The EPA on Campus

In new initiative, colleges sign agreements with U.S. environmental agency about their sustainability goals, and also get credit for achievements to date.
January 16, 2009

College officials have had a choice of umbrellas under which to frame and validate their various sustainability efforts, and plenty of acronyms to cite: the American College & University Presidents Climate Commitment (ACUPCC), the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Green Building Rating System, the Sustainability Tracking, Assessment & Rating System (STARS).

Consider, too, the EPA.

In June, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency entered into what it describes as its first memorandum of understanding (MOU!) addressing sustainability on a college-wide basis, with Montclair State University, in New Jersey. In December, EPA signed a second, with St. John’s University, in New York. The agency has maintained similar agreements in other sectors, such as with the New York Mets (involving the team's new stadium).

In its MOU, St. John’s commits to participating in eight voluntary EPA partnership programs, including the EnergyStar Building & Plant Partnership, WasteWise, and WaterSense. Through the GreenScapes Partnership, for instance, St. John’s pledges to work toward reusing landscaping materials, recycling organic materials and purchasing more environmentally friendly products. In designing a new cogeneration plant -- by far the university's biggest step to reduce its carbon emissions, according to its executive vice president -- St. John's will share technical information through the Combined Heat and Power Partnership.

St. John’s is also a member of New York City Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg’s 2030 Challenge, in which city colleges pledge to reduce their greenhouse emissions by 30 percent in 10 years. James P. Pellow, St. John’s executive vice president and chief operating officer, sees the two initiatives in concert.

“In the city’s challenge, they basically provide a vision. Mayor Bloomberg in short had a vision to craft an aggressive set of strategies that would reduce the carbon footprint and then he invited all of us to sit around and plan it out,” Pellow says. “The EPA, they actually have established what I’ll describe as a toolbox to assist organizations in achieving their goals.”

At Montclair State, “The whole idea behind the MOU was to provide leadership to other universities to buy into this idea – to not only get credit for what they’ve already done but also figure out new things they can do,” says Nicholas Smith-Sebasto, associate professor in the Department of Earth and Environmental Studies. For instance, the university currently composts food scraps from two kitchens for use in landscaping. Under the MOU, “Plans are underway to expand this project to service the entire campus so that MSU will eliminate food scraps from its waste stream.”

Both universities have pledged to twice-annual reporting, although nothing in the MOU is legally binding. “I think there is some degree of symbolism to it, but I also think there’s something about having something in writing that instigates people to do something that they might not do if they did not have something in writing,” says Smith-Sebasto. “It’s kind of like a promise. And I don’t know too many people who at least intentionally or deliberately go back on a promise.”

“It’s a completely voluntary agreement and the targets in these agreements are simply that: They’re targets,” says John Senn, a spokesman for the EPA’s New York City office. “But at the same time, they’re targets based on goals that the entities feel that they can actually achieve.”

“This is one of the few good things EPA has done in the past eight years, and it could be helpful in mobilizing colleges towards ecologically preferable procurement,” Allen Hershkowitz, director of the solid waste program for the Natural Resources Defense Council, says in a statement (many environmental groups have been highly critical of the EPA during the Bush administration).

“However, it is important for colleges to view this initiative as a helpful beginning, representing the de minimus efforts they could do when it comes to greening their operations and procurement.”


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