In recent years, sustainability has received a greater amount of attention on the university level. Portland State emphasizes sustainability on campus and within the community, but pinpointing exactly what that means on a tangible level is complicated.
Director of PSU’s Institute for Sustainable Solutions Jennifer Allen explained that the standard definition for sustainability is taking a long-term and integrated approach to problem solving, with links to economic vitality, environmental health and quality of life.
“At PSU, that means that we are continually striving to make sure our campus operations tread lightly on the earth and that our research, curricular and co-curricular programs are designed to address sustainability-related issues and to educate the next generation of sustainability leaders,” Allen said.
The ISS at PSU is the center for curriculum development, student leadership and research on issues of sustainability.
“In the context of PSU, I think [sustainability] means a campus where our commitment to sustainability is evident in all aspects of campus life—in research we conduct, classes we teach, programming for students, policies we adopt, purchases we make, management of our natural resources, and design of our buildings and landscapes,” said PSU Sustainability Manager Jenny McNamara.
PSU hosts a number of sustainable practices and principles that help to propel the university’s goals toward sustainability. Many of the campus buildings have been upgraded to meet Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design standards, including Lincoln Hall, Shattuck Hall, the Broadway Building, the Engineering Building, the Academic and Student Rec Center, and the Science Research and Teaching Center.
The Student Rec Center features exercise machines that employ ReRev technology to provide energy for the building, and the toilets flush with rainwater collected from the rooftops.
Across campus, the Stott Community Field is composed of 150,000 recycled pairs of athletic shoes collected in the Nike Reuse-a-Shoe program.
While PSU features many innovations to promote sustainability, some believe that the campus has significant room for improvement.
Room to Grow
“We’ve done a lot of great things and are showing leadership in a variety of ways, but there are always things to do—ways to improve,” McNamara said.
In 2013 the Sierra Club released a report of “Cool Schools,” a profile of the most sustainable campuses in the United States. PSU ranked 32 out of 164 college campuses.
The report is based on a series of criteria, including emissions, sustainability education, food and beverage purchasing policies, waste consumption, compost, energy consumption, commuter methods, investments and innovation, and about 20 other categories.
Oregon State University and Southern Oregon University both placed higher in the ranking than PSU.
“I suspect student green fees and large solar arrays—things we don’t have—play into the differences in our energy score on that report,” McNamara said. “The most significant difference is actually in the financial investment category. Portland State received zero points in this category.”
McNamara discussed projects being developed in order to address this issue.
“I’m not sure what [OSU and SOU] are doing in this area, but the questions we have to respond to are around investment transparency and efforts to ensure we are making sustainable investments,” McNamara said.
In PSU’s 2012 emissions report, 45 percent of campus emissions were from “purchased goods and services. McNamara discussed plans to address the emissions issue.
“I’m currently working with the contracts and procurement office on standards for university purchases that aim to guide the campus in making more sustainable choices when buying new products,” McNamara said.
Purchased goods and services include the construction projects and updates taking place on campus.
McNamara said that Capital Projects and Construction recently integrated sustainability standards that ensure more sustainable purchases in construction and renovation projects.
McNamara also mentioned PSU’s ReUse Room as a way to reduce goods and services emissions. The ReUse room, located in Cramer Hall room 180, is a place where students can donate and exchange school supplies. There students can find free folders, notebooks and other items instead of purchasing them brand new.
“It’s estimated that the ReUse Room and Pop-up Swap—building specific office supply exchanges—alone saved over $45,000 in avoided costs by redistributing usable goods last fiscal year,” McNamara said.
The ReUse Room also hosts the Mug Runner program, which collects mugs and water bottles left in computer labs across campus and puts them to new use.
“Now, after a couple days of waiting for them to be reclaimed, they are collected and delivered to the ReUse Room to be redistributed and diverted from the landfill, rather than being thrown away,” McNamara said.
McNamara also commented on some of the criticism PSU has received based on the efficacy of the Clean Air Corridor. The corridor is meant to be a pollution-free space on campus, but recent reports have shown delivery trucks idling in the corridors for extended periods of time.
“The goals of the Clean Air Corridor directly support sustainability efforts on campus,” McNamara said. “Even if it isn’t working perfectly, I’m willing to bet that overall, it has reduced pollution and created a healthier space on campus for students.”
Communities for Composting
“At PSU, we are composting in an urban context, which differs from what many gardeners and farmers consider composting,” said Food Diversion Coordinator Brad Melaugh in an email. “Our efforts focus mainly on the diversion of food scraps and other compostable materials from the waste streams that lead to landfills.”
