As the world continues on its current path, the need for sustainability, renewable energy, and the overall green initiative is huge. Without it, our planet is destined to be destroyed for human life. We’ll run out of fuel, food, clean water, et cetera, unless we do something.

Corporations, universities, small companies, families, and individuals all can and should do what they can to make a difference. And these colleges are some of the ones making an impact as they reduce their footprint.

sustainable college campus

Campuses: What Can You Do To Improve Sustainability?

Sustainability can be both top-down and bottom-up.

Here, we’ll look at what administration and campsues can do to reduce waste, lower emissions, and generally improve the way they approach environmental issues.

1. Housing Solutions

Some universities have engaged programs in their dormitories that are dedicated to green living and sustainability. They use rain barrels, solar panels, passive lighting (i.e. natural lighting), reclaimed wood, and recycled materials that meet safety standards to build, power, and create a healthy, green environment for the students.

Some colleges have programs spread throughout their entire housing systems, as well, like having gray water systems, using solar panels for every dorm (even if not fully solar-powered, at least partially), et cetera.

2. Offering Environmental Degrees

Some universities are doing their part by designing and offering programs in the renewable energy and environmental spheres.

These degrees not only teach students how to better live in this world for the sake of the planet, but also by taking that knowledge out into the world and applying it to companies, homes, infrastructures, and more.

See our full list of renewable energy degrees here.

sustainable college campus graduates

3. Green Buildings and Practices Throughout Campus

Some campuses are working hard on earning and maintaining their LEED ratings.

Not all green buildings earn this distinction, but by working towards it, campuses are continually improving their impact on the environment.

They’re obtained through the schools having green buildings that employ gray water systems, solar panels, wind turbines, and faculty- and student-led initiatives to cut down on the use of water, electricity, and other resources.

4. Alternative Transportation Emphasis for Students, Visitors, and Faculty

One way that many campuses are encouraging a greener lifestyle both on campus and in the future is through emphasizing the use of alternative transportation for everyone on campus.

This means commuting by bike, shared vehicles, walking, public transport, et cetera.

Many schools also limit the number of vehicles permitted on campus both to faculty and students.

5. Providing Shuttle Buses

To help with the lack of vehicles permitted on campus, many colleges provide shuttle buses for students living near campus, in downtown areas, specific suburban sections near the city, et cetera.

Loyola University Lakeside, Chicago, is a great example of this type of program. If you walk through the city, you see their shuttles everywhere in specific neighborhoods.

6. Sustainable Curricula

Some of the larger schools that commit to fighting climate change also offer courses and electives for individuals looking to better understand this topic without having to major on the topic.

7. Energy Supply

One obvious ways that many universities are helping fight climate change is through the use of alternative energy supply.

We’ve mentioned this with housing or specific green buildings, but the schools seeing the most impact in this area use campus-wide renewable energy as much as possible.

This means that though you won’t find any fully off-grid campuses just yet, you will find many with solar panels, wind turbines, and even waterpower sources positioned on or near campus, powering as much as they can.

8. Composting and Recycling Programs

Any college that’s serious about sustainability will engage in serious recycling and composting programs, as they are able.

These programs should absolutely apply to food services and dining halls but should also be a part of the overall environment of the school, with receptacles for both all over campus.

9. Water Bottle Refill Stations

If gyms like Planet Fitness can do it, then universities can, too. Providing water bottle refill stations are an incredible way to help reduce plastic bottle waste that’s otherwise going to wind up in the recycling plant, or worse, the landfill.

College campuses have been installing these stations around campus and should provide more and more to reduce this huge waste.

10. Reimbursements for Going Green

Some universities have actually been going the extra mile to encourage students to live a more sustainable life by offering small reimbursements and incentives on cafeteria costs if students bring their own utensils.

They also provide discounts on purchases of books and other products made of recycled materials at the campus bookstore.

11. Cutting Funds and Ties from Companies Denying Climate Change

Some universities are committed enough to green living – including Yale, Stanford, Barnard College, and the University of California – that they have cut their ties or partially divested their endowments with companies that contribute to the climate change crises, either by their manufacturing practices or by other means of outright denial of the problem. 

12. Organic Farming for Campus Food

Many universities have lots and lots of space that could be used for farming purposes. Some of these colleges are taking advantage of that and turning the green spaces into large gardens.

If they own even larger chunks of land, they are turning these into farmland for organic crops that will then be used on campus.

Students: What Can You Do To Improve Sustainability?

There are literally dozens, maybe even hundreds, of different ways that students can engage in this conversation on campus and vastly improve the sustainability of their lives while at college. Here are just a few of the most practical ideas, beyond lobbying the administration.

1. Partake in Sustainability Programs on Campus

If you attend a university that encourages things like recycling, composting, organic gardening, and provides you with water bottle refill stations, the absolutely easiest thing you can do is simply partake in those programs. Tossing your apple core into the correct composting bin versus the non-recyclable trash is a start.

Carrying a stainless-steel water bottle that you refill around campus is another simple step. This also cuts your costs as well, as you’re helping the school cut costs and you’re not paying out for expensive replacements all the time.

2. Take Class Notes On Electronic Devices

Instead of whipping out a pad of paper and a pen, pull out your tablet or laptop and take those class notes. Most classrooms are equipped with this in mind with the desks large enough for these devices (after all, they’re the same size as a paper notebook), so you shouldn’t have any issues.

