How green is the Maize and Blue? U-M's big sustainability goals

Living in the Ann Arbor area, we take some things for granted. One is that most organizations in town are either on the cutting edge of sustainability initiatives or, at the very least, striving to be a green as possible. Does that assumption hold for Ann Arbor's largest and most innovative employer? Just how green is the University of Michigan—and how does it compare to other universities across the country?

It's not a straightforward question. After all, how "green" a university is depends on a number of factors, including carbon footprint, environmental sustainability, food waste, chemical waste and greenhouse gas emissions. In terms of a definitive ranking of university 'greeness', the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education's Sustainability Tracking, Assessment & Rating System (STARS) is about as official as it gets. And by their measure, U-M has a gold rating. Not too bad, considering the fact that only one school—Colorado State University—earns a platinum. That said, 80 other colleges rank as gold too. 

So while Ann Arbor's hometown college is certainly among the greenest schools in the nation, how can we tell how U-M stacks up against its peers? Here, we examine the university's most innovative green initiatives, biggest sustainability challenges and what other schools are doing to stay on the cutting edge as well. 

U-M's Most Innovative Initiatives

Planet Blue Ambassador Program: A program that has been modeled by other schools, Planet Blue Ambassadors are U-M faculty member, staff and students complete training and become community leaders through their personal sustainability actions. They track their impact on a dashboard and are encouraged to participate in suitability events around campus. They are a crucial part of creating what Andrew Berki, manager of the Office of Campus Sustainability calls "cultural sustainability" on campus. 

Sustainable Laboratory Certification Program: The university has lots of labs, and they all produce wastes—some of it is pretty harsh stuff. So the Office of Campus Sustainability works with the labs to reduce their chemical waste and energy use and then certifying them for their greening efforts. The program received the State of Michigan Governor's Green Chemistry Award in 2013 and the International Institute for Sustainable Laboratories (I2SL) Award in 2014. So far, around 140 labs (out of more than 1000) on campus have been certified, which means participation has a lot of room to grow.

Chemical Redistribution Program: One way to reduce chemical waste is for one lab to give its excess chemicals to another lab that needs it. Think of it as Craigslist meets "need a penny, take a penny. "It’s a very popular program," Berki says. "It’s significantly reduced the amount of chemical waste here in campus, and researchers seem to love it." 

Golf Course Goats: The Office of Campus Sustainability's goal for reducing pesticide and herbicide was to decrease use 40 percent from 2006 levels. They've already exceeded that goal, in part thanks to some hungry goats. The goats munch up some of the weeds formerly controlled chemically at Radrick Golf Course. 

Sustainability Research and Curriculum: Part of maximizing U-M's sustainability efforts is ensuring that when students leave the university, they take the culture of environmental responsibility with them.

"We have over 400 classes being taught here at the University of Michigan that have some kind of sustainability component," says Berki. "We have a significant amount of funding going into research on campus that is related to in environmental, social or cultural sustainability activities on global levels."

U-M's Biggest Sustainability Challenges

U-M doesn't have sustainability policies, per se. They have sustainability goals, and quite a few of them. Using a 2006 baseline (the first year U-M had reliable data), they aim to hit certain benchmarks by 2025 in five areas: greenhouse gas emissions, U-M transportation emissions, waste tonnage, sustainable food and Huron River protection. In some of these areas, they're making significant progress. In others, they face some challenges that are pretty tough to crack. 

The Big House's Big Home: The university is huge. It operates a hospital and healthcare centers, as well as being a research-based institution. And much of campus—like the hospital—uses energy and produces waste 24 hours a day, seven days a week. 

"So it’s a lot easier for a small school to invest in one windmill or to put up some solar panels and be climate neutral" says Berki. "That's not the situation we’re in here, and we understand that and have worked within that framework, but it is more challenging."

And It's Getting Bigger: U-M's sustainability goals are all about reducing the school's impact, and they're aiming to do that even as the university continues to grow by about one percent every year.  

Access to Renewable Energy: The university operates a natural gas co-generation plant that generates about 40 percent of their energy. They buy the other 60 percent from DTE. The only way to cut back on that coal-based power is to get a higher percentage of energy from renewables. But in a state that isn't particularly sunny or windy, Berki says, that's been a challenge. 

How Other Universities are Greening Up

So what are other universities up to in sustainability department? To begin with, the University of Colorado didn't obtain that platinum rating for nothing. Its 5.3 megawatt, 30 acre solar plant, for example, is one of the largest of its kind. Also, its impact on global sustainability issues is notable: Its Engineers Without Borders chapter brought a stable water supply to a village in El Salvador and its researches, along with NASA, built the world's most sensitive cloud-profiling radar, which monitors climate change and global warming activity from 438 miles above Earth.

Elsewhere in Colorado, the students are leading the environmental charge. The student government Environmental Board of The University of Colorado advocates for sustainability policies on campus and oversees the nation's largest student-run environmental center. Additionally, the student government created the Environmental Justice Project to address the unjust burden environmental problems place on communities of color and underprivileged populations.

Ohio State University is getting 50 percent of their power from a wind farm that was built nearby the campus. Even though wind hasn't been proven viable in Washtenaw County (without subsidies), perhaps some lessons could be gleaned from our rival's success. Warren Wilson College, a small school in North Carolina, is nearly self-supporting, growing its own food and lumber. 

Could a campus the size of the University of Michigan ever hope to reach such a net-zero status?

"I don’t have a crystal ball, but you don’t know where technology could take us," says Berki. "I can't say that I don’t know what the future holds, I know that we're going to still keep pushing based on what’s available right now."

And for now, that means continuing to innovate new ways of reaching those 2025 goals and increase the culture of sustainability on campus, even with all the challenges the large institution and our geography offer up.  

Natalie Burg is a senior writer at Concentrate and IMG project editor.

All photos by Doug Coombe.

Hey! Like this story? Then you should "LIKE" Concentrate on our Facebook page.  Click here to show us a little like AND/OR follow us on Twitter @ConcentrateA2
Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.