Emory's sustainability efforts explained in 'Committed to a green campus'

By Ciannat Howett | July 23, 2015

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Anne Nichols, an environmental sciences and educational studies double major, and Kristina Alton, a biology and human health double major, peered closely at a snail pulled from the artificial root system of Emory's new water reclamation facility. The two Emory College seniors were part of the "Green Beat" journalism class that toured the plant dubbed the WaterHub to do research for a writing assignment. The facility's operator, Corey Hagemann is holding the snail. Photo by Emory Photo/Video

Ciannat M. Howett, director of sustainability initiatives, wrote an op-ed for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution about Emory's accomplishments and continuing work in creating a sustainable campus. The article originally appeared in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and is reprinted here with permission.

'Committed to a green campus'

Envision a healthy, safe and environmentally sustainable campus that enhances individual health and community well-being and educates the leaders of a sustainable future. That is the vision created by Emory University’s 2005 Strategic Plan, which the school has been working to implement over the past decade. I don’t think anyone would say Emory has fully realized its vision; it is a long journey, and there are miles to go. Still, the transformation of the campus has been profound, leading recently to the naming of Emory as the eighth “Greenest University” in the country by BestColleges.com.

One of the greatest sustainability challenges at Emory is car traffic, with negative environmental, social and public health impacts. In 2005, the only mass transit options to campus were limited MARTA bus routes. Today, those are augmented by a robust university shuttle bus system that runs on a biofuel blend made from used cooking oil from campus cafeterias. What once had been handled as a waste is now a fuel source used to run a private transit system that eliminated more than a million car trips last year. Whether walking, biking, carpooling or taking transit, currently, more than 50 percent of Emory’s students, faculty and staff commute to campus without getting in a car alone.

A similar closed loop from waste to resource is Emory’s transition from sending tons of food waste and animal bedding to landfills a decade ago; now, the university composts that organic material. That compost is put to use on campus landscaping and educational food gardens. Zero-landfill-waste academic buildings and events are increasing on campus, and construction waste recycling has topped 95 percent for recent building projects. The vision of a healthy and sustainable campus also includes the goal to procure 75 percent local or sustainable food. It has led to an overhaul of Emory’s dining program to offer more foods that are regionally grown, humanely raised, organic and fair trade-certified.

One of the most dramatic transformations at Emory is the new WaterHub — an on-site water recycling system that uses ecological systems to reclaim wastewater for heating, cooling and toilet-flushing. The first system of its kind installed in the U.S., it supplies nearly 40 percent of campus water needs. It hits the trifecta of social, environmental and economic sustainability by relieving an overburdened municipal system that has a history of sewer overflows, saves Emory money over time, reduces campus use of potable water by up to 400,000 gallons per day, and provides a living laboratory for research and teaching that merges academics with campus operations.

Emory’s vision also set ambitious goals for energy reduction and sustainable building practices. Emory is nearing 3 million square feet of LEED-certified building space, including the first Gold-level certification for existing buildings in the country. This year, Emory hit its goal of 25 percent per square foot energy-use reduction and has enrolled more than 6.5 million square feet in the Atlanta Better Business Challenge — the largest participant to date, committed to 20 percent energy and water reduction by 2020. Three solar installations on campus are a visible sign of the commitment to reduce carbon emissions and seek safer and healthier energy alternatives.

While these visible changes are profound, the greatest impact of Emory’s commitment to creating a sustainable campus, community and world is one that can’t be seen. It is the impact of thousands of Emory graduates who have been immersed in a culture of sustainability practices and mindful living who then leave our campus to become civic leaders, parents, homeowners and professionals in hundreds of fields. It is this legacy of educating leaders for a sustainable future that will fulfill Emory’s mission of seeking positive transformation in the world.