Student Life: An essential connection to sustainability on campus

At the University of Michigan, Student Life has a fairly simple sustainability mission: to embrace university-wide efforts and become a campus leader in sustainability by involving, educating, and changing the behaviors of students and staff.

At the University of Michigan, Student Life has a fairly simple sustainability mission: to embrace university-wide efforts and become a campus leader in sustainability by involving, educating, and changing the behaviors of students and staff.

Student Life is uniquely positioned within the university to do just that. Our facility footprint approaches nearly one-fifth of all land on the Ann Arbor campus. Therefore, even the smallest change in policy, if implemented widely in Student Life, can have a big effect. Through university unions, university housing, Michigan Dining, and recreational sports especially, our facilities and units interact with virtually 100 percent of the student body. These interactions are of real quality and provide us with an opportunity to pass on sustainable habits and principles for life.

Five Goals Identified

In 2011, former president Mary Sue Coleman convened integrated assessment teams to benchmark sustainability initiatives against those of other universities. The teams were also asked to develop specific goals for our campus which resulted in the following:

Energy Reduction
As a way to take action in regards to the climate, the university aims to reduce greenhouse gas emission by 25 percent from the 2006 measurement.

Waste Reduction
Our waste prevention initiative focuses on the goal to reduce waste tonnage that is sent to disposal facilities by 40 percent.

Water Usage
To protect the Huron River in Ann Arbor, water quality will be protected by minimizing runoff from impervious surfaces and reducing the volume of land management chemicals used on campus by 40 percent.

Michigan Dining has committed to purchasing 20% of its food from sustainable food sources by 2025. As defined by the university, sustainable food sources are those that are locally sourced and third-party certified.

Knowing the importance of creating a strong culture surrounding sustainability, the university has made it their final goal to invest in sustainability culture programs that educate our community, track behavior, and report on progress over time. A campus-wide survey, SCIP (Sustainability Cultural Indicators Program) was developed by Robert W. Marans and John Callewaert from the University of Michigan Institute of Social Research to identify opportunities the entire campus has regarding sustainability initiatives. So far, SCIP has gathered three years of cultural data from students, staff, and faculty.

New Administration,
Continued Progress

President Mark Schlissel arrived on campus during the summer of 2015. During his orientation to campus, he was clear about his interest in sustainability initiatives. He revisited former president Coleman’s goals and renewed efforts on existing goals using working groups that included students, faculty, and staff.

Since the 2011 introduction of the five overarching sustainability goals, Student Life has made numerous accomplishments by collaborating with a variety of departments including the Office of Campus Sustainability, Graham Sustainability Institute, Central Student Government, and student groups like the University of Michigan Sustainable Food Program and our university chapter of the Food Recovery Network. The involvement of student organizations is critical to our success. With the support of these groups as well as the power of students, there are many projects and initiatives that further the university’s larger sustainability goals.

Current Initiatives

Energy Reduction

Reducing energy usage is a simple area in which many people on campus can participate and make a significant impact. Programs that pertain to using less energy in the form of lights and appliances have been especially successful. In residential halls, a student program called “Kill-a-Watt” uses a competitive format to encourage residents to turn off lights when they are not in use. In addition, the campus as a whole looks to reduce energy usage during all renovation and construction projects by designing for 30 percent higher standards than the minimum requirements. Other campus-wide initiatives include implementing sensor lighting where possible and replacing incandescent lightbulbs with LED lighting. The university is held accountable by the tracking and recording of energy usage for all buildings on campus.

Other energy reduction initiatives focus heavily on transportation. Encouraging rideshare for those who commute to campus, implementing bike rental programs, and providing free on-campus busing to university students, staff, and faculty have all contributed to our commitment to reduce our energy consumption related to greenhouse gases.

Waste Reduction
With a student body of over 40,000, the university has a great interest in waste reduction. Campus-goers benefit from single-stream recycling receptacles that eliminate the need to sort through items, strengthening the individual’s ability to recycle as a default. In order to reduce the need for students and staff to carry one time use water bottles, every incoming freshman receives a reusable water bottle. To further support the use of reusable water bottles, water refill stations are installed in all university union buildings, several recreational sports buildings, and more than a dozen residence halls. This change was the result of the suggestion by a group of students who were concerned with water bottle waste.

When students move in and out of the residence halls, the university provides opportunities for them to donate and recycle appliances, bedding, food, and other household items that would otherwise be thrown away. This program allows students to continue their sustainability efforts regardless of the stresses of moving.

