What can business learn about sustainability from higher ed?

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What can business learn about sustainability from higher ed?

You may think that universities and corporations don’t have much in common from a sustainability perspective. But a decent-size university manages the equivalent of office buildings, restaurants, hotels, laundry services, hospitals, auto repair, retailers, waste haulers, and even small energy utilities. As such, universities and companies have a lot to learn from each other.

There’s a good case to be made that higher education is showing the way. More than 665 U.S. colleges and universities have publicly committed to pursue net-zero carbon emissions. Dozens have green procurement policies for everything from carpets to carrots to computers. The country’s largest geothermal system is at Ball State University. Washington University in St. Louis built one of the world’s first Living Buildings.

Why are they doing this? For the same reasons companies are: to reduce costs, improve quality, foster innovation, attract talent, and generally demonstrate leadership in an increasingly competitive marketplace.

Colleges also face many of the same challenges as companies. They need to make the business case, inspire behavior change, navigate bureaucracies, and keep sustainability top of mind. Sustainability professionals – and informal champions – on hundreds of campuses are taking on the hard but rewarding work of leading transformational change.

In doing so they are creating learning environments that will inspire the next generation of CEOs, politicians, technicians, cultural icons, and professionals of all kinds to create a sustainable society.

Second Nature supports hundreds of colleges and universities – and the higher ed sector as a whole – in accelerating progress towards sustainability. This new monthly series will explore these efforts in ways that will help sustainability leaders in business think differently about their own challenges and opportunities.

First up: Arizona State University’s zero-waste initiative.

ASU has 13,000 staff, 72,000 students (13,000 residential), 1,500 acres of campus lands, and $1.8 billion in revenues. Its zero-waste initiative covers five campuses and two research parks with gross square footage of 14.4 million and growing.

I asked the Sun Devils’ Director of Sustainability Practices, Nick Brown, about the toughest challenges around eliminating the concept of waste from such a large system. He alluded to the depth of cultural transformation needed: “I’m serious about avoiding the word ‘waste’ – except in the context of waste reduction. ‘Food waste’ was waste when it went to the landfill, now it’s ‘food scraps.’ Language counts – as long as we keep calling it ‘waste’ it will be harder to shift our thinking.”

A couple of years ago, ASU set out to eliminate waste by 2015. It finalized a deal with Waste Management in early 2012 to stand “shoulder-to-shoulder” in meeting this ambitious goal. The operational plan is just now being finalized, and a “Road Map” is slated to go public in the first quarter of 2013.

The process has had four phases:

  1. An assessment, which gave a detailed picture of the waste stream’s composition, yielding about 44 component streams.
  2. Identification of new potential projects to reduce waste.
  3. A four-point analysis of each project using a customized tool to evaluate the financial, social, environmental, and lifecycle assessment implications of projects. The results showed senior leadership the first costs, future costs, net-present value, social and environmental payoff, etc. of the options.
  4. Development of a ”Road Map” comprised of about 50 programs and projects that all together will get ASU to zero waste.

ASU’s zero-waste strategy has four general components:

  1. Aversion: about 17 projects – from sustainable procurement policies to digital programs for commencement (avoiding 42 million pages!) – that will reduce the use of things that would eventually become waste.
  2. Recycling: a big comingled single stream program is the centerpiece, but ASU has more than 15 recycling programs accounting for all the “weird” stuff, from golf balls and tennis balls, to mattresses, vegetable oil, and soft plastic.
  3. Organic material: at first glance this looks like a single program; but there are maddening differences between stand-alone dining halls and those connected with residence halls, athletic events, food courts, and catered events. They’ve even got different service providers (Aramark, Atlasta, and Sodexo) for different venues.
  4. Reuse: There are a variety of programs for enabling reuse, dealing with everything from food donations, surplus property, student move-in/out, paint reuse, and bicycle parts.

Clearly, the scale and complexity of this challenge are enormous. Tackling it brings up arcane issues. For example, when looking into composting hand towels from restrooms, they realized no one really knew how many restrooms there were. On top of that, each has different traffic volumes depending on the type of facility (e.g. dorms, stadiums, foyers). The deceptively simple solution of “composting hand towels” quickly became complex.

Still, while such details may seem overwhelming, the technical solutions for eliminating waste aren’t hard to imagine. ASU has been clear in setting its institutional boundaries — aligning with its greenhouse gas mitigation efforts, and using the “operating control methodology” laid out by the Greenhouse Gas Protocol. It has a clear definition of zero waste: a 90 percent reduction from the 2007-2008 baseline level of municipal solid waste. With concerted effort, it has been able to create systems for addressing the many complications.

The more important considerations (as is the case with most sustainability initiatives) all come back to people.

ASU benefits from very strong institutional commitment. President Michael Crow is a serious sustainability champion. And he has top-to-bottom support in his management systems.

ASU’s sustainability team is developing a comprehensive communications and engagement plan. They already have significant signage and highly visible bins on campus. They’ll be developing a consistent brand identity and materials for increasing awareness among students, faculty and staff – as well as vendors, visitors, and the public. Clear messaging will be incorporated into new student and employee orientation, helping to insure that a zero waste ethos becomes a part of the culture.

From a baseline of 9,518 tons in 2007, ASU had reduced waste to landfill 29 percent by 2011. To get to 90 percent by 2015, it will need a culture shift wherein the concept of “waste” seems foreign and unnatural to most community members.

As Brown pointed out, for ASU, “It’s going to take 80,000 people to make zero waste successful.”

Image by robert_s via Shutterstock