Sustainability Office promotes University's efforts to be green

April 22, 2010

University Park, Pa. – With almost a year under his belt as director of the Campus Sustainability Office, which itself is almost a year old, Erik Foley is still enjoying the challenge of greening an institution the size of Penn State.

Foley, along with program coordinators Lydia Vandenbergh and Milea Perry, comprise the Campus Sustainability Office, which is part of the Office of Physical Plant (OPP). Their work has contributed to several notable Penn State sustainability successes, and they have more in store.

"Sustainability is not about doing less, it's about being more. It's not about being less destructive, it's about being more creative, more innovative,” Foley explained. “And that's what Penn State has always been about. You could write a book about the sustainability efforts being made here at Penn State. It would be a daunting task if it was just our office, but relief comes from seeing people coming to us with new, creative ideas on sustainability. Faculty, staff and students, individually or in green teams, want to know what they can do to make a difference.”

The University benefits considerably from conservation efforts in a variety of arenas. On April 19 Penn State was recognized by the EPA as a national frontrunner in green power use among colleges and universities. And such efforts make a difference to the Penn State community's bottom line. At a time when the University's employee health care costs and utility rates are on the rise, it’s reassuring to know that so many Penn Staters are working hard to counter those rising costs and other fiscal constraints through conservation.

There are several successes to point to the University's green achievements. For instance, according to Vandenbergh, 25 percent of Penn State’s energy comes from renewable energy sources: wind, hydro and solar, with wind as the primary source. Penn State saves more than $5 million in energy use annually through conservation programs like Friday Night Lights Out. (In addition, avoiding use of electricity by turning out unused lights reduces the levels of sulfuric acid rain, which then decreases the levels of mercury in the fish we eat.) The nationally recognized STATERS recycling program and the Trash to Treasure program each have saved tons of waste from being sent to landfills and also have raised about $65,000 for the Centre County United Way. And Penn State is educating its community about how taking care of themselves also helps the environment and saves money, such as taking the stairs instead of riding the elevator and walking or biking instead of driving.

Foley noted that Penn State's strategic plan, Priorities for Excellence, emphasizes sustainability as one of the University's 10 core values -- "Environmental sustainability is researched, taught, promoted and practiced." Specifically, the strategic plan emphasizes establishing and fostering green environments.

There are five categories to approaches that focus on "greening" the University. The first, Greening of Operations, encompasses everything OPP is doing to promote responsible environmental decisions in the residence halls and all across campus. This includes using green energy products for cleaning, reducing energy consumption in all buildings, recycling and reducing waste in dining halls, and purchasing green paper products and other environmentally friendly products, which includes energy-saving appliances, to name but a few endeavors.

However, Vandenbergh noted, “There’s only so much OPP can do to alter systems when they have financial constraints. A lot more can be done when people alter their habits.”

This is why the Campus Sustainability Office teaches faculty and staff how to go green at work, and welcomes any and all conservation ideas. For instance, a colleague of Vandenburgh’s pointed out that formatting documents using the Century Gothic font uses 30 percent less ink than the commonly used Arial font.

A second area in which Penn State is going green is the Greening of the Curriculum, driven by the Center for Sustainability. Hundreds of classes offered at Penn State are addressing environmental, economic and social challenges in the world, and teaching students to become global citizens who can flourish in the new global energy economy.

It makes sense, then, that Student Affairs is the third component of Penn State’s going green initiative. This component includes the efforts that students involved in Residence Life are making in the residence halls as well as the 15 to 20 environmental groups on campus, created and led by students, to educate and engage other students in sustainability.

Green Research and Outreach are the final two elements of Penn State’s greening initiative. Since last year’s Earth Day (April 22), Penn State has been named the top University in the world in interdisciplinary alternative energy research. According to Foley, Green Outreach at Penn State is huge -- it includes Continuing Education, the World Campus, Cooperative Extension and all the programs WPSU public radio and TV have aired on topics such as conserving water, saving energy, performing energy audits and using green technology.

While there’s still a lot of work ahead for Foley's office and the Penn State community to make Penn State even greener, the current efforts have not gone unnoticed. In addition to the EPA's national green power recognition, Penn State sustainability efforts have received additional awards and recognition.

“It’s so exciting to see the seeds planted and taking off,” Vandenbergh said about Penn State’s sustainability projects and programs. “It’s very rewarding. People are coming out of the woodwork with great ideas to help make these changes.”

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Last Updated November 18, 2010