and more visually appealing, with greater amounts of natural light and up-to-date plumbing. These are what are commonly known as quality of life enhancements, and they are not to be scoffed at.

Fun Facts about Sustainability

There are so many different components to sustainability that it more often resembles a scattershot constellation of distinct projects an initiatives than a singular, unified, carefully coordinated body or whole. As Iowa State’s Merry Ranking puts it, “I think it’s a continual balance of having an impressive scatter plot of sustainability initiatives and a really good tangent line that acts as a plan. At a college or university it’s different than at a corporate level. We have all of our future leaders coming to us, and it’s the responsibility of the college is to cultivate a learning and discovery environment, to help students find their voice, to ignite their inquiry, and to find ways to channel the energy and excitement and motivation that they have. So, if a student comes to me with an idea, I want to encourage it. I also want to find a way to connect that idea with other ideas and initiatives on campus.”

Here is an overview of sustainability activities, facts and data points about going green, courtesy of the Boston College sustainability blog, and NYU’s sustainability project:

The average college student produces 640 pounds of solid waste each year, including 500 disposable cups and 320 pounds of paper.

The average American uses seven trees and 680 pounds of paper per year

Up to 90% of the energy used during a washing machine’s cleaning cycle goes into heating the water, so use the cold setting.

Decreasing your showering time by three minutes not only saves water, it also saves 513 pounds of CO2 every year.

There is no limit to the number of times an aluminum can can be recycled, and glass can also be recycled forever.

The energy saved from one recycled aluminum can will operate a television set for three hours.

The energy saved from recycling one glass bottle will light a 100-watt light bulb for four hours

Laptop computers use an average of 50% less energy than desktop computers.

In a lifetime, the average American will throw away 600 times his or her adult weight in garbage. This means that adults leave a legacy of 90,000 pounds of trash for their children.

CFL (compact fluorescent lamp) light bulbs use one-fifth to one-third the amount of energy for the same amount of light provided by traditional incandescent bulbs. LED (light emitting diode) bulbs use up to one-tenth the amount of energy as incandescent bulbs, and last up to 50 times longer.

Sustainability in Action: Tips for Going Green

Carelessness and ignorance are learned behaviors, and so is sustainability. Angie De Solo likes to illustrate this for students at Virginia Tech’s Sustainability Institute by taking them through some of their regular routines. “I walk students through their daily activities, and urge them to be aware of the decisions that they are making every step of the way,” she explains. “It gives them the agency to pick and choose which behaviors and habits they want to work on. Basically, you’re trying to overcome the inherent disconnect between what we consume, and where it came from and how it was made.”

For example, she goes on to say, “think about where the food you eat comes from. Are there better options on campus or even in the dining hall? A lot of students get started with food because it’s so critical for survival. It’s what I think of as a potential gateway behavior, because it can be the first step toward a more sustainable lifestyle. How much processing went into making that food? What nutrients you’re putting into your body? Let’s say you’re on a food plan: are you eating at the dining hall or getting a to-go container that might be made out of Styrofoam? Even if it is a compostable to-go container, if you don’t put it in a composting bin it’s actually worse than Styrofoam in terms of the greenhouse gasses it will emit when it breaks down.”

College is a good time to start cultivating constructive behavioral patterns, in relation to other people, and in relation to the environment. Indeed, given the amount of cooperative energy surrounding sustainability, it often possible to cultivate both at the same time. Here are some good and relatively easy ways to begin or continue the process of going green:

Rent, Borrow, or Share a Bike

Bike-share programs are becoming more and more common, both on campuses and off. Check into whether or not your school has such a program. If not, there may be another local option, or you may want to get involved in setting the wheels in motion for a bike-share initiative. It’s not just that riding a bike helps curtain carbon emissions and keep the rider in better shape, it’s that riding a bike can become a productive habit. Ludovic Lemaitre helped bring a bike-share program to Randolph College, and he puts it this way: “The bike-share program is practical, which gives people an incentive to use it. And then they might find that they feel good about going on bike rides, it’s fun, it’s de-stressing, and relaxing. And that’s something that they might then pick up as a habit, something that just become second nature.”

Pay Attention to Packaging and Bags

Merry Rankin tells students at Iowa State to just say no to bags at the grocery store and elsewhere. “Not choosing to have things bagged is a good place to start,” she says. “Bring your own bag or just don’t take a bag.” Similarly, look for products that have less packaging, which equates to less trash, and that means less material that potentially headed straight to a landfill to emit methane and other pollutants. For a deeper look at packaging, where it comes from, and where it goes, Rankin recommends finding The Story of Stuff online.


