Atlanta universities get greener

Emory and Georgia Tech have become models of campus sustainability

These days, Georgia’s private colleges and state universities have become increasingly concerned about the size of their campus footprint. Not their real estate, mind you, but their carbon footprint.

With Emory and Georgia Tech leading the way, the state’s schools are serious about getting greener and, in the process, are helping develop energy-saving innovations and conservation consciousness among students that are likely to pay off for the Peach State as a whole in the future.

Both Emory and Tech have full-time sustainability directors who oversee a surprisingly wide range of projects, from campus recycling bins to LEED certification and alternative fuel transportation to local gardening programs. The initiatives run from the large — reducing vehicle emissions and cutting heating costs — to the small, such as collecting rain water to use for landscaping irrigation.

By all accounts, Emory has set a trend for eco-consciousness and energy efficiency.

“Emory was an early adopter of sustainability before it was cool,” says Ciannat Howett, an Emory alumnus and former staffer who became the university’s first director of sustainability in 2006. “More than 10 years ago, a group of faculty, staff and students decided to change policies to achieve sustainability. Emory became well known nationally for building the first LEED certified building in the Southeast in 2000.”

Today, Emory requires LEED certification for all of its new buildings and existing buildings.

The university has also received widespread recognition for its Piedmont Project, a decade-old program in which faculty meet for workshops over the summer in order to learn about the latest sustainability innovations, to brainstorm other energy-saving initiatives and to discuss how the issue of sustainability can be incorporated into existing courses. The program has served as a model for other universities around the country.

One of Emory’s biggest green programs is the Clifton Corridor Transportation Management Association, better known as the Cliff bus system. Unique among campus shuttles, the Cliff also serves as a transit system for many commuters in and around Emory, providing free public bus service between the campus and downtown Decatur, as well as along Clifton Road, which is home to Emory Hospital, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Emory Conference Center, the Wesley Woods geriatric center and other employment centers. The shuttles run completely on biofuel made from used cooking oil from cafeterias.

But Howett says she’s especially pleased with the level of student involvement.

“Many students are deeply passionate about this, not just coming from an environmental aspect but from a health and nutrition perspective and increasingly from a business and social justice perspective,” she says. “One thing I love about my job is working with young people who are still passionate and optimistic and believe they can change the world.”

For instance, to get into one of two new freshman dorms, Few and Evans halls, students must submit an essay about the importance of sustainability. Each campus residence hall has an electronic display panel in the lobby that allows residents to compare the energy and water consumption for their building with other residence halls. Throughout the year, the students compete with other dorms and even individual floors to see which has the lowest rate of consumption.

As you might expect from a school that once had its own on-campus nuclear reactor, Georgia Tech is making its mark in applying technological innovation to maximizing energy efficiency.

In 1995, the university built what was, until earlier this year, the largest array of solar panels in Georgia, capable of supplying power to 326 homes for a year.

Marcia Kinstler, director of environmental stewardship, says Tech uses about half as much energy as other large research universities, which typically consume twice as much juice as a standard liberal-arts college. Some of the school’s achievements include receiving in 2003 only the second LEED Silver certification for a building in Georgia; incorporating the theme of sustainability in 23 of its degree programs; and becoming the first college to join the Zero Waste Zone, an Atlanta-based sustainability program for businesses and industry.

Most recently, Kinstler points to Clough Commons, a new classroom and residential building with a rooftop that boasts a garden, solar panels and a 1.6-million-gallon cistern to collect water that will be used to flush toilets.

“Our students are practical and they want to do the right thing,” she says. “Students brought recycling to campus. Students are crucial in documenting the progress in food sustainability.”

For instance, students take part in the game-day recycling program, in which tailgaters are asked to use blue recycling bags and leave them in the parking lots. Students then collect the bags.

Ecological consciousness is also being advanced through courses that study the causes and effects of global climate change. And students help conduct energy audits and even apply their classroom learning to evaluating the efficiency of Tech’s many green initiatives.

But don’t take the schools’ words for their accomplishments — both Emory and Tech are among seven Georgia colleges rated annually by, which measures sustainability success in terms of vehicle emissions, green buildings, student involvement and other factors. (The other schools are Agnes Scott, Berry College in Rome, Mercer, Spelman and the University of Georgia.)

This year, Tech scored an enviable A-, earning praise for making its two dining halls 98 percent waste-neutral; serving only organic, fair-trade coffee; and for launching a bike-sharing program.

Emory rated only a B this year, losing points largely due to a trustee system that isn’t as transparent and publicly accountable as most state universities. Still, the school scored high marks for creating student sustainability internships; reusing water in flushing toilets; and having several composting sites.

Eventually, the goal of both schools is to integrate the idea of sustainability into every aspect of college life and operations, from recycling to purchasing and transportation to minimizing consumer waste. Could the next step be iPads instead of textbooks and notepads?