Composting toilets in residences, electric vehicles for mail delivery, locally grown organic food in the dining halls, biodiesel buses, solar thermal systems to heat water, and photovoltaic panels for electricity—these are just a few of the features designed to reduce the environmental effects of today’s college campuses. Institutions of higher education are undergoing a wave of greening driven by infusions of capital, ambitious goals, high visibility, and high stakes.
The 4,200 colleges and universities in the United States have more than 17 million enrolled students, many of whom live, learn, eat, and exercise on campuses. Add the global university population, and the resources consumed by educational institutions are staggering. If colleges and universities improve their environmental performance dramatically, and if they have a long-term influence on choices made by graduates in their work, homes, and communities, the collective effect could be vast. Although campus greening has been going on for decades, recent initiatives fueled by concern for global warming have the potential to establish new thinking about infrastructure development, research programs, investment decisions, and learning.
The first Earth Day in 1970 inspired student groups, staff, and faculty to begin greening campuses. Through the 1990s, efforts focused primarily on increased recycling, more efficient lighting, water conservation, and waste reduction and procurement, including purchasing recycled paper. Early greening yielded notable successes, saving money and resources, and the experience sparked larger discussions of sustainability.
But along with new greening programs, the 1990s also ushered in an era of dramatic growth on campuses. New classrooms, expanded libraries and residences, more computers, and new and better-equipped laboratories all enhanced the educational mission. Colleges also invested in spectacular facilities, including indoor kayak runs and state-of-the-art movie theaters. All these amenities increase the campus environmental footprint. Students today are different from their 1990s counterparts: they arrive at college loaded with electronic devices and consume a great deal more energy. These factors combine to create a situation in which electricity efficiency measures on most campuses are negated by increased usage. College campuses reflect the trend of increasing nationwide electricity consumption. With more than half of U.S. electricity generated by burning coal, environmental impact is inevitable.