Michigan also encourages those on campus to make thoughtful decisions regarding food. The elimination of trays in the dining halls allows students to consider how much food they plan on eating. The “Just Ask” program allows students to try food before asking for an entire plate. Both of these programs represent tangible ways that the university discourages food waste. When food is not eaten however, there are programs in place to divert food from the waste stream. The University of Michigan student chapter of Food Recovery Network recovers unserved food and donates it to local food banks. Additionally, Michigan practices pre-and post-consumer composting in all dining halls on campus. As always, students are the agents of change. Interested in having a bigger impact on reducing food waste, a group of students are currently piloting a 12 week program in a residence hall to test the efficacy of post-consumer composting in individual dorm rooms. Their success will influence future composting programs.

Water Usage
Ann Arbor residents, including the University of Michigan, benefit greatly from being home to the Huron River. In order to reduce our contribution to its contamination, the housing and university unions departments now use aqueous ozone as a replacement for many chemical cleaners. Unlike traditional chemical-based cleaners, aqueous ozone cleaner poses zero threat to water quality and user safety. Once custodians realized just how effective this cleaning agent was, they became big supporters of the change.

The university defines local food as being grown and/or processed in the state of Michigan or within 250 miles of the Ann Arbor campus. Processed foods are considered to be locally sourced if the processing facility is located within a 250 mile radius of Ann Arbor and at least 50 percent of the ingredients (measured in annual expenditures) are also sourced from within a 250 mile radius of the processing facility. The 250 mile radius was selected because it matches the criteria established by the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education’s (AASHE) Sustainability Tracking, Assessment Rating System (STARS). As of fall 2015, the university’s sustainable food purchases are at 12.7 percent and growing.

Michigan Dining boasts a multitude of certifications related to sustainable food sources. The university is the first Big Ten university to be certified by the Marine Steward Council, a global, non-profit organization that promotes sustainable fisheries and responsible fishing practices. This certification means that the seafood served in the dining halls comes from well-managed and sustainable fisheries. Other certifications include Green Restaurant Association, and Fair Trade Organic for our coffee and tea. Farmers who are GAP and GHP certified are also able to sell their produce to the university.

Most importantly, our sustainability initiatives have been positively received by students. University organized farmers’ markets allow students to purchase fresh fruits and vegetables on campus while simultaneously supporting local farmers. Michigan Dining has also implemented “Meatless Monday” in one campus dining hall which educates students about the impact of reducing meat consumption on sustainability goals. Michigan Dining has worked closely with students and organizations to offer transparency in our work and seamless dining to our students.

The challenge to all of these initiatives is that our campus is ever changing and growing. Since former president Coleman’s goals back in 2011, the campus has grown. Growth brings more waste, and energy and water use. And changing the behaviors of those on campus can be a challenge, especially those less interested in sustainable initiatives. For this reason, it is important that Student Life frames participation in sustainability initiatives as an alignment with the university’s greater culture of sustainable living. Programs such as the Planet Blue Ambassador program, a workplace sustainability certifications program, and town halls ensure that campus goers are engaged not only in working and learning at the university, but in the sustainability culture as well.

Planet Blue is a program designed to engage the campus in actionable initiatives that enable ownership of sustainable practices. For example, each staff member must complete online training to learn about our campus goals and initiatives. Once complete, the staff generates a list of sustainability goals for themselves. An email is generated monthly to check on progress and update the staff on other initiatives taking place on campus.

Workplace certification is designed to review individual departments or offices and offer feedback on sustainable practices. Each office is graded using Bronze, Silver, Gold, and Platinum rankings. After an audit, department members have the opportunity to review the report and implement initiatives that bring their office up to the next level of certification. Michigan Dining is 100 percent workplace certified, and the units within Student Life are close to 100 percent certification as well.

The most effective way that the university promotes our culture of sustainability is through the student body. Student Life welcomes suggestions by students on how to improve current initiatives or how to create new ones. Campus classes offer students not only the opportunity to research and propose projects to Student Life representatives, but the chance to bring the projects to fruition. Student Life also employs student interns who are given the opportunity to be exposed to the “behind the scenes” details that support all of the campus initiatives. It is the hope that all of these students will take the sustainability lessons that they learn within Student Life and utilize them long after the university is a place they call home.

Going Forward

Maximizing sustainability efforts on campus is, and always will be, an ongoing process. Student Life is constantly searching for new programs, developing new initiatives, and finding new ways to expand sustainability efforts. Because students have an intimate understanding of campus life, one way of continuously growing efforts is by operating Student Life programs as living learning-labs for students to develop and appraise sustainability initiatives. By leveraging students’ fresh ideas and insights, with Student Life’s commitment to raising the bar, Student Life looks forward to maintaining an excellent environment for improvement and innovation.

Abby Dolan
Abby Dolan is a University of Michigan student in the college of Literature, Science, and the Arts. She will graduate in May of 2016 with a B.A. in Psychology and Spanish and a specialization in the Environment.