University Sees Sustainability Gains, but Some Challenges Remain

Dana Elger, Public Affairs
Release Date: 

Two years, 10 hybrid buses and more than 1,300 Planet Blue Ambassadors later, the university is making strides toward its commitment to create a more sustainable campus through its operations. 

As announced in the fall of 2011 by President Mary Sue Coleman, the university has been working toward long-term sustainability goals in the areas of climate action, waste prevention, healthy environments and community awareness.

“We’ve covered a lot of ground in two years with multiple efforts focused toward meeting our goals in each area,” said Andy Berki, manager of the Office of Campus Sustainability.

“While we have made great progress in some areas such as sustainable foods and landscape management, there’s still much to be done.” 

Recently completed efforts impacting the goals include:

  • Increasing the number of LEED-certified buildings on campus to six with a total of four gold-certified buildings.
  • Implementing trayless dining in seven of the eight university dining halls.
  • Diverting more than 2,300 tons of waste through single stream recycling in FY2013.
  • Getting 80 offices involved in the Sustainable Workplace Certification program.

The 2025 goals and the result of reduction efforts to date are noted in the following percentages:

  • Goal: Cut U-M greenhouse gas emissions by 25 percent.
    Where we are: Emission levels have increased; 28 percent decrease currently needed.
  • Goal: Decrease vehicle carbon output by 30 percent per ride.
    Where we are: Reduced vehicle carbon output by 22 percent.
  • Goal: Shrink the amount of waste sent to landfills by 40 percent.
    Where we are: Waste levels have increased; 42 percent decrease currently needed.
  • Goal: Protect the Huron River through stormwater-control strategies and apply 40 percent less chemicals to campus landscapes.
    Where we are: Reduced chemical application by 20 percent.
  • Goal: Purchase 20 percent of U-M food from local and sustainable sources.
    Where we are: Currently purchasing 19.29 percent of U-M food from local and sustainable sources.

One area posing a challenge for the university is waste prevention. Despite a recycling rate of nearly 30 percent and cross-campus efforts to reduce waste, the university’s waste stream grew this past fiscal year to more than 13,500 tons, a 2.6 percent increase since 2006.

“Plant Buildings and Grounds Services has done an excellent job managing a successful recycling program that spans academic, athletic and research operations,” said Berki.

“Looking ahead we are exploring the reduction of food waste from our residence halls and dining facilities through composting, and reducing the amount of waste coming to campus on the front end from our prime vendors.”

Even with efficiently run buildings with robust recycling programs, the Ann Arbor campus waste stream is subject to increase as campus grows approximately 1-2 percent annually. For example, campus facilities grew by 4.8 million square feet since 2006, excluding the North Campus Research Complex acquisition.

Berki noted the unique waste streams generated by research and healthcare operations, which can be challenging to reduce from a recycling or waste diversion perspective.

OCS also acknowledged reducing the level of greenhouse gas emissions as one of the university’s top challenges.

Approximately 99 percent of emissions are associated with heating and cooling U-M buildings, with transportation being responsible for the remaining 1-2 percent.

The university promotes energy conservation through programs like the Planet Blue Operations Team, which reduced energy use in 137 buildings by 8.4 percent last year. While this program and other U-M sustainability efforts make a difference in how much emissions are generated, OCS expects the biggest impact to come from the use of new energy technology.

“To make significant progress toward the greenhouse gas reduction goal, U-M will need to invest in new energy technology on campus and develop an increased ability to buy renewable energy from within the state of Michigan,” Berki added.

OCS tracks the university’s progress quantitatively with a set of metrics for each goal. For example, the reduction of greenhouse gas is measured in metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalents, which are directly related to fossil fuels burned to supply energy to heat and cool facilities, and emissions associated with fuel burned by the transportation fleet.

The current levels are then measured against the 2006 baseline numbers to track movement toward the university’s goals.

“We have to continue to work hard and investigate the combination of new technology with efficiencies related to behavior to make the greatest headway on our long term goals,” added Berki.

“Significant accomplishments take significant commitment and effort. This institution is up to the task.”