Going Bold, Going Green

When setting foot on campus at Messiah College in Grantham, PA, one would see many of the same sights as on other Christian college campuses: a bustling student union, professors chatting with other staff members between classes, and students enjoying a beautiful spring day on the lawn. But after a closer look what they would find is a deep-seeded commitment to environmental stewardship — something rare for a Christian college.

In the early 1970s Messiah began educating students about environmental stewardship through a required class entitled “Man and His Environmental Problems.” Today, Messiah is only one of four Christian colleges in the nation to offer a Bachelor of Arts degree in sustainability studies.

Messiah’s environmental sustainability efforts affect nearly all aspects of daily life at the College. Day to day, most students and employees probably don’t think twice about all the recycling bins or that the vegetables in their salad were possibly grown in the on-campus organic garden. These little acts of creation care have become integrated in the fabric of the college. But, when you start tallying a list of all the ways — big and small — that Messiah is caring for creation, it’s an impressive compilation.

“At Messiah College, we have a deep heritage that guides not only our thinking but also our practices in this work,” says Craig Dalen, director of sustainability at Messiah College. “We are currently at a place where we are experiencing integration from all areas of the college; from student engagement, academics, and operations.”

Dalen says that students have a large influence on the college’s sustainability practices.

“Students want to see our commitments to sustainability lived out in all areas of the college,” says Dalen.

Messiah Goes Solar Thermal
Most recently, Messiah contracted with the Edwin L. Heim Company to install 112 solar panels on the roofs of a complex of student residence halls in order to create the region’s largest solar thermal system and the fourth largest solar thermal project in the country. Construction will begin in mid-May and will be completed by October. The panels will be installed on the roofs of the three residence halls that comprise Messiah’s North Complex, and all the domestic hot water needs of those residences — totaling 113,000 sq. ft. and about 470 students — will be met by this extensive, energy-efficient solar collection system.

“This project not only demonstrates Messiah’s commitment to thoughtful stewardship, but also provides students and others a real-world example of these principles lived out at an institutional scale,” says Dalen. “Projects like these build momentum and galvanize energy.”

This new solar thermal system will offset greenhouse gases equivalent to planting 3,600 trees a year or taking 130 cars off the road annually. These offsets are significant in helping this 2,900-student college reduce its greenhouse gas emissions and meet the standards of the American College and University President’s Climate Commitment, of which President Kim S. Phipps is a signatory.

“We are developing the capacity to conceptualize our buildings and, ultimately, our physical campus, as co-educators in the students’ educational journey,” observes Dalen. “The importance of this work is critical to us as educators in preparing students to lead and serve in society.”

This solar thermal project is not the first solar project on campus. In 2008, the college dedicated the Clifford L. Jones Solar Scholars Pavilion, a four-array system designed and built by engineering students in Messiah’s Collaboratory for Strategic Partnerships and Applied Research. The pavilion powers a computer lab in Frey Academic Building and serves as an educational lab for Messiah students, as well as more than 7,500 elementary school children who visit the Oakes Museum of Natural History on the campus each year.

Community Gardening
Messiah has converted a quarter acre of campus land into a community garden for students, staff, and members of the Grantham community. The Grantham Community Garden is student-inspired, organic, and promotes real-life concepts of sustainable agriculture — a necessary dimension of holistic Christian stewardship. The college’s dining services facility owns several shares of the garden and uses local produce in salad bars and on campus menus. The nutrient-rich soil that nourishes the garden is the result of a student-led composting program that collects organic waste from on-campus eateries and composts it in a remote area of campus.

Sustainable Practices for the Not-So-Sustainable
Campuses, while taking the steps to cut waste and ultimately become carbon neutral, will find some practices aren’t sustainable. Messiah has urged students, faculty, and staff to help lower the institution’s carbon footprint by implementing more sustainable practices.

For example, magazine production can sometimes be unsustainable. But, staff members for Messiah’s quarterly alumni publication The Bridge sought to “green” the magazine by adopting Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) standards back in 2007. These standards regulate the kind of paper that the publication can use, as well as the solvents and chemicals used to produce the magazine. The FSC logo on The Bridge means Messiah is meeting the most social, environmentally, and economically responsible third-party standards of its kind.

Messiah’s physical plant has also made improvements in sustainability. A sampling of initiatives includes installing and updating HVAC systems to use off-peak power to generate ice or large volumes of warm water; installing high-efficiency, low-emissions equipment such as air handling units that can run on either propane or electric; and controlling buildings with direct digital control which allows for load shedding during high-demand peak times.

Dining Services has also made notable environmental strides, including purchasing napkins made from 30 percent post-consumer recycled fiber; providing fair trade coffees in all operations; using biodegradable to-go boxes; participating in a free oil recycling program; supporting local vendor purchasing; and purchasing recyclable service-ware in catering and retail locations.

Along with collecting waste from the dining halls for composting, a team of students also collects left over cooking oil and uses it to create enough bio-diesel to power campus utility vehicles used by the grounds crew. 

The Messiah community was challenged to “Turn It Off” as part of a campaign to reduce energy usage on campus and lower electric bills in early 2010. The campaign encouraged turning out lights, taking shorter showers, and shutting down unused computers. The campus-wide efforts resulted in a 1,194,217 kWh reduction in electricity usage from January to March 2010, compared to the same span of time in 2009.

Community Impact
 The impact on the broader local community has certainly been something that the college has been considering. It’s one of the reasons why Messiah has dedicated so many resources to improving the planet. One of the ways that Messiah has helped the community is through the design and implementation of one of Central Pennsylvania’s largest rainwater collection systems at the Joshua Farm, an urban garden in Harrisburg, PA, where at-risk youth grow and harvest vegetables using sustainable practices. The system can collect 4,300 gal. of rainwater in two storage tanks.

David Foster, professor of environmental science, also worked with students on rain garden design and implementation in a suburban subdivision. A high-end developer recently purchased property to build a subdivision and wanted to do something environmentally friendly to manage storm water runoff. After Foster mentioned the idea of rain gardens, the developer quickly signed on and asked Foster and his students to design and install rain gardens on each individual house lot and one for the development that treats street runoff.

Foster and Messiah students built a 130-ft. by 31-ft. rain garden that collects runoff using native species of plants. Students are also responsible for rain garden upkeep. One of the benefits of rain gardens is that water won’t pool, which keeps mosquitoes away. This is the first large-scale rain garden that has been installed in Cumberland County.

Future Plans
Plans to become increasingly sustainable never cease. As a signatory of the Presidents’ Climate Commitment, President Phipps and the Messiah community recognize the need to reduce the global emission of greenhouse gases by 80 percent by mid-century at the latest, in order to avert the worst impacts of global warming and to reestablish the more stable climatic conditions that have made human progress through the last 10,000 years possible. As such, Messiah is working on several projects that will help the institution further reduce its carbon footprint.

“To become a sustainable learning community is a difficult task, and much work remains undone. But, we walk alongside the many colleges and universities — big and small alike — who are working to make the world a better place in their individual localities. These are ambitious goals, and that is why it makes for inspiring work,” says Dalen.

Scott Willyerd is an account executive for Dick Jones Communications. He can be reached at [email protected]