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A Greener BU: Look, Mom, No Trays!

New dining policy part of sustainability initiative


President Robert A. Brown announced the formation of the Boston University Sustainability Committee during yesterday’s Matriculation speech. Photo by Kalman Zabarsky

What’s scarlet and white and green all over? University leaders have the answer: an ecofriendly, sustainable Boston University.

During yesterday’s Matriculation speech, President Robert A. Brown welcomed both the new freshman class and a new University era by announcing the formation of the Boston University Sustainability Committee. Made up of faculty members, staff, and students, the sustainability committee will work to reduce energy consumption and decrease waste across the campus by concentrating on four crucial areas: recycling and waste management, energy efficiency, sustainable building development and operations, and communications, education, and outreach.

“We have an opportunity to play a key role in examining how changes in our way of life and how we conduct business can contribute to greater energy efficiency and an environmentally sustainable future for all of us,” Brown said. “Most importantly, we can shape our response to these challenges through how we operate in our community. We will be asking for the help of the entire academic community to help us in this effort.”

Brown has allocated $1 million for new projects that will deliver the highest environmental impact while requiring the shortest economic payback. One initiative, beginning this month, is tray-free dining halls. “We will save hundreds of thousands of gallons of water daily that was previously used to wash 16,000 trays,” Brown said.

Even before the formation of the committee, noted Gary Nicksa, vice president for operations, the University began making strides toward a greener campus. Several offices and academic buildings established recycling programs, the University incorporated sustainable practices into all of its major construction projects, and it introduced a University-wide ride-share program. In addition, Michael Field (GRS’05), former University assistant provost, launched a Web site for “greening” BU, which provides details of how the University is working to become more ecofriendly. “We’re doing this not because it is the politically correct thing to do, but because it makes sense, both environmentally and fiscally,” Nicksa said.

Many of these changes came about as a result of a 2007 classroom study led by Cutler Cleveland, a College of Arts and Sciences professor of geography and environment. The study concluded that from 1991 to 2006, BU’s energy use jumped more than 50 percent, to about 1.5 trillion British thermal units (Btus) of energy annually. Greenhouse gas emissions nearly quadrupled, to about 400 metric tons in 2006.

While Cleveland attributed the increases to BU’s expansion during those 15 years, when the Charles River Campus grew from about 7 million square feet to more than 10 million square feet, he also noted that the expansion was not the only reason behind BU’s energy surges. According to the audit, BU’s per capita environmental impact also intensified during this period, with energy use jumping more than 40 percent, to about 55 million Btus, for every full-time student, faculty member, and staff person, and per capita greenhouse gas emissions more than tripling.

The results of Cleveland’s audit — coupled with a less-than-stellar report card issued in 2007 by the Sustainable Endowments Institute, an environmental agency that evaluates and grades sustainability levels at U.S. and Canadian universities — prompted Brown to establish the sustainability committee. Appointing Nicksa and Cleveland as cochairs, Brown “turned what had been a mainly grassroots, personal-interest-driven movement into a viable organization,” Nicksa said.

Thus far, the University’s efforts are paying off; this year BU’s cumulative report card grade jumped from a D to a C, the most notable improvements occurring in the areas of food and recycling and climate and energy. By shifting to cleaner-burning natural gas at its two boiler plants and by retrofitting lighting systems with more efficient fixtures and compact fluorescent bulbs, the University cut its energy use by 11.7 million kilowatts, reduced fuel oil use by nearly 720,000 gallons, and saved about $3.6 million in utility bills.

Still, it takes a lot of energy to run BU: last year, the University used more than 200 million kilowatts of electricity, as well as natural gas supplying 600 billion Btus of energy and 2.5 million gallons of fuel oil. It also generated nearly 9,000 tons of waste — down by almost 1,000 tons from several years ago as a result of existing sustainability efforts.

“We plan to make every effort to solicit ideas from the community as we search for the best, most cost-effective approaches to our goals and the metrics we should set for measuring our progress,” Brown said. “You can help us plan, but most importantly, you can help us adapt.”

Vicky Waltz can be reached at vwaltz@bu.edu.


18 Comments on A Greener BU: Look, Mom, No Trays!

  • Peter Scherer on 09.02.2008 at 6:43 am

    This sucks.

    Not having trays is ridiculous. I feel like saying it makes the campus more “Green” is a blatant lie for something that really just saves the school money both by not having to pay people to clean them all the time and by making people taking less food. I really hope this policy gets changed back as soon as possible because this is not good for the school’s students at all.

  • Anonymous on 09.02.2008 at 7:59 am

    students helping

    Something you may want to consider is reaching out to students. Think of how much energy can be saved if students simply STOPPED leaving their computers on forever? I know so many people who leave their laptops on 24/7, wasting insane amounts of energy.

    I also have a question. How will these initiatives affect our tuition costs? Yes, it takes money to get things like these going. But, I assume that rising energy costs, mixed with rising energy consumption on campus, HAS to be one of the main reasons our tuitions keeps going up to insane levels. Will these energy efficiancy initiatives help in stabilizing tuition costs?

  • jullian on 09.02.2008 at 10:02 am

    it's not just saving money

    lots of schools are trying to reduce food wasted in the dining halls


  • MTK on 09.02.2008 at 10:14 am

    Consumer or person?

    The last post reminds me that in addition to saving energy, money and the environment, green initiatives will also, we can hope, alter some attitudes. Some of our students have no idea how comfortable their lives are or the role this comfort plays in the destruction of the environment.

    As students increasingly view themselves as consumers instead of members of a human community, they will complain about minor discomforts even when the planet’s future is at stake.

