Correction to This Article
A photograph with a June 26 article on Berea College was incorrectly credited. The photographer was Alice Ledford.

Colleges Compete to Shrink Their Mark On the Environment

At Berea College in Kentucky, Tamara Williams and Carrie Watson work in a garden in exchange for student housing in the Ecovillage  on campus.
At Berea College in Kentucky, Tamara Williams and Carrie Watson work in a garden in exchange for student housing in the Ecovillage on campus. (By Juliet Eilperin -- The Washington Post)
By Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 26, 2005

BEREA, Ky. -- Professor Richard K. Olson's voice swelled with pride as he reached the final stop -- the bathroom -- on a tour of Berea College's newest student housing.

"The throne!" he declared, displaying a massive, cream-colored composting toilet.

With its state-of-the-art wastewater treatment system, recycled wood cabinets and low-energy fluorescent lighting, Berea's $10 million "Ecological Village" represents the cutting edge of environmental architecture. And while this small southern Appalachian college still consumes plenty of natural resources, it has spent several years trying to preserve its surroundings by conserving energy and shifting to recycling.

While Berea has gone further than most, it is hardly alone. After decades of inertia, American colleges and universities have begun to recognize that they have lagged behind the corporate world in tackling energy conservation and efficiency, greenhouse gas emissions and trash generation, and many are taking new steps to minimize their environmental "footprint."

From the College of the Atlantic's zero-waste graduation this month in Maine to Ball State University's biodiesel-powered shuttle fleet in Indiana, schools are moving in ways large and small to cut energy use and carbon dioxide emissions.

They are driven by everything from the rising cost of natural gas to student activism, and the consequences can be significant for local air pollution as well as energy markets: Yale University emits as much as 2.3 million tons of carbon dioxide each year, more than 32 countries, but that's a 13 percent drop from its 1990 levels. Harvard University, meanwhile, now ranks as the country's second-largest university buyer of renewable energy.

"Those of us who study the environment but don't incorporate what we know into how we operate as an institution, we are failing in our educational task," said Berea College President Larry D. Shinn, who has made environmental sustainability central to his school's mission. "Most of us humans, especially Americans, don't understand what a precarious situation we're in relative to human-nature interactions."

It is difficult to gauge how green academia has become, because no one keeps overall statistics on this aspect of the 4,100 U.S. schools' operations. But across the country, college administrators are vying to outdo each other in environmental consciousness, sharing their strategies and boasting about their accomplishments. They are hiring "sustainability coordinators," negotiating new purchasing contracts and building more energy-efficient laboratories and dormitory rooms.

"It's almost like an episode of 'Can You Top This?' " said Princeton University dining services director Stuart Orefice, whose cafeterias serve cereal grown without pesticides and ship students' unused food to local pig farms. "It's a good-natured competition, if you will."

"Every college and university should be doing this," said Walter Simpson, university energy officer at the State University of New York at Buffalo. "There's no excuse for sitting on your hands and not engaging in energy conservation."

Tufts University committed six years ago to meet or beat the emission reductions outlined in the Kyoto Protocol, an international climate change treaty that the Bush administration disavowed in 2001. In 2003, Tufts President Lawrence S. Bacow went even further by pledging to cut its emissions by 10 percent below the 1990 level by the year 2020.

Tufts now trades its carbon emissions on the Chicago Climate Exchange, where participants can "trade" allowances of greenhouse-gas emissions. Because some polluters produce more emissions than are legally allowed, they can go to the exchange and, in effect, buy from other participants who fell short of their cap on emissions.

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