Focus, Higher Education, and Sustainability

GVSU’s commitment to sustainability earns it top national honors

School rallies students in hopes of achieving carbon neutrality by 2043.

April 12, 2013
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GVSU's commitment to sustainability earns it a top national honor
Students, faculty and staff all have responded to Grand Valley State University's commitment to sustainability through various projects and efforts, including better use of public transportation. Courtesy GVSU

Grand Valley State University wholeheartedly began its journey in sustainability in 2008 when President Thomas Haas signed the President’s Climate Action Plan and committed the school to working toward a more sustainable campus.

The university recently was awarded gold status by the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education through its sustainability assessment program, known as the Sustainability Tracking, Assessment and Rating System. Grand Valley was one of only 45 schools to receive gold status, with 243 colleges and universities submitting for a rating. Gold is currently the highest status that has been reached, although platinum is the highest level of certification possible.

“The STARS report encompasses 1,000 questions that assess every aspect of our campus and how sustainable we are on those aspects,” said Bart Bartels, campus sustainability manager.

The assessment looks at four key areas of a campus: education and research; operations; planning, administration and engagement; and innovation.

“Just about everything we are doing in sustainability on campus is measured in some way in the STARS report,” Bartels said.

Some of the questions the report asks are: What is your carbon footprint? What percent of the square footage on your campus is LEED certified? Do you have a community garden? Do you have a storm-water runoff plan? Do you have a climate action plan?

When Haas signed the President’s Climate Action Plan, he gave the school the goal of achieving carbon neutrality by 2043.

Students, faculty and staff all have responded to GVSU’s commitment to sustainability through various projects and efforts.

The university created a free busing system to encourage mass transit use over driving; it committed to purchasing Energy Star appliances; and it has built every building to at least LEED Silver since the plan was signed.

In addition to encouraging public transit as an alternative to driving, the school launched the membership-based car-sharing program WeCar last fall, which encourages students to leave their cars at home or get rid of them all together. WeCar is a rental service by which students can rent available cars by the hour to run errands, go to appointments, or even to get away for the day or travel overnight to another part of the state. The program boasts financial savings for the individual and offers a more sustainable option than everyone owning his or her own vehicle.

Yard waste recently was identified as a problem on campus, and Bartels said composting has proved to be a viable and sustainable solution.

“That project has taken what was a problem — this pile of yard waste — and turned it into an asset, which is compost,” he said. “The hope is that this summer we will avoid purchasing about $3,000 in compost by just using what is there, closing the loop on our waste stream.”

Students have become involved with the school’s peer-to-peer education effort, another requirement for gold status in the STARS rating system.

“We started a program called the Eco Rep program and, in that program, its students educate other students about sustainability,” Bartels said. “The group decided to address a problem on campus. … Pizza boxes were going to the recycling system, and the pizza boxes — being contaminated with food waste oil — were causing a problem in the recycling system because cardboard boxes don’t break apart properly, the fibers don’t separate, if contaminated with food waste oil.

“So they wanted to capture those boxes and instead redirect them to our composting dumpsters on campus. The students started to collect these pizza boxes in each housing unit and keep track of how many of them there were. They started this in January 2012 and, as of right now, there are around 23,000 pizza boxes. If they were to stack these boxes, it would be a little over the height of the Eiffel Tower.”

Additionally, GVSU attempted to make its 2012 homecoming football game a zero waste event and successfully reduced landfill waste from the stadium that night to one trash bag’s worth.

“There is a national database where you enter an event and measure everything from that event. We picked our homecoming football game. … We started by removing all of our trash cans from the football stadium, basically taking away the status quo, and instead setting up three bin systems around the perimeter where we had students educating the community about which bin everything should go in. We had a compost bin, recycling bin and a landfill bin, and by doing that it was amazing.”

GVSU’s homecoming event was the No. 1 zero waste event in the country for Division II and Division III schools.

Bartels noted that most of the programs and initiatives the school has undertaken don’t receive any funding at all, including the pizza box composting initiative.

“You don’t need a budget to make a big impact on sustainability. You want to be economically sustainable as well — that is what we are trying to do. Our budget for funding is very low. As far as projects and things like that, we are talking maybe $5,000 for the year, including bringing in speakers.”

What is most important to sustainability initiatives is tracking progress.

“We don’t want to be just doing things for the sake of doing things,” Bartels said. “We want to know whether we are improving. For that reason we measure what we are doing, and the STARS assessment is a great way for us to measure our progress.”

Bartels said that since 2006, GVSU has reduced its carbon inventory by 4.7 percent — even more if overall footage is considered.

“We’ve gained about 1 million square feet of buildings and we’ve added a couple of thousand students. So if we were to look at that number on a square footage basis, our carbon footprint is down more than 20 percent.

“I think that is important because greenhouse gas emissions are a measure of inefficiency.”

In the coming year, GVSU plans to become a bike-friendly certified campus and to open a surplus store downtown where it will resell all of its outdated items such as chairs, bookcases and desks.

To continue to attract students to its campus, GVSU is well aware sustainability is a key selling point.

“There is a Princeton Review report called the Hopes and Worries Survey,” Bartels said. “That report asks what students are looking for when they are choosing where to go to school, and 68 percent of incoming freshmen value the environmental commitment of the institution where they choose to go.”

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