Making the Green Grade
What faculty members can do to advance the Institute's sustainability objectives
How would MIT's premier ranking for research and education excellence compute if metrics measuring an institution's environmental performance were included in the ranking equation? Would MIT's performance in recycling, greenhouse gas emissions, and energy efficiency help or hinder our competitive position? Current efforts are moving us in the right direction, but additional leadership and participation by faculty members are essential ingredients to achieve more sustainable operations on our campus.
In a time of escalating resource consumption and unprecedented pressures on our ecosystems, the traditional metrics for ranking institutional excellence may well broaden to include a measure of an institution's impact on the well being of the environment, society, and the economy – typical measures of sustainability. A major challenge for MIT is to bring the same shared commitment that we have toward research and education to our sustainability performance. Achieving this is a shared responsibility distributed among our students, staff, and faculty, with each group bringing unique qualifications to bear on the challenge. MIT's faculty have a key role in advancing the Institute's sustainability objectives, whether or not they are working in traditional environmental disciplines.
In 2001, MIT pledged its commitment to environmental excellence with the adoption of the MIT Environment, Health and Safety Policy by the Academic Council. This Policy lays the framework for simultaneously promoting excellence in research and education while minimizing the environmental and occupational health and safety impacts of our operations. President Vest said many times that MIT's operations should strive to match our recognized leadership and excellence in research and education. We are making great strides towards our sustainability goals, but we have much to do.
In our operations, the installation of an advanced electricity cogeneration facility increased generation efficiency 18% while reducing our regulated air emissions by 45% and our greenhouse gas emissions by 60,000 tons per year. The Institute has partnered with and committed to the City of Cambridge to advance its bold and integrated approach to reduce the City's emission of greenhouse gases below 1990 levels. Innovative programs to increase commuter options at MIT have significantly reduced local air pollution and the burden on Boston's crowded roadways.
Food composting programs on campus remove more than 17 tons of waste per month from MIT's expensive waste stream and help return healthy soils to stressed agricultural systems.
The Institute has adopted the City of Cambridge's aggressive recycling target of capturing 40% of the total waste generated on campus and diverting it to recycling operations. To help address excessive storm water runoff into the City's sewer system, MIT has employed an innovative, state-of-the art storm water control and treatment system that uses biofiltration. The technology allows this water to be recycled as toilet-flushing water in the new Stata Center via solar-powered pumps, saving thousands of gallons of water each month.
The Institute's environmental programs continue to improve every year. We have more than quadrupled the amount of waste we recycle in the past five years. The overall trend is very positive and our recycling rate today is approximately 26%, compared with about 5% in 1999.
In our classes, faculty members have designed and employed innovative approaches to investigate real-life opportunities for advancing sustainability goals. A recent IAP course sponsored by the Laboratory for Energy and the Environment taught students how to use community-based marketing techniques to identify and develop practical projects to help implement the City of Cambridge's Climate Protection Plan. The Department of Chemistry has developed an undergraduate course that examines approaches and methods for promoting "green chemistry" in laboratories. There are numerous other classes in diverse disciplines that address environmental and sustainability topics.
However, for the Institute to make a significant and lasting impact on the sustainability of our operations and beyond, additional actions and commitments need to be made. Incorporating concepts of sustainability into our teaching and actions into our operations can be driven by a variety of equally important reasons: not only is it the "right thing to do," but sustainability also is based on the efficient and rational use of resources, which can be driven by a desire to minimize costs. You do not need to be a preservationist, a conservationist, or otherwise a "green" person to have a reason to behave "green" or to encourage more sustainable performance at class, work, or home. For example, it costs the Institute approximately 50% less to recycle our waste than it would cost to dispose of the same waste materials as trash. This translates into a potential annual savings to the Institute of more than $200,000 if we were to reach our current recycling goal of 40%. Employing double-sided printing would take a sizable bite out of the over $900,000 spent annually on office paper at MIT.