At Iowa State, Rankin estimates that “the average student brings five electronic devices to campus with them.” She also points out that, “Unplugging those devices is a big piece of the puzzle and a good habit to get into.” The AASHE and other campus-oriented sustainability organizations sponsor “power down” days and nights, when students are encouraged to curtail energy usage. There are even dorm vs. dorm sustainability challenges that go on for weeks and even entire semesters,

Reusable water bottles and coffee mugs

Tap water in the US is considered to be some of the safest, cleanest, and best drinking water in the world. And, unless otherwise noted, a lot of bottled water is just local tap water that’s been put through a filter on its way to a flimsy plastic bottle. Instead of contributing to the packaging consumption problem, buy yourself a nice, sturdy water bottle to carry around campus. And, if you’re a coffee drinking, get a reusable mug. Often, on campus dining and café facilities will offer a discount to students who bring their own mug. As Ranking point out, “If you count every student, and we have roughly 37000 students at Iowa Sate this year, it can make a big difference is each one them is using a reusable water bottle and/or coffee mug instead of four or five disposable cups a week.”

Laptop Instead of Desktop Computer

Not everyone can afford a laptop, but desktop computers typically use up to 50& more energy than a laptop. And laptops are certainly easier to carry around. You should check with your school to see if they have any special programs for discounts on laptops. And, some schools are even helping to facilitate the resale of used and refurbished laptops. Last year’s model may actually be in your price range, and the model from three years ago may even easier to afford.

Go for the LED Desk Light

LED bulbs do cost more up front than incandescent and CFL bulbs. But, they last longer. A lot longer. And they’re made to be quite sturdy. At Randolph College, Ludovic Lemaitre tells students, “When you come in as a first-year and move into your dorm, you buy an LED bulb for your desk lamp. You can go through four years without having to buy another bulb. They’re sturdy and don’t break. They don’t produce any heat, so that’s also good.”

Watch Your Water Usage

Water, as any Californian will now tell you, is a precious resource, despite any evidence to the contrary (lawns being watered, ornate fountains, etc. . .). Shaving a few minutes off of your shower time on a regular basis, and waiting until you have a full load of laundry to do a wash are both good sustainability practices. As a exercise in sustainability awareness, Angie De Soto recommends that students also stop to think about what they’re doing when they brush their teeth. “Do you leave the water on? And, how much water runs down the drain while you’re brushing your teeth? It’s a small thing, and most people don’t think twice before brushing their teeth, but the energy that was used to clean the water that just runs down the drain, that’s something that’s worth thinking about.”

Recycle, Recycle, and Compost

It would be hard to overemphasize the importance of recycling, not just because it’s the right thing to do for the environment, but because it’s the kind of routine activity that can get you in the right headspace for sustainability. Angie De Soto thinks of recycling as one of the big “gateway” behaviors for sustainability. “Recycling forces students to think about where they are putting their trash, which doesn’t come naturally for many people.” Most colleges and universities will have a recycling program in place on campus. But not all recycling is the same. Find out whether your campus has a single-stream system, in which all recyclables are placed in one receptacle and sorted out later, or system that requires you to do the sorting before making a deposit. Larger and multi-site campuses may have more than one program, so take the time to check it out and to learn what can and can’t be recycled. Composting initiatives are also spreading on college campuses. Usually, this is something that institutional kitchen facilities will do a lot of the work on, but it’s still worth knowing how your school handles leftover food waste.

What’s Your Sustainability Rating?

How much carbon dioxide does the average American “emit,” or put into the atmosphere, each year?

According to the Wall Street Journal, that number is 118 pounds per person. That adds up, over the course of a year, to 20 metric tons per American, which is about five times higher than the world average, according to the International Energy Agency.

You’re familiar with miles-per-gallon, now try to guess how much carbon per mile a non-hybrid car emits on average?

It’s actually on one pound-per-mile, which might not seem so bad, and is certainly better than the kind of numbers automobile engines were generating just a couple of decades ago. Unfortunately, most car trips last longer than a single mile. And, on average, Americans drive about 30 miles a day.

Do your shoes leave a carbon footprint?

Of course they do. Everything does. And Timberland has gone to the trouble of actually rating its shoes based on carbon emissions. According to data collected by the Wall Street Journal, flip flops cost between 22 and 44 pounds of carbon emissions, while the materials and manufacturing of full-size hiking boots can dump close to 200 pounds into the atmosphere.

How many loads of laundry does the average American family do per year?

According to Proctor & Gamble, the manufacturers of Gain, Tide, and Cheer, that number is around 300. That load of loads will dump about 480 pounds of carbon into the atmosphere annually. But you can cut back on those emissions by using cold water and foregoing the dryer in favor or hanging your clothes out to dry.

Why is the carbon footprint of a gallon of milk an issue of some contention and controversy?

Because it’s hard to know when to start measuring the emissions. A National Dairy Holding study came up with a number of somewhere between six and eight pounds, but that’s only counting emissions from the cow and from the manufacturing, packaging, and distribution of that plastic jug of milk. Unfortunately, that does not include the considerable amounts of carbon that are produced in order to produce the cow that makes the milk, or the emissions that cow might give off after the milk is in stores.

