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Eco-Friendly U: Sustainability on the Rise at U.S. Colleges

Jul 31, 2023 09:30AM ● By Carrie Jackson
Sustainability on the Rise at U.S. Colleges

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The halls of higher education are adopting more sustainable practices as students and university stakeholders increasingly understand that their lifestyle choices and daily operations impact the planet. Motivated by the climate crisis and global-warming-related disasters, many students are looking for ways to lower their individual carbon footprint. Schools, too, are implementing Earth-friendly initiatives throughout their campuses while also prioritizing climate-conscious subjects in their curriculums. 


According to Julian Dautremont, director of programs at the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE), “Sustainability education helps attract, retain and motivate top students and prepares them for responsible citizenship. It catalyzes increased giving and new funding sources, strengthens community relations and facilitates new partnerships. Moreover, sustainability research and education demonstrate relevance in addressing grand challenges and help unify the campus around a shared sense of purpose.”


AASHE advocates comprehensive modifications that make going green easy and second nature. “We recommend that institutions create systems in which sustainability is the default. Long-term measures such as installing low-flow fixtures in bathrooms, using induction stovetops in dorms and having light sensors that turn off automatically in offices make saving energy automatic,” Dautremont explains. “Where individual behavior is a factor, make the more sustainable choices convenient by, for example, providing water bottle filling stations on every floor, installing covered bike parking and storage, or giving each room its own recycling receptacle and providing education and training to make sustainability behaviors the cultural norm.”


Sophomore Anna Ries-Roncalli, an environmental science major at Loyola University, in Chicago, says, “College is often the first time you’re learning how to be an adult and interacting with the world, and it’s important to make sure that your role is sustainable. Colleges have an inherent, built-in sense of community, and prioritizing sustainability comes more naturally when you see that it’s a collective responsibility that impacts others.”


Ries-Roncalli is aware of the impact her food choices have on the environment. “In our country, where we can buy anything we want from the grocery store, we are so disconnected from the food system. Most people don’t see a carton of eggs and think about every step that it took to get it on the shelves or where the farm it came from is located,” she says. To do her part, she brings reusable plates and utensils to the dining hall, takes leftovers home in a multi-use canister and shops locally or at farmers markets whenever possible. While Loyola composts most food waste in the dining halls, Ries-Roncalli volunteers with Food Recovery Network, a student organization that collects and distributes leftovers to local shelters and food pantries. 


Michael Hughey, a senior in the environmental studies program at Loyola, takes full advantage of a partnership between the Chicago Transit Authority and Loyola that grants eligible students unlimited use of public trains and buses. “Students can also walk, take their own bike or use a bike share to get around. Not only are they cutting back on their carbon footprint, they’re engaging more with the city on a ground level,” Hughey explains. “We’ve seen the effects of climate change disproportionately affect low-income communities and communities of color. I personally want to mitigate those effects as much as possible and be kind to the planet and my neighbors.”


Cria Kay, program administrator at Northwestern University’s sustainNU, says, “I recommend finding something that brings you joy, identifying what changes you want to see in your life or community, then developing an action you can take that applies your passion to the environmental issue you identified. Even something as simple as taking a walk to pause and notice the wildlife, water, air and soil around you can be helpful for well-being and getting inspired to take on more sustainable behaviors.”


Amy Spark, the sustainability coordinator at Bow Valley College, in Calgary, Canada, believes that sustainability literacy eventually will be required across all disciplines. “Students in every sector are going to be impacted by climate change. Nurses in our LPN [licensed practical nursing] program are seeing a spike in hospital visits with health issues from increasingly poor air quality. It is important to train future graduates to recognize and deal with the impacts of climate change in their discipline,” she explains.


Spark encourages students to use their voices. “Human stories move decision-makers, and schools are invested in their students' overall experience. You don’t need to be an expert, but speak from your experience,” she suggests. “Tell your administrators and policymakers how air quality affects you, or let them know how having more bike lanes would help. If you see something, say something. Report leaky faucets, lights that won’t turn off and other inefficiencies to the maintenance department so proper repairs can be made.”


“Individual behavior change is important, but the single most powerful thing students can do is to advocate for broader change,” says Dautremont. “Students can be enormously influential in campus decision-making, and the impact of such changes generally is going to far outweigh the impact of individual behavior changes.”


Carrie Jackson is a Chicago-based freelance writer. Connect at CarrieJacksonWrites.com.

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