The Role of Higher Education in Sustainability

What is the role of higher education in sustainability? This quick guide outlines tangible ways higher ed institutions can lead sustainability initiatives on- and off-campus.

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. 

Implementing Sustainability in Higher Education

implementing sustainability in higher education


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. 

What are zero-waste campaigns?

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. 

How colleges can target three major culprits: plastic, food, and paper waste

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. 

#1. Plastic

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:

  • Phase-out the sale of single-use plastic water bottles.
    If all higher learning institutions eliminated the use of plastic water bottles on campus, there would be a noticeable dent in the number of water bottles in circulation on the planet. When McGill University announced that it was phasing out water bottle sales back in 2018, its leadership revealed that it was selling around 85,000 single-use plastic water bottles every year and distributing thousands more at special events. Eighty-five thousand water bottles every year is a lot–and that’s just one university campus!
  • Distribute refillable water bottles.
    During orientation sessions, supply new students and faculty with free reusable university-branded water bottles they can use for years. Faculty can use their reusable water bottles during lectures to demonstrate that they act as leaders in the sustainability movement.
  • Put’em on the map.
    It may not be possible to replace traditional water fountains with modern refill fountains all at once. But if there are enough refillable water bottle stations around key points on campus, create an interactive map to make using planet-friendly water bottles a snap for students and faculty. 

#2. Food

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:

  • Make food tasty.
    According to one study, the more satisfied diners at a college campus were with their meal, the less they wasted. Conduct quick pulse surveys with students via their smartphones to determine which food options they would like to see more often on the menu.
  • Go tray-less.
    The more food students and faculty members take, the more food they waste. Go trayless in cafeterias to encourage students to take less food. 
  • Compost food waste.
    Composting significantly reduces the amount of methane food releases into the earth’s atmosphere. Set up a composting system for cafeteria food waste and get students involved in leading a community-led composting initiative.

#3. Paper

higher education and paper 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:

  • Pull the plugs on desktop printers.
    According to a report by the AASHE, switching from desktop printers to shared network printers is one of the most effective ways to reduce paper consumption on campus. Their report also cites a study from InfoTech, which shows that organizations can save 65% on printing costs through printer consolidation.
  • Issue assignments digitally.
    Instead of distributing instructions for assignments on paper, instructors can distribute them digitally via email or an LMS. Considering that the average college paper is about 10 pages long, staff should also help students cut down on paper waste when submitting assignments. Encourage students to hand in their work via email or an LMS. 
  • Use etextbooks.
    825.75 million print books were sold in the US alone in 2021. As an alternative to paper-based books, digital textbooks enable universities and colleges to cut down on paper waste and cut back on CO2. According to a Cleantech study, purchasing three e-books 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. The most robust learning enablement solutions allow students to access digital textbook content from even the hardest-to-get publishers. By enabling students to access content via devices they use every day, they can avoid purchasing a specialized e-reader, thereby cutting down on e-waste. (To learn more about reducing e-waste, check out this post.) 

Green campuses are thriving campuses.

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

You can also check out Bibliu’s learning enablement solution here.

What To Look For in a University Bookstore Alternative

The university bookstore is evolving. If you're looking to evolve your school's bookstore, here are 5 things to look for in an alternative.

How To Address Pandemic Learning Loss in Higher Education

Learning loss during the pandemic impacted students and institutions alike. Here's what your school can do about it.

Distrust of Higher Education: How Can Your Institution Adapt?

Studies show that Gen Z distrusts higher education more than any other generation. Here are a few ways to regain their trust.

View More