A History of Sustainability at the University and Beyond

What does it mean for something to be “sustainable”? From environmentalism and justice to business and fashion, sustainability is featured in different contexts and has gained popularity over the years as a trendy word. However, sustainability is more than just a synonym for “everlasting” or “environmentalism.”

The concept of sustainability has been around for as long as humans have. However, the word itself was coined in German. The original term was Nachhaltigkeit, meaning “sustained yield.” Its first appearance was in a handbook of forestry published in 1713 and was used to describe never harvesting more than the forest can generate. The translated term appeared in English in the mid-19th century.

The EPA explains sustainability as “…the conditions that ensure that human impact on the environment is sufficiently mitigated in pursuit of the protection of natural resources and of future generations’ access to water, material, resources, and social and economic requirements.”

Recognizing the interconnectedness of the complex world, the sustainability model is supported by three pillars: society, environment, and economics. As shown in the image below, these pillars, sometimes referred to as people, planet, and profit, or the triple bottom line, provide a three-pronged framework for sustainability.

The University approaches sustainability from a grassroots perspective, addressing each of the pillars in some ways that are not apparent. As the pillars are interconnected, you will see projects that touch on multiple aspects of sustainability. A selection of accomplishments is outlined below.



Innovative Cogen Power Plant

The evolution from the initial coal-fired central heating plant built in 1903 to the current cogeneration system, known as Cogen, is a notable milestone for the University. The Cogen system can simultaneously generate electricity and usable heat. More specifically, the plant produces electricity from steam while reclaiming the excess thermal energy from the process to heat many of the campus buildings. What began strictly as a heating system has evolved to produce a significant portion of the campus’s electrical requirements and is optimized to meet the needs of the University as it continues to grow.

LEED Certified Buildings 

In collaboration with the U.S. Green Building Council’s (USGBC) board, LEED awards buildings through third-party technical reviewers. According to the U.S. Green Building Council, “LEED, or Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, is the most widely used green building rating system in the world. LEED provides a framework to create healthy, highly efficient and cost-saving green buildings. LEED certification is a globally recognized symbol of sustainability achievement.”

O’Brien Hall, built-in 2012, and the Saunders Research Building, built in 2011, were awarded gold certifications. Genesee Hall, built in 2017, was granted a silver certification. Other buildings were built to LEED Silver standards, although the certification was not pursued.

Waste Reduction Efforts

Many waste reduction programs have been implemented at the University, including proper recycling initiatives and pre and post-consumer composting in dining halls. The annual Move-out Cleanout event provides convenient ways to donate and recycle clothing, shoes, food, and hygiene items as students leave campus at the end of the school year.  Programs such as Nike Reuse a Shoe, ink cartridge recycling, and a partnership with Meals on Wheels to repurpose cooling packs aim to divert materials from the landfill.




The University offers students an opportunity to engage with sustainability on an educational level by offering related courses that can serve as a major, minor, or cluster requirement. Other opportunities like on-campus jobs, internships, and interest-level floor housing provide students another learning outlet outside of the classroom.

The Green Dandelion Blog serves as a communication outlet focused on the University’s sustainability programs and awards. The blog has expanded over the years into social media as society evolved. Managed by Facilities Team Green, the blog and its other platforms operate with the ever-changing student team.

Student and Staff Initiatives

Established by Theresa Guenther (Class of ’90) in 1988, Wilson Day is an annual community service event celebrated as a part of Orientation. The purpose is“[to introduce] incoming students to their new city and helping them to form connections with local community members.” Many service projects assigned to students involve environmental work and community engagement.

Since 2019, the EcoReps program has been raising awareness about sustainability both on campus and off. The program is run by two upperclassmen students, former EcoReps who are experienced in on-campus environmental efforts. Recruited first-year students are responsible for educating their residential halls on sustainability issues through dorm activities and events. The EcoReps serve as liaisons between the students and University departments to facilitate two-way communication to increase resource efficiency.

The Green Reps program is a group of University staff who act as sustainability advocates, teachers, and liaisons in their department. Green Reps engage in monthly competitions, promote green initiatives, support eco-conscious change, and serve as liaisons between their department and the University.

Nationwide Competition Participation

The University participates in the annual Campus Race to Zero Waste competition (formerly known as Recyclemania) with hundreds of colleges from the U.S. and Canada. The friendly competition serves as a benchmarking tool for colleges to analyze their recycling programs to promote waste reduction activities to their campus communities. Each participating school agrees to track and self-report data on recycling activity and takes measures to improve recycling rates.



Energy Efficiency Projects

As technology advances, the University continuously adjusts its practices and products to improve sustainability, both environmentally and economically. Replacing old air handling units with variable-speed drives (VSD’s), the energy use matches the needed consumption of a particular building’s heating and cooling requirements, making them highly efficient. Changes like these are funded by grants and rebates, saving the University money during the initial installation and throughout the years.

Waste Management 

The University collaborates with Waste Management to achieve sustainable practices for the environment and budget. Waste collection bins are strategically sized and placed to match the need in each area. Pick-up schedules are conformed to reduce unnecessary pick-up trips and extra fees. Recycling and reuse programs reduce the need for larger bins, saving the University money on landfill fees.

Product Switches

In 2020, the University switched to sustainable waste bin liners that resulted in lower economic and environmental impacts. By using the right size bags in waste containers both inside and outside of buildings, the University reduced plastic waste while saving the River Campus nearly $15,000 annually.

The Animal Resource Department implemented water and energy reducing systems in the Vivarium that are used to clean the cages that house laboratory animals. The installation of efficient reach-in coolers replaced energy-hungry walk-in coolers, making work more convenient and cost-friendly.


In summary, the University continues to promote sustainability and community engagement from a grassroots level. As more people recognize the scope of sustainability and its applications, we will continue to advance and evolve. The prior achievements are simply stepping stones that lead to a future of endless possibilities for a more sustainable community and world.


Written by Emily Su, Class of 2022

Image by Emily Su, Class of 2022


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