What about beer?

The New Belgium Brewing Company got the ball rolling on measuring the carbon footprint of a six pack when it calculated that number for its Fat Tire Amber Ale. In fact, a six pack of Fat Tire leaves about seven pounds of carbon emissions behind, but it does come in recyclable glass bottles. And, it turns out, as with much of the food we consume, much of that carbon footprint comes simply from refrigerating the beer.

On the Frontlines of College Sustainability

Meet university professors who are working to build and maintain sustainability programs on their campuses.

Merry Rankin

is the director of sustainability programs at Iowa State University in Ames, Iowa. Prior to her current position, she worked for the Iowa Department of Natural Resources as an environmental specialist in the energy and waste management bureau. She also was the head of the Keepers of the Land project, an initiative that focused on conservation of the state’s parks and recreational areas.

Merry Rankin took a somewhat indirect route to her current position as director of sustainability programs at Iowa State University in Ames, Iowa. After completing an undergraduate degree in business, she went to work in the private sector, as a purchaser at a furniture company. “It was at a time when a lot of new air and water pollution regulations were coming on line,” she recalls. “Our suppliers were impacted by these changes, which affected our pricing. I remember the owners of the company being very upset about that. It was a turning point. The company closed some of its operations, and I decided to go back and pursue a graduate degree with the intent of trying to forge a connection between science and the business world.”

In 2008, she became Iowa State’s first director of sustainability programs as part of a larger university-wide commitment to going green. “I often tell students that sustainability is about being mindful in our day-to-day activities — mindful about how we are impacting the environment and how that will affect those who come after us. It’s not just transportation and not leaving the lights on, it’s how and on what products and services you spend your money, because that sends a message to manufacturers and businesses about the product or service, and about how they are treating their labor force. It’s also about making a cognitive choice in how you give back to your community and pay forward to others, in taking the extra time to be part of building your community and assisting others so that they feel engaged and empowered.”

It’s a job that, oddly enough, has her thinking about furniture yet again, but from a different perspective. “Sustainability involves becoming aware of the impact of all the little decisions that we make. For example, when students move out at the end of the academic year, they get rid of all sorts of furniture, couches, and futons. All these bulky items end up in the trash, and it would be too labor intensive to go through it all for recycling, so all of that furniture ends up in a landfill. We are trying to impress upon our students the idea that they should spend a little more time making decisions about these things, so that they can make decisions that will be better in the long run for the environment and for themselves.”

Angie De Soto

is the director of the Sustainability Institute, a cutting edge educational program attached to the College of Natural Resources and Environment at Virginia Tech. A joint venture with the integrated heating, ventilation and air conditioning company Trane as its corporate partner, the Institute mentors undergraduates in the applications of sustainability in the business world.

When Angie De Soto arrived as an undergrad at Virginia Tech in 2004, sustainability wasn’t one of the school’s top priorities, and initially it wasn’t a major concern for her either. As the director of the university’s new Sustainability Institute, she understands how important it is to frame sustainability in a way that won’t drive students away. “I think a lot of students are interested in this issue, so that’s not the problem. But, I do think that many of them feel overwhelmed and just don’t know where to plug in to do something about it. They think they need to do everything, instead of understanding that everyone needs to take their own bite at the issue. It’s an overwhelming feeling for students to feel that the world is crumbling before them and what are they supposed to do?”

So, she likes to present sustainability in broad terms. “Everyone has their own spin on it, but for me it boils down to, ‘Enough for everyone forever.’” It’s a phrase that’s borrowed from a 2012 Simplicity Institute report titled “Sufficiency: Enough, For Everyone, Forever,” and it’s also the subtitle of Sufficiency Economy, a book of essays published by the Simplicity Collective in August of 2015. “We live in a closed system that is this planet, and everything that we consume and share is within this closed system,” she explains. “We need to insure that we have enough resources for everyone here right now, and for future generations. In other words, it’s bigger and broader than environmental issues. I like talking about sustainability as nested interdependencies rather than the usual Venn diagram that has economic, social, and environmental spheres intersecting. You have a big circle, which is the Earth or our environment and all of its resources. That encloses a smaller sphere representing our social systems, or the people and the communities they are part of. An inside of that are the economic systems that regulate how we utilize the planet’s resources.”

Sustainability Resources

The go-to resource for campus sustainability information, ideas, initiatives, and challenges is the AASHE, or the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education. The AASHE has an annual conference, a newsletter, an online guidance center, an assessment and tracking tool, and links to everything that has anything to do with college sustainability. Here are some of the other sustainability groups and organizations that are active on campuses and provide further resources to students interested in further pursuing the ultimate objective of going green: