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The Greening of a University: The St. John’s Sustainability Initiative

The Greening of a University: The St. John’s Sustainability Initiative

by James P. Pellow and Brij Anand | Change Magazine

December 01, 2009

There is a growing awareness at the board level, as there is throughout society, that sustainability and conserving energy are very important priorities. It is a wonderful way to use the university’s enormous resources —the faculty, students, and the administration—to give back to society. Our primary function has always been education, but beyond that there is so much more a university can do.

With “greening” projects dotting the landscape of higher education across the nation, it is encouraging to witness the commitment of many colleges and universities to helping secure the future environmental viability of the nation. The challenges that come with this commitment, however, are not insignificant. A comprehensive university-wide sustainability program requires hard and dedicated work from all segments of the institution, as well as an expansive vision that involves developing effective partnerships with government agencies and like-minded institutions.

St. John’s University, one of the largest Catholic universities in the country, has embarked upon a broad sustainability program that engages all members of the university community in the implementation of energy-saving strategies in new and existing facilities, in the classroom, and in the living/learning environment. The initiative has involved partnerships with local, state, and national government sustainability programs, as well as linkages with other environmentally sensitive universities in the New York metropolitan area.

While St. John’s has been attentive to sustainability issues since the late 1990s, when it transformed itself from a commuter institution to one that currently houses some 3,500 students in 14 environmentally friendly residence halls, the university’s Board of Trustees recently endorsed an aggressive stance toward environmental stewardship, leading to the creation of the St. John’s Sustainability Initiative (SJSI). The SJSI provides a campus-wide framework for a variety of sustainability activities affecting all facilities operations. That framework guides the efforts of faculty, students, and administrators who are actively committed to environmental safety projects on all of the university’s campuses.

The SJSI has developed partnerships with the New York City Mayor’s Office’s Mayoral PlaNYC 2030 Challenge, the New York State Department of Transportation’s Clean Air Campus Program, and the United States Environmental Protection Agency’s Voluntary Partnership Program. To measure the success of its sustainability projects, the university uses assessment instruments that include the Sustainable Endowment Institute’s College Sustainability Report Card and the Sustainability Tracking Assessment and Rating System (STARS).

Through a combination of university-initiated projects, active partnerships, and ongoing assessment, St. John’s hopes to maintain a dynamic sustainability effort that will have a substantial impact and serve as a model for other higher education institutions across the country that are planning similar sustainability programs.

Greening the Curriculum Environmental study has long held a key place in the St. John’s curriculum. Since 1973, when the environmental studies program was created, undergraduates interested in professional careers related to the environment have had the opportunity to examine the moral, political, economic, and social impact of human activity on the environment, as well as the scientific and technical problems associated with ecological viability. The students majoring in environmental studies have a variety of academic backgrounds and interests, and their courses are drawn from biology, chemistry, physics, mathematics, geography, government, anthropology, and philosophy. Students from all majors are encouraged to take individual courses in the program as electives.

The program offers both a BS in Environmental Studies (Ecology) and a BA in Environmental Studies (Social Sciences). Some graduates will become biological, ecological, or geological scientists. Others may have skills as journalists, urban planners, or educators. The students are placed in internships in a variety of settings reflecting their career goals.

A number of courses introduce students to the global nature of ecological and sustainability challenges, encouraging a broad perspective that will better prepare them to operate in an increasingly interdependent world. In the summer of 2009, for instance, students had the opportunity to explore environmental issues on the island of Bermuda through a course entitled “Bermuda: Adaptive Ecosystem Management, Sustainability and Socioeconomic Issues.” Conducted by Frank Cantelmo, associate professor of biological sciences and environmental studies, it allowed students to study the island’s varied environments, including its wetlands, Atlantic Ocean beaches, and limestone caves. They were also exposed to Bermuda’s interdisciplinary approach to environmental problem-solving by examining the ethical, political, and educational components of sustainability decision-making.

Greening Student Engagement While this long-term commitment to educate young women and men about the environment has positively influenced the perspective of thousands of St. John’s students over the years, current concerns about global ecological systems and sustainability have led the campus to engage in its own sustainability initiatives. Among the most gratifying aspects of the St. John’s Sustainability Initiative (SJSI) is the enthusiasm students have shown in contributing to these efforts.

While their involvement is still in its early stages, St. John’s students are at the forefront of a number of exciting initiatives. Among them are serving as sustainability coordinators, managing RecycleMania 2009, participating in the university’s waste characterization study, and supporting the food-composting initiative.

Sustainability Coordinators A number of students have volunteered to serve as sustainability coordinators, which involves bringing students and administrators together to ensure good communication flow and the coordination of sustainability efforts. The coordinator’s additional responsibilities are:

  • To maintain campus-wide recycling bins, including monitoring their distribution and placement in buildings, grounds, and athletic fields.
  • To calculate and report on campus-wide recycling volume at eight pick-up locations.
  • To communicate recycling instructions to staff, faculty, students, and maintenance crews.
  • To survey buildings to monitor heating and cooling difficulties
  • To ensure the proper sorting of waste for recycling (the “Waste Characterization Study”).
  • To maintain spreadsheets for utility-bill tracking (electricity, natural gas, fuel oil, water).
  • To ensure energy is not wasted by making regular rounds of grounds and buildings to check on light usage, opened windows, etc.
  • To develop new ideas for conservation projects.
  • To participate in events like Earth Day, Sustainability Campus Awareness Week, Move-Out Food and Clothing Drive, Tray-less Dining Event, etc.
  • To make sustainability presentations to student groups and organizations.
  • RecycleMania 2009 Sponsored by the United States Environmental Protection Agency’s Waste-Wise Program, RecycleMania 2009 is a 10- week tournament competition among colleges and universities nationwide to measure success in recycling and waste management.

    St. John’s students, with sustainability coordinators taking the lead, enthusiastically embraced RecycleMania 2009. Prior to the tournament, the coordinators created posters to advertise the event, made presentations to student groups and student government, visited residence halls, and set up tables in key campus locations to gain support and volunteers for the recycling effort.

    The RecycleMania 2009 competition significantly increased the participation of students and staff in the recycling efforts. It also buoyed those efforts. In eight weeks, the initiative led to the recycling of some 85,400 pounds of paper, cardboard, bottles, and cans—or about 28 percent of the university’s total trash weight for the same period. Measured by EPA standards, this effort amounts to preventing 38 metric tons of greenhouse gas from entering the atmosphere by avoiding the carting of those materials to a landfill. In the past year, recycling on campus has increased some 400 percent through an investment in 3,500 new recycle containers. Campus enthusiasm for recycling has led to minirecycling contests, which have emerged around campus. In one residence facility, Donovan Hall, resident advisors on each floor organized a recycling competition in which students formed groups for a recycling challenge. In a short period of time, this friendly competition resulted in a recycling collection that prevented the release of an estimated 2.2 tons of greenhouse gases.

    Waste Characterization Study As part of its WasteWise partnership with the Environmental Protection Agency, St. John’s is conducting annual Waste Characterization Studies to ensure proper recycling procedures and activities. This entails the collection of full trash bags, which are weighed to measure volume. The bags are then opened, the materials are separated and an evaluation is made. If waste or recycling problems are apparent, a plan is developed to ensure future compliance.

    In April 2009, under appropriate supervision by the Office of Facilities Services, the sustainability coordinators conducted the first Waste Characterization Study of two administrative/ classroom buildings, St. Albert and St. John’s Halls. This led to the development of a communication plan to improve the effectiveness of the recycling effort at some campus locations.

    Food Composting Another sustainability project that provides the type of tangible results that encourage student participation is food composting. St. John’s has its first in-vessel food composter this year, which will serve as a working laboratory for the Departments of Environmental Studies and Biology. The primary goals are to nurture the soil and to decrease the need for commercial fertilizer, largely a petroleum-based product that has to be manufactured and trucked to stores and then to campus. Beyond that, composting benefits plants and lawns, providing greener, lusher foliage for all of the university’s campuses.

    In April 2007, New York City Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg announced the PlaNYC 2030 Challenge, New York City’s long-term sustainability plan, which includes 127 initiatives to “green” the city and reduce greenhouse emissions by 30 percent by the year 2030. With almost 80 percent of the city’s emissions coming from energy used in buildings, it became clear that greater energy efficiency in those buildings would be critical to achieving this goal.

    In June 2007, 10 major universities accepted the mayor’s challenge to reduce their emissions by 30 percent by 2017: St. John’s University, the City University of New York, Columbia University, Barnard College, New York University, Fordham University, Rockefeller University, New School University, Cooper Union, and Pratt. These institutions represent over 1 percent of the city’s total square footage and almost 1.5 percent of the city’s greenhouse gas emissions. St. John’s was able to establish a successful carbon reduction program through activities fostered by its participation in the PlaNYC 2030 Challenge. Establishing a sustainability office with dedicated staffing and completing the carbon inventory were top priorities.

    The Mayor’s Office of Long Term Planning and Sustainability, which developed PlaNYC and oversees its implementation, determined that city government should set an example by reducing its own emissions from municipal operations on an accelerated timetable of ten years. As such emissions account for only 7 percent of the city-wide total, PlaNYC included a mayor’s challenge to the institutions to match this aggressive goal. St. John’s expects to exceed that goal through an accelerated plan that will achieve this emissions reduction by 2013, four years earlier than prescribed by the mayor’s challenge.

    To assist the schools in matching the city’s aggressive emissions reduction efforts, staff from the city’s Office of Long Term Planning and Sustainability conducted a series of seminars and technical consultations with the cooperating schools to identify cost-effective energy-efficient projects and, most importantly, to create a forum for the institutions to share information and best practices. The mayor’s staff also assisted the schools in completing greenhouse-gas inventories and launching the action-plan process.

    If successful, the effect of the reduction from these 10 institutions will be an annual 0.6 percent decrease in city-wide emissions. And at a press conference in October 2008, Mayor Bloomberg announced the participation of four additional institutions in the PlaNYC 2030 Challenge.

    Since accepting the mayor’s challenge, St. John’s has taken a leadership role in developing aggressive strategies to meet the emissions reduction goals. Some highlights of the implementation plan include: Adding the mayor’s challenge to the already established energy-conservation goals of the FY 06 master plan.

    Submitting a preliminary plan to effect a 30 percent reduction of carbon emissions by 2017 through reducing the university’s carbon footprint to 35,000 tons of annual carbon emissions, or 28 pounds per building gross square foot of floor space. (Note: After evaluating current conservation activities, which are moving at an accelerated pace, it is projected that the university can reach the aggressive emissions reduction target in just six years).

    Performing an in-house study to identify opportunities to reduce energy consumption, including adding controls to light systems and upgrades to fan, refrigeration, and boiler systems.

    Planning a $20-million investment in energy capital projects, which will include a co-generation plant and a highefficiency chilled water plant among other energy conservation projects.

    Repairing mechanical systems, improving boiler combustion efficiency, and expanding the building management system.

    Implementing an online Web-based utility tracking system for monitoring consumption, cost, carbon footprints, and budgets.

    As of this writing, the initiatives at other major institutions participating in the mayor’s challenge suggest that many have made significant progress towards achieving their sustainability goals.

    The City University of New York has conducted extensive training programs for all maintenance and operations staff and has developed a sustainability awareness and greening information exchange through new interactive Web pages. It too has encouraged student involvement in monitoring energysaving activities and enforcement.

    Fordham University has reached 74 percent of its greenhouse reduction goal through lighting controls, steam-trap maintenance, building automation expansion, and switching to natural gas. It is also conducting a feasibility study for the co-generation of heat and power.

    Columbia University has completed an energy-efficiency evaluation of existing buildings that will generate lighting upgrades, solar and thermal storage, a high-efficiency chilled water plant and a feasibility study for co-generation. The university has also initiated a “LEED for Neighborhood Development” program as part of its expanded campus initiative. New York University has made substantial progress in its co-generation plant construction, and Cooper Union has completed over half of its sustainability action plan.

    MillionTreesNYC Initiative Deepening its partnership with the City of New York and other nonprofit groups to promote the protection of the environment, St. John’s has joined MillionTreesNYC, a city-wide effort jointly led by the New York Restoration Project (NYRP) and the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation. NYRP, founded in 1995, is a non-profit organization that supports the cleanup and restoration of parks, open spaces, and community gardens, particularly within New York City’s underserved communities.

    The goal of the MillionTreesNYC program is to plant and cultivate one million new trees across the city’s five boroughs by 2017. St. John’s has already planted some 750 trees in the first two phases of the project, with 250 additional multicampus plantings scheduled for fall 2009.

    Partnership with the Environmental Protection Agency In December 2008, St. John’s became the first private university to sign a memorandum of understanding with the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). It acknowledged the university’s commitment to environmental stewardship and to outline specific sustainability initiatives that would ensure continuous progress towards reaching specific goals over a five-year period.

    The memorandum of understanding describes eight separate programs that St. John’s and the Environmental Protection Agency will operate together to achieve sustainability success. They are:

    The Coal Combustion Products Partnership The goal of this program is to increase the use of coal ash as a replacement for Portland cement in concrete, which will reduce future greenhouse gas generation.

    The Combined Heat and Power (CHP) Partnership (Cogeneration) The goal is to reduce the environmental impact of power generation by installing CHP systems that increase operational efficiency and decrease energy costs. The partnership works closely with energy users, the CHP industry, state and local governments, and other clean-energy stakeholders to facilitate the development of new projects and to promote their environmental and economic benefits.

    EnergyStar A joint program of the EPA and the United Stated Department of Energy, EnergyStar helps businesses and consumers save money and protect the environment by investing in energy- efficient products and practices. Through the program, the EPA has partnered with thousands of organizations across the residential, commercial, and industrial sectors to increase the sale of energy-efficient products bearing the EnergyStar label, to raise energy-efficiency standards for new home construction and existing home renovations, and to improve the efficiency of commercial and industrial facilities through strategic energy management practices.

    GreenScapes This program brings together government and industry to reduce, reuse, and recycle waste materials in large-scale landscaping by providing cost-efficient and environmentally friendly solutions that conserve natural resources and energy.

    Labs 21 This program promotes reduced spending in laboratories while improving the environment. Laboratories require tens of millions of dollars worth of energy to run and add tens of thousands of pounds of pollution to the air, soil, and water. The EPA and the Department of Energy are helping new and retrofitted laboratories cut their energy costs and reduce environmental damage. The goal is to create energy selfsufficiency for all EPA labs and to serve as a model for savings at other science laboratories throughout the country.

    WasteWise This program promotes cost savings and efficiency through waste prevention, recycling and buying or manufacturing recycled content products. The National Clean Diesel Campaign With components including Clean Construction USA, Clean Ports USA, Clean School Bus USA, this campaign builds on the success of innovative efforts to reduce emissions from diesel engines.

    WaterSense This program focuses on creating market enhancements for water-efficient products. It also provides information on water efficiency to increase public awareness of the need for conservation of this valuable natural resource.

    St. John’s partnership with the EPA extends beyond these programs and involves ongoing communication with the agency to ensure compliance with the most efficient energy standards and best practices in environmental preservation. Partnership with the New York State Department of Transportation

    Clean Air NY Clean Air NY is an initiative sponsored by the New York State Department of Transportation in support of region-wide air quality efforts. Clean Air NY was developed because the United States Environmental Protection Agency has rated the New York metropolitan vicinity as a non-attainment area, which means that it does not meet federal guidelines for protecting human health from ground-level ozone and particulate- matter pollution.

    As a Clean Air campus partner, St. John’s is committed to keeping its students, faculty, and staff aware of information related to air quality and pollution. For example, when Clean Air NY declares an Air Quality Action Day (a day that is predicted to have particularly poor air quality), the university shares that information through postings on electronic bulletin boards and its internal website. The notification also includes suggestions for how to reduce air pollution and minimize individual health risks during this period.

    As a campus partner, St. John’s participates in Commuter Link, which promotes car pooling among students and staff to reduce vehicle pollution. The university also participates in a commuter benefits program that allows employees to pay for transit passes through a pre-tax allocation from their regular paycheck.

    The St. John’s Sustainability Initiative (SJSI) is an ongoing effort to contribute to the present and future environmental health of the community and to serve as a model for other institutions that wish to develop a comprehensive sustainability program. While still a work in progress, the SJSI has enjoyed a number of interim successes that suggest it is on the right path to achieve its sustainability goals, to educate students to understand the fragility of our environment, and to reinforce the need for them to be active participants in ensuring a future that is cleaner, safer, and sustainable.

    James P. Pellow currently serves as executive vice president and chief operating officer of St. John’s University in New York. He has led the operational management of the university through a period of historic expansion and its transformation from a commuter to a residential institution. Brij Anand is vice president of facilities at St. John’s, where he helped to establish the sustainability office and program. Together they lead the St. John’s Sustainability Initiative.