Balancing Budgets and Sustainability

The cost of post-secondary education is at an all-time high, and in these difficult economic times many families cannot afford another tuition increase. As a result, many schools are seeking alternative funding opportunities. One of the easiest ways for colleges and universities to find money in their budget is by eliminating wasteful practices.

Each year the U.S. produces more than 4.5M tons of solid waste, much of which consists of recyclable or reusable materials. By reducing waste and creating more sustainable practices, colleges and universities could save thousands each year.

Create a ‘Green Team’
“The first objective in sustainability should be creating a team of faculty, staff, and students whose sole objective is to create and enact ‘green’ initiatives, observes Tom Petersen, P.E., president of Environmental and Engineering Solutions, Inc. (EES) in Wyncote, PA. “Don’t attempt to tackle the complex problems first; start with small projects and highlight existing successes.”

If a college or university has an existing green initiative, such as the installation of high-powered hand dryers rather than paper towel dispensers, their green team could declare the reduction in paper waste as their first success. By using an existing program as a stepping-stone, the team can foster support for future programs.

Build From Success
Next, the green team should select a simple but related project to tackle. In keeping with the attempt to reduce paper waste, colleges and universities could work to reduce unnecessary paperwork.

“Rather than allowing professors to print their syllabi, notes, exams, etc., for example, the green team could encourage professors to create electronic versions of such documents,” Petersen advises. With a program such as this, students would then be able to access their syllabi, notes, and assignments at any given time, and exams could be available at a designated time in an on-campus testing center or lab.

“The electronic format would not only reduce the amount of paper waste, but also the number of students who can use paper loss as an academic excuse,” Petersen adds. “While some individuals may resist, with the proper training and troubleshooting resources, many individuals will welcome the change.”

Additionally, college/university paperwork should be available in electronic formats. Some forms will need to remain in the paper format; however, the content of most paper forms is simply entered into computers and the forms then thrown away. By having individuals submit forms electronically, institutions can reduce the amount of intra-campus mail, speed the delivery process of important forms, and reduce paper waste.

Some colleges and universities are going even further and offering electronic textbooks. Textbooks are one of the many expenses associated with college and most books have annual content updates; thus, thousands of books are thrown away each year. Electronic textbooks are the digital media equivalent of printed textbooks, which can be read on personal computers, e-readers, or smartphones, and can cost up to 50 percent less than standard textbooks. They offer all of the same information with far less cost to the user and the environment.

Environmentally Preferable Purchasing
After colleges and universities take steps to make their campuses more sustainable, they must consider the sustainability of the products that they purchase. Packaging alone can account for thousands of pounds of waste each year. By working with manufacturers to reduce such waste, both higher education institutions and manufacturers can save money.

Additionally, by selecting reusable or recycled products, colleges and universities can save big. A number of colleges around the country are attempting to reduce the amount of waste created in their dining halls.  One successful technique is investing in reusable take-out containers. As profiled in the article on page 72 (“Green to Go”), the containers are microwave safe and durable. Students, faculty, and staff can purchase containers, use them, and bring them back at a later date to exchange for a clean one. At one small college, a similar program reduced their disposable container usage by 120,000 in a single year

Conserve Energy
Energy conservation seems like a simple idea, but it means so much more than turning off switches. Many institutions have buildings ranging widely in age. While many of the newer structures are fairly energy-efficient, there are simple steps schools can take to increase campus-wide energy efficiency.

Since electric lighting accounts for approximately 25 percent of all the energy used in U.S. buildings, conservation techniques can drastically reduce energy usage. By replacing incandescent desk/room lamps with LED lamps, colleges and universities can substantially reduce their energy use. Additionally, installing occupancy sensors in classrooms, restrooms, and auditoriums takes the action step out of conserving. It ensures that the campus will not waste energy because someone forgot to flip a switch. Finally, campuses can replace exit signs with LED lamps and 4-ft. T12 fluorescent tubes to T8. Each of these steps will help higher education institutions save money and conserve energy.

In these difficult economic times when every industry and individual is trying to save money, sustainability initiatives can do just that. Many schools have already taken the made a pledge to increase sustainability on their campuses and are finding the “budge” in their budgets again. By creating a more sustainable campus, colleges and universities can continue to offer outstanding educational resources without the dreaded tuition hike.

Heather Cummings is a project assistant at Environmental and Engineering Solutions, Inc. (EES), a consulting firm that helps organizations achieve their sustainability goals. Tom Petersen, P.E., has more than 30 years of experience in environmental engineering and is the president of EES. He can be contacted at 215/881-9401 or [email protected]