Plus, typing is fasting than writing by hand anyway, and you save money by not having to buy that paper that winds up killing trees.

sustainable college student in class taking notes

3. Use Reusable Bags

When you shop on or off campus, bring your own reusable canvas shopping bags. This cuts costs, sure, but it’s less wasteful of both plastic – that winds up in landfills – and paper, that kills trees.

4. Unplug and Turn Off Appliances

Many appliances, especially older ones, use residual energy, meaning that as long as they’re plugged in, they are draining at least a tiny bit of electricity from the grid.

To help save on energy costs and reducing the impact of your footprint, unplug your devices whenever they are not in use.

And, if you’re not in the room, turn off the lights, the TV, or whatever else is typically on, draining power from the grid.

5. Use Sites Like Facebook Market, Freecycle, Libraries, and Craigslist to Reduce Landfills

There are many, many websites dedicated to the idea that folks don’t want to just chuck their old stuff into a landfill. This goes for furniture, dishes, books, and even food.

If you log into sites like Freecycle, you’ll often find the item you’re looking for to finish out the dorm room.

You can also borrow books from the library so that you can help reduce the number that need to be printed on paper.

6. Skip the Car

Parking is expensive in cities, but worse, cars have a huge impact on the environment.

Whenever possible, use public transit, school shuttles, ride a bike, or walk wherever you’re going instead of adding one more motor vehicle to the congested byways.

Environmental Issues on Campuses

The folks on campuses have helped to pinpoint some of the biggest concerns on campuses around the world.

Some start outside the campus, but they heavily impact life, the cost of education, and specifically university campuses anyway.

Here are a few topics that campuses and students are working to build solutions for. Many of them impact student and campus life, while others are much broader in scale.

1. Food Shortages and Higher Costs of Living

One of the biggest concerns around the world is the possibility of food shortages coming. Studies have shown that crop productivity in American declines each year by 2-4%, thanks to climate change.

In a single year, in the big picture, this doesn’t seem like much.

But each year, that margin is widening. So, people have huge concerns.

The continued decline could lead to food shortages in the country. This could mean that we’d need to import things like grains, vegetables, and meats, when our goal is to reduce such environmental impacts.

And this would significantly impact the basic costs of living, which also drives up prices for life on campuses because of the need for food preparation, service, and cleanup on a much larger scale.

2. Forest Fires and Droughts

Many states on the West Coast have suffered from long-lasting droughts for years, thanks to climate change.

This has caused serious water supply shortages and extremely dry air and soil. Which, in turn, results in a lot of forest fires.

Forest fires spread and that means not just the droughts are causing issues for food growth, but fire itself is a threat to food, water, and more for daily life on and off campus.

3. Coffee Shortages

For those who prefer a good cup of herbal tea, a coffee shortage isn’t that big of a deal. But if you’re a faithful servant of The Joe, then this is a startling possibility.

The rising temperatures in regions where coffee grows has pushed farmers further and further up the mountainsides to find cool enough air. This drops the output of coffee beans.

And studies have shown that it’s possible that by 2100, the lives of coffee drinkers, farmers, and many who rely on the coffee trade for a living will be in serious danger.

4. Travel Limitations and Increased Diseases

As we’re seeing right now with the Coronavirus, travel and disease are in-step with each other.

Entire nations are banning others from visitors coming and going, even residents or citizens of the infected nation from returning home.

And as the ice caps melt, we’re expecting more insect-borne diseases (like Zika) to popup and cause outbreaks.

As the outbreaks become known, people are restricted from travel to avoid spreading diseases that would no longer be an issue if we weren’t so horrendously treating our planet.

5. Less Hunting and Fishing

Again, for people who don’t eat fish or meat, who abhor the idea of hunting or hooking an animal, this isn’t as much of a concern.

But for those who wish to live off the land, et cetera, this becomes a problem.

Primarily, animal species will become extinct due to all of these various incidents (think of the fear of Platypuses going extinct in Australia because of the horrible fires), whether they’re hunted for food or not.

The Top 10 Sustainable College Campuses in America

All right, now that we’ve taken a good look at the types of programs campuses can use, the dangers of the environmental problems, and what you as students can do on campus, let’s look at the schools that have the best green programs in the country.

green college class

1. The University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

The University of North Carolina tops the list because of a number of factors. First being, of course, that it supports a huge number of sustainable initiatives across a wide range of concerns related to climate change.

Some of the major projects they engaged in include energy-efficient buildings built on campus, retrofitting older facilities to be greener, increasing their green transportation initiatives, and creating a true culture of sustainability on campus.

Their ultimate goal is to meet the “Three Zero Goals.” That is, net zero water usage, zero waste to landfills, and net zero greenhouse gas emissions.

2. Iowa State University, Ames

Second on the list is Iowa State University, for similar reasons to what puts the top university on the list. They have a ton of programs and initiatives to encourage students and faculty and all employees to engage in a sustainable, green life.

The infrastructure consists of seven groups of students and faculty working together to support the program, referred to as “Live Green!” This initiative includes extracurricular and academic efforts to make the whole of campus and the programs more environmentally focused. The whole program is a very tangible way for students to