With their futures at stake, university and college students are driving learning leaders to strengthen the role of higher education in sustainability.
Many of the 4 million people who took part in the September 2019 youth-led climate strikes are now college-age. A 2021 Deloitte survey also showed that climate change and protecting the environment was the top priority for Gen Z.
Clearly, commitments to protect the planet have become table stakes for students. Indeed, 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.
But it’s not just students who are leading the charge. Climate action has become critical for governments globally: At COP26, the 2021 UN climate change conference held in Glasgow, 137 countries agreed to reverse forest loss, and 190 countries agreed to phase out coal power. Addressing environmental sustainability puts higher learning institutions ahead of the curve regarding regulatory pressures.
With concerns about the planet top of mind for students, faculty, local communities, and governments, promoting environmental sustainability using a multipronged approach is critical for higher learning leaders worldwide. Greenhouse gas emissions are heating the earth to dangerous temperatures, resulting in floods, forest fires, and other natural disasters. The loss of biodiversity has also reached alarming levels.
Many universities and colleges are taking action by pledging to reach net-zero greenhouse gas emissions as soon as possible. These kinds of net-zero campaigns typically reduce energy consumption and move away from reliance on fossil fuels.
These activities are essential, but another facet of environmental sustainability–waste reduction–is also crucial. Waste in landfills releases methane gas (a contributor to climate change) and increases the amount of toxic sludge in the environment that threatens wildlife and contaminates water supplies.
With their restaurants, living quarters, stores, offices, and medical clinics, higher learning institutions are essentially microcosms of large cities–and they generate huge volumes of garbage. A widely quoted statistic among zero waste proponents is that the average college student produces approximately 640 pounds of waste each year.
Those institutions with a higher proportion of students living and eating on campus produce more waste, particularly when students move out and prune their possessions at the end of the school year. But all campuses can strive to eliminate waste at any time of year, and the role of higher education in sustainability should incorporate a focus on zero waste.
According to the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE), a zero-waste campaign is “a time-bound, measured effort that has an objective goal of reducing contamination, increasing landfill recovery or reducing waste generation.” (They have great tips for establishing baselines, setting targets, and rounding up a formal task force here).
Unlike recycling campaigns, which focus on “end-of-cycle” waste management, zero waste initiatives also aim at reducing consumption, covering the entire lifecycle. The National Wildlife Federation recently announced that it was changing the name of its recycling contest for universities and colleges to the Campus Race to Zero Waste – a signal that modern sustainability efforts focus on waste reduction, not just recycling.
Perhaps your institution hasn’t launched a formal zero waste initiative yet. As a higher learning leader, you can start implementing some activities right away as standalone initiatives. Students and faculty can also get the ball rolling with a few activities designed to reduce consumption.
Below are some tips for tackling three significant types of waste that are harmful to the environment: plastic, food, and paper.
Plastic has a bad reputation–one that is justified. It can take up to 200 years for a plastic straw to decompose in a landfill, and the average plastic water bottle has a 450-year lifespan. Marine animals often eat microplastics that end up in the ocean, making them sick or killing them. Plastic poses a severe risk to biodiversity.
Yes, plastic can be recycled. But only a small percentage of plastic actually goes through this process, and nearly all plastics are made from chemicals that use fossil fuels. So it’s a smart move to cut down on consumption to reduce the amount of plastic produced in the first place.
Here are some ways to reduce plastic waste on campus:
All that uneaten, leftover food in cafeterias and restaurants adds up. In fact, the average college student in the US wastes approximately 142 pounds of food each year.
Food waste poses a serious risk to the planet. A meta-analysis of global food systems published in 2018 estimates that food waste accounts for around 6% of total global greenhouse gas emissions. To put this in context, that’s triple the global emissions from aviation.
But the impacts don’t stop there: A lot of land, water, energy, and other resources go into producing food–and that all gets wasted too when food is tossed away.
Here are ways to cut down on-campus food waste:
At first blush, paper seems pretty eco-friendly. After all, in comparison to plastic, it degrades more quickly and is more easily recycled. But paper doesn’t always end up in the recycling bin, especially when it appears in book form and is encased in a shiny cover.
According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency, paper and paperboard account for 23.05% of municipal solid waste. When paper goes to a landfill, it produces methane gas and contributes to greenhouse gas emissions.
There are many other significant environmental impacts to consider: When forests are logged in an unsustainable way to make paper, the process contributes to soil erosion and habitat and biodiversity loss. Deforestation also drives up greenhouse gas emissions.
Cutting down on paper consumption, then, is a vital part of driving sustainability.
Faculty and higher learning leaders can do the following to cut down on paper waste:
Implementing sustainability in higher education can seem overwhelming–there are so many areas to address, from reducing energy consumption to tackling trash. But by starting with a few of the biggest culprits on campus–plastic, food, and paper waste–higher learning institutions can significantly contribute to saving the planet.
Want to learn more about digital textbooks and how they can help you address the paper waste problem? Learn more about promoting sustainability in higher education here.
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