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Penn State Working to Dramatically Reduce Greenhouse Gas Emissions as Part of Strategic Plan

Penn State University is a growing community with 600 buildings sprawled out over 22 million square feet—yet it has reduced its greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by half since 2004, setting an example from which other colleges, universities, towns and cities across the country can learn, according to NPR.

To make the campus greener, Penn State has calculated its yearly carbon emissions over the past 25 years on a graph. The line was steadily climbing 20 years ago, but started to plummet in 2004, even though the university continued to grow. The improvements started with a handful of changemakers among the student body, faculty and administration, including biology professor Christopher Uhl. His students began calculating emissions from specific buildings and looking for power-generating alternatives. “In a sense, we’re using the university culture,” Uhl told NPR. “It’s data that will speak to an academic institution, not, you know, ‘You should do this.’”

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Uhl and his group of green activists soon found allies, including engineers and maintenance workers, at Penn State’s physical plant. One of them, a retired Navy officer named Ford Stryker, persuaded the university president to declare “environmental stewardship” an official priority in the school’s Strategic Plan.

Penn State’s budget and finance offices set up a fund to pay for upgrades to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and save on costs. According to NPR, improvements included “tuning up heating and air conditioning systems and measuring air flow and temperature, making sure enough air is flowing to keep people comfortable but not so much that extra steam is needed to keep everyone warm.”

Tuning up the HVAC system delivered fast results. “It’s one of the shortest paybacks,” Rob Cooper, Penn State’s senior director of engineering and energy, told NPR. “It’s consistently three to five years [to recoup the costs] on every building that we go into.”

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Penn State switched from coal to natural gas to power its central heating plant and installed energy-saving motors and windows whenever economically feasible. The university also recently signed a deal to buy electricity from a solar farm in Franklin County, Pennsylvania. Large-scale solar arrays, with more than 150,000 solar panels in three locations, will provide 25 percent of Penn State’s state-wide electricity requirements over 25 years, the university said in a press release earlier this year, while boosting the economy and providing educational opportunities.

Cooper termed the solar array project “a win for Penn State, a win for Pennsylvania and a win for the environment.”

“Among the many benefits of this significant investment in solar-based electric generation include cost savings, lower greenhouse-gas emissions in support of Penn State’s aggressive sustainability goals, economic development with job creation, and income for host communities through development of the Pennsylvania solar market,” Cooper said in February.

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Penn State has also invested in energy conservation projects like a Combined Heat and Power installation of a combustion turbine and heat recovery system at its East Campus Steam Plant.

The university says it’s aiming for an 80% cut in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. But Shelley McKeague, the Penn State administrator who monitors the university’s greenhouse emissions, admitted to NPR that they don’t have a “concrete plan to get there” yet “and the reality is, the country doesn’t either … We have options in front of us. We just don’t know which ones we’ll pull the trigger on yet.”

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Guilford College Ranks in Top 10 in RecycleMania Tournament

In a remarkable display of its commitment to recycling and reducing food waste, Sullivan Foundation partner school Guilford College ranked sixth in the Per Capita Classic, seventh in Food Organics, and 39th in Food Diversion in RecycleMania’s recent eight-week tournament.

So what is RecycleMania? “RecycleMania is a friendly competition between colleges and universities across the country and Canada that are committed to bringing awareness to recycling and waste on college campuses,” explained psychology major Kathleen Casperson.

Casperson’s work as an apprentice with Guilford’s Office of Sustainability led to her involvement with RecycleMania.

“Hana Malone, the student Coordinator of RecycleMania, and myself measured the waste and recycling dumpsters biweekly,” she said. “We entered this data into a spreadsheet, which calculated the number of pounds we were wasting versus recycling. Throughout the event, Hana and I tabled in Founders Hall to bring awareness to RecycleMania. Daisie Stewart, Sustainability Coordinator for Meriwhether Godsey (the Guilford dining hall), assisted in these tabling events by involving the cafeteria in our efforts toward sustainability.”

“My favorite part was the tabling events in Founders,” Casperson said. “One event we organized was using aluminum cans from the cafeteria and making herb planters out of them. We added compost, and students could choose from six varieties of herbs to plant in their can. While the students were potting their plant, we would talk to them about what can and cannot be recycled according to the North Carolina regulations. It was fun to see how excited the students were about this project, and I felt like it really encouraged an effort to live sustainably.”

Reducing food waste on college campuses is a major goal for Recyclemania.

Reflecting on how Guilford’s participation in Recyclemania aligns with Guilford’s core values, Casperson said, “This event encouraged community on campus because it called for direct action in an effort to reduce our carbon footprint. Recycling and reduction of food waste is imperative for the betterment of our entire community. It also encouraged students to act with integrity and responsibility by implementing sustainable practices.”

“Guilford does well in this competition partly because we make it pretty easy to recycle —with recycle bins next to landfill (bins) in nearly every location on campus, inside and outside,” said Director of Sustainability David Petree. “It doesn’t hurt that we live in an area that offers single-stream recycling. We don’t have to sort paper from plastic from glass and so on. Our numbers are very much helped by the fact that we compost nearly all of our food waste. Food waste is very heavy, and campuses generally create a lot of it. The competition is based on weights.”

David also said that, despite how well Guilford ranked in RecycleMania’s national competition, there’s a lot of work to be done. “It needs to be said that the competition assumes people always place recyclables in the recycling containers and trash in the trash or landfill containers. This is not the case here or most other places. When we do audits of our containers, we find contamination. During our recent student move-out, several recycling containers had to be hauled to the landfill due to the amount of contamination.”

This story is a slightly edited version of the original article on the Guilford College website.