There are currently 10 official compost drop-off locations on campus. In addition, Victor’s Dining Hall in Ondine offers students a service to pick up clean containers and drop off filled ones. The Viking Court on the ground floor of the Smith Memorial Student Union has a compost receptacle next to the landfill receptacle in the main dining area.
“Our goals are to increase access points for disposing of compostable material and foods scraps in buildings and elsewhere on campus,” Melaugh said.
Melaugh said that there are projects on the horizon to increase the availability of composting for PSU residents in the west campus, and to pilot general access composting locations for students in buildings throughout the campus.
“We are working on solidifying the infrastructure and management of composting programs here on campus, but none of these initiatives will gain any footing or make any differences without buy-in from the PSU community,” Melaugh said. “I’m hoping to increase awareness and education opportunities for students, staff and faculty so that we can start to shift the culture of waste disposal from one of cloudiness and detachment to one of clarity and active involvement.”
This focus on composting is seen in other institutions of higher learning throughout the Pacific Northwest.
In their efforts to increase composting, Portland Community College has been testing on-campus pilot composting programs, as well as purchasing and incorporating compostable disposables. As of November 2013, PCC is estimated to divert as much as 600 pounds of food waste a week.
Throughout the last five years, PCC’s Rock Creek Campus has been working on improving campus composting. The college owns a Rocket Composter, a post-consumer that uses intense heat to accelerate the composting process. The Rocket Composter is one of four in the United States, and runs on only 12 kilowatts of power every week.
Composting at PCC’s Rock Creek also incorporates a worm bin, which uses red wiggler worms to break down organic matter.
“[The worms are] a really great investment. We also have a coffee shop on campus and we use their coffee groups to feed the worms,” said Nora Lindsey, interim sustainability assistant and learning garden manager at PCC Rock Creek.
After the worms are fed foodstuffs and coffee grounds, they produce fertilizer used in the learning garden. Food from the garden is then supplied to the campus cafeteria.
Similar to PCC, Seattle University has an extensive compost program on campus. According to SU’s website, the onsite compost facility composts 178,000 pounds of food waste annually. The compost is then distributed in planting beds. The system has won several awards, including the Recycling Institution of the Year award given by the Washington State Recycling Association.
“In most locations we have a compost bin. We were able to do that because all of our to-go ware is compostable,” said Matthew Benedict, recycling coordinator and compost technician at SU.
Benedict said that rooms inside each residence hall also have its own recycling, waste and compost bin.
“We also have an on-site system. We compost pre-consumer food waste, anything that hasn’t been served to people,” Benedict said.
SU also boasts a commitment to energy conservation. The university has seven gas boilers that heat up water and send it underground, which heats the water and air of five buildings on campus. According to the university’s website, the boiler system has reduced the university’s carbon dioxide emissions by two million pounds annually, which is an 18 percent reduction.
Students Planting Change
Student groups on campus also make efforts to promote PSU’s sustainability efforts. One of these groups is Community Environmental Services.
“Here’s an organization that’s been around for two decades helping Portland-area organizations get a handle on their waste management and emissions-reduction strategies,” Allen said. “Students can work for CES, gain valuable job skills, get paid and make a difference all at the same time.”
At Oregon Metro’s Let’s Talk Trash event at PSU, Director of CES Eric Crum further discussed the services CES provides.
“Right now we’re working on over 21 different projects,” Crum said. “Those range from private-sector partnerships with companies such as Nike, Whole Foods [Market] and New Seasons [Market], and also to the public sector. We have multiple contracts with the City of Portland Metro.
“We have this unique model that’s been in place by utilizing talented and creative students and placing them on actual, tangible sustainability problems,” Crum added. “When you see the motto of PSU that says ‘let knowledge serve the city,’ that’s really what CES does, and we’ve been doing it for a long time.”
Other student groups like the Environmental Club, Net Impact and the Sustainability Leadership Center supplement PSU’s mission of sustainability.
“So much university learning takes place outside the classroom, and the Sustainability Leadership Center provides many opportunities for students to develop skills, learn about important issues related to sustainability, help plan events on campus, and volunteer on a number of projects and programs,” Allen said.
Allen discussed the long-term view and continued efforts toward sustainability at PSU.
“Every organization that’s in it for the long haul has to take sustainability seriously, but at PSU we’re striving to be a leader—to find new ways to solve problems and share that information with the world,” Allen said.
Allen also emphasized the need for teamwork and collective action to create a truly sustainable campus.
“Without collective action on issues including climate, urban sustainability, public health and the preservation of nature’s resilience we—as a planet, as a society—will fail,” Allen said.
Additional reporting by Ashley Rask and Turner Lobey.