    If something as minor as stopping the use of trays draws a complaint, it is clear we have work to do.

  • Agree with "This Sucks" on 09.02.2008 at 10:27 am

    “This sucks” took the words right out of my mouth. This is absolutely ridiculous. It inconveniences students, and the “green” excuse is a bunch of BS. It just gives BU an excuse to save money. The water wouldn’t just disappear either, it would just have to be re-treated. It would make more sense for a BU student to develop a new, clean, on-site water-filtration system or something like that.

  • Anonymous on 09.02.2008 at 10:33 am

    Recycling at CFA

    I applaud President Brown’s efforts to make our campus more eco-friendly. As an alumna and staff member of the CFA, I sincerely hope that this means plastic and glass bottle recycling for this building. Hundreds of musicians means hundreds of plastic water bottles thrown away each day. A few recycling bins on each floor would go a long way!

  • Anonymous on 09.02.2008 at 10:37 am

    @ "This sucks."

    Does it really? Surely there are worse things than having to carry a plate in one hand, a cup in the other, and perhaps having to make two trips to get everything you want at a meal. There is no way to refute how many gallons of water are saved by cutting out the use of trays in dining halls. This is a minor sacrifice, and one that conscientious students ought to be willing to make.

  • Anonymous on 09.02.2008 at 2:16 pm

    Whether or not these actions are truly for the sake of being green, the results are one step to a better environment. I do not understand any person who would assume that the convenience of only making one trip with their tray outweighs the benefits of a trayless BU for the whole environmental community.

  • Patrick Michaelan on 09.03.2008 at 6:30 pm

    This is a step in the right direction, but...

    congrats to the folks who have finally decided to create an office of sustainability! this is a step in the right direction, but the true sense of how big a step it is will display itself as the year is looked at in retrospect. recycling (as it concerns providing opportunities to recycle) should be an afterthought; cutting water use is relatively simple; switching to natural gas makes economic sense. the bigger question is where is the University as concerns renewables and energy-efficiency? results should be judged in terms of months and dollars today, but this is only a preamble (though necessary) to a “sustainable” BU…

  • Mr. Jody Wilson, Ph.D. on 09.04.2008 at 10:25 am


    Considering the ever-rising price of tuition, the University should be able to afford some trays and washing water.

    And please don’t tell me this will reduce atmospheric carbon dioxide. Every lump of power plant-coal that BU saves by not using hot water will eventually be bought and burned by some other coal-burning plant here or in another country. It’s all going to be in the atmosphere sooner or later – it’s just a question of which power plant does it.

    What’s next? How about saving even more energy and water by getting rid of plates, utensils, and napkins and letting us all eat at a trough?

  • Anonymous on 09.05.2008 at 10:41 am

    Dear Insanity

    This is for people like you who dismiss the fact that the environment is suffering. Your argument describes the “Tragedy of the Commons.” look it up. If we just assume that someone else is going to do it, no one will ever do anything (basically).

    I love having the sustainablity committee, lets hope they do actually make a difference.

    We as one BU need to focus on the REDUCE part of reduce, reuse, recycle, not only on the recycle.

  • J. Wilson on 09.07.2008 at 2:59 pm

    Only the "green" of money

    The sustainability committee and tray-less cafeterias are token gestures made to appease “green conscious” students.

    The energy saved by getting rid of trays probably pales in comparison to the energy wasted in just the old arts and sciences building, where my office is located. In the summertime, old and inefficient air conditioners have to run at full tilt 24/7 to keep indoor temperatures tolerable. In the wintertime, single-pane leaky windows lose untold heat to the outside. Sometimes, however, the old steam pipes get cranked up either too early or too late in the season, and then windows have to be opened to keep occupants from boiling. Talk about wasting hot water…

    But fixing A/C units and replacing windows would cost a great deal of money – and that’s what this is really all about. Getting rid of trays is a trivial, but far more visible and inexpensive gesture than making improvements to energy gobbling-buildings.

  • Anonymous on 09.09.2008 at 9:13 am

    My only issue is how many fliers were printed in the dining halls to inform students about going trayless.

  • Anonymous on 09.09.2008 at 9:28 am

    In response to the complainers

    This is to the people who think that the tray-less dining halls are a ploy to help BU save money:

    I don’t understand why you are complaining. Think what BU can do with the money saved. The administration could lower tuition (or at least prevent another 6% rise in cost), allocate more money to student activities, or even put in energy conserving windows into CAS as “Only the ‘green’ of money” suggested earlier. Perhaps the saved money could go towards a new water filtration system as “‘This sucks’ took the words” suggested. Saving money is not a bad thing–it increases your quality of living and if BU happens to help the environment along the way, so be it.

  • Anonymous on 09.09.2008 at 12:26 pm

    mac 'n cheese poem

    without my tray,
    there are some serious burns
    coming my way.

  • Anonymous on 09.16.2008 at 12:22 pm

    To the response to the complainers:

    They’ll take the savings and spend it on the Christmas party so they can have multiple open bars.

  • Ugh... on 09.24.2008 at 11:32 pm

    if BU is so dead-set on saving the planet, then why did they leave the sprinklers on in the rain two weeks ago? If it’s absolutely necessary to spill soup on the floor, burn our hands, and drop knives and forks, then let’s at least actually not waste water. Personally, I don’t really care what BU does to the environment, I’d just like a little consistency.

  • Anonymous on 01.27.2009 at 9:42 am

    Transition was easy

    Looking back at all of these comments in January, it is surprising how easy the adjustments have actually been. It seems natural now.

    Now if we could just have more opportunities to recylcle plastics and packaging on campus…

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