A Greener BU: Look Mom, No Trays!

New dining policy part of sustainability initiative

By Vicky Waltz

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

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.

This article first appeared in BU Today on September 2, 2008.

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