Simply turning off computer monitors at the end of the workday could save between $500,000 - $750,000 per year in energy costs (based on EPA figures).
Purchasing more environmentally preferable products not only promotes our sustainability goals but also can lead to significant cost-savings that accrue directly to individual departments, labs, and centers. Simply switching from purchasing traditional office printer toner cartridges to refilled or remanufactured cartridges could collectively save the Institute upwards of $115,000 per year. In 2003, MIT purchased almost $380,000 in conventional toner cartridges that could have been substituted with an equally performing and warranted remanufactured equivalent. A typical 30% savings on these purchases adds up to more than $114,000. This number will grow as the availability of other recycled products increases.
Current initiatives to reduce MIT's environmental footprint are just scratching the surface of efforts needed to create a truly sustainable enterprise. As we seek out opportunities beyond the "low-hanging fruit," we will have to work harder, smarter, and more creatively. We need to enlist the help of all students, staff, and faculty, and deploy the creative energies that make MIT such a remarkable hotbed of innovation. Only then will be able to achieve a green ranking that we can consider truly leadership-quality and on par with our research and education excellence.
What can faculty members do to help in this effort? There are several ways to show leadership and commitment, while not increasing the burden on people's busy schedules. These include:
- Commit and Communicate to Conserve Resources. Simply making it clear to staff and students that you believe sustainable behavior is efficient, less wasteful, cost-effective, and the "right thing to do" will go a long way. Faculty at MIT are perceived as the lifeblood and leadership of the Institute, and you can influence the actions of many.
- Adopt Sustainability Practices in Your Daily Work. Remember and act on the Rs of sustainability: Refuse to use wasteful products, Reduce the use of resources and generation of waste, Reuse products whenever possible, and Recycle materials that can be recycled. For example:
- Refuse to buy paper products with little or no recycled content;
- Reuse packing and shipping material;
- Utilize the MIT Furniture Exchange, Equipment Exchange, and the firstname.lastname@example.org email listing for buying, trading, and donating all types of reusable materials;
- Reduce energy consumption by turning out lights when you leave, turning off the air conditioning for the weekend, and shutting down unnecessary computers and other equipment;
- Recycle your discarded computers and electronics equipment by contacting email@example.com. Familiarize yourself with what can be recycled at MIT by going to http://mit.edu/environment/pdf/flyer.pdf.
- Put Your Sustainability-Related Research Into Action on Campus. Use MIT's facilities and operations as a laboratory to collect and study data and phenomena. MIT's campus embodies all of the functions of a town or small city and is open 24 hours a day.
- Integrate Sustainability Into Existing Course Work. Incorporate concepts of sustainability and environmental stewardship into existing and future classes and curriculum. Develop teaching examples that demonstrate sustainability concepts.
- Develop New Green Classes and Projects. Develop new classes and projects that specifically focus on environmental and sustainability themes. This can be done in all disciplines and Courses.
- Work with Student Groups. Engage campus student groups that focus on sustainability issues, such as SAVE (Share A Vital Earth), and SfGS (Students for Global Sustainability) by integrating shared activities or interests into course work; or help them shape their goals, objectives, and actions to be more effective organizations.
- Support Staff Efforts. Encourage your staff to become involved in the Recycling AmbassadorsPLUS program sponsored by the Working Group Recycling Committee. For more information, go to http://web.mit.edu/wgrecycling/ambassadors_plus.shtml .
- Encourage use of the Department of Facilities Resources. Request large blue totes for paper recycling when your office or department conducts a major file clean-out or relocation. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.
- Get Involved. Go to http://web.mit.edu/environment for more information on current initiatives and ways to get involved. Please contact me in the Environmental Programs Office for more information. He can be reached at 617-253-9492 or email@example.com.
Note: This article was prepared with the assistance of the Working Group for Recycling, MIT EHS office, the Laboratory for Energy and the Environment, and the MIT Environmental Programs office.