Sustainability in Higher Education: What Institutions Can Do

Sustainability in higher education is more than just a hot topic–it's a critical issue. Learn how your institution can promote environmental sustainability with this quick guide.

More than 1,000 universities and colleges worldwide have joined the UN-sponsored Race to Zero campaign, pledging commitments to reach net zero emissions by 2050 at the latest.

When it comes to environmental sustainability in higher education, students expect no less. 75% of students say that a college’s environmental commitment would influence their choice of school, according to a survey conducted by the Princeton Review. 83% of Gen Z youth “worry about the planet's health,” a 2021 NextGen Climate Survey reveals.

These concerns are justified. Extreme heat, flooding, and wildfires are all impacts that people are experiencing now. Without dramatic action, the planet will warm to unsustainable levels–which means more food shortages, severe weather, and health risks. 

As the UN COP26 climate summit secretary-general said at the event’s closing: “Our fragile planet is hanging by a thread. We are still knocking on the door of climate catastrophe.” 

Higher learning institutions have a central role to play in preventing this fate. Typical US higher-education buildings, for example, consume more than $100,000 worth of energy each year, according to Business Energy. Considering that fossil fuels account for the largest share of consumption and production in the US and many other countries, net-zero campuses can contribute to a more sustainable future.

With their level of financial, social, and cultural influence (in some towns, the college is the largest employer), higher learning institutions are in a unique opportunity to bring about change. There is also a growing expectation that colleges will lead the way to net zero by supporting discovery-led research that generates practical solutions and includes diverse voices in this process.

Implementing Sustainability in Higher Education: The Benefits (and Impacts) of Going Digital

While many colleges and universities around the globe are rising to the challenge, there is always more to do–and the green impacts of tech can’t be overlooked. 

By certain measures, going digital is good for the planet. E-textbooks, for example, offer some eco-advantages over traditional textbooks. A Cleantech study concluded that purchasing three ebooks per month for four years produces roughly 168 kilograms of CO2 throughout the device's lifecycle, compared to the estimated 1,074 kilograms of CO2 produced by the same number of printed books.

That being said, technology doesn’t grant higher learning institutions a free pass regarding environmental sustainability. Electronic waste is the most rapidly growing waste stream worldwide. Globally, people generated 53.6 million metric tonnes of e-waste in 2019, and this number is projected to rise to 74.7 million metric tonnes by 2030. About 10% of e-waste is generated by the smartphones people use every day to read the news, interact with friends via social media, and access educational materials online.

In a digital world where tech devices have become essential for educational instruction, an eco-conscious approach to technology helps higher learning leaders build and maintain trust with their key stakeholders. Here are four tips you can use to reduce tech’s impact on the planet:

1. Raise awareness about smartphone fast fashion. 

smartphone fast fashion

For many students and faculty, a smartphone represents a short-term love affair. The average estimated replacement cycle length of smartphones for 2021 is 2.75 years in the US, down from a peak of 2.96 years in 2019. 

Many consumers have become accustomed to the two-year upgrade cycle promoted by mobile carriers. But rising consumption of smartphones means more energy-intensive resource extraction to build new devices and more e-waste problems if the phones aren’t properly recycled. 

Some smartphone manufacturers are developing more sustainable models that will likely encourage people to keep their phones longer. Higher learning leaders also have a role by encouraging students to shift perspective and start seeing their phones as longer-term investments. Connect with your college communications team to send articles via the campus e-newsletter that describe the impacts of smartphone fast fashion.

2. Champion the right to repair movement.

The right to repair movement has been gradually gaining steam in recent years. 

Historically, smartphone owners were prevented from fixing their own devices, with manufacturers citing safety reasons. Recently, however, Apple announced that it would start selling parts and tools to people who want to make minor fixes to their iPhones and Macbooks. This is something that right to repair advocates consider to be a significant victory. 

Higher learning institutions can further build on this momentum and foster a right to repair movement on campus. Consider brainstorming with faculty and students to develop creative solutions: Could we provide “drop-in” spaces for mechanically-oriented students to help their peers with simple smartphone fixes? Integrate smartphone repairs into the hands-on components of relevant courses? The opportunities are endless.

3. Put up e-waste recycling bins around campus. 

e-waste recycling

Even if this one is already on your institution’s list, it’s an important intervention to revisit. When e-waste reaches landfills, the toxic chemicals found in the devices seep into the ground. Recycling can prevent this from happening, and it also reduces the amount of energy required to manufacture new devices

Ensure your e-waste recycling bins are located in visible locations around campus. You can purchase e-waste-specific bins or retrofit existing bins to make them e-waste-specific. Also, ensure students are at ease recycling devices that may house sensitive data. Many institutions, for example, have a contract for data wiping during the recycling process. 

4. Partner with energy-conscious tech vendors.

Implementing sustainability in education is also about the tangible impact of cloud computing on the environment. When we think of cloud computing, we think of something fleeting and temporary. In reality, servers and data centers need energy to run, and often that power is generated by fossil fuels. (Although some experts are saying cloud computing is not the energy hog that people once feared).

Team up with your tech team to review your cloud computing infrastructure and whether you partner with vendors taking steps to reduce their carbon footprint. The BibliU platform and its functionality, for example, is hosted on Amazon Web Services. Over 70% of AWS servers are powered by renewable energy, and AWS is scheduled to hit 100% renewable energy by 2025. 

Building Trust Through Sustainability in Higher Education

Environmental activism is no longer a fringe movement but a mainstream focus for students, faculty, and the general public. When it comes to protecting the planet, technology can be part of the solution–and a part of the problem. With the right choices, university and college leaders can put their institutions on the right path to greater sustainability in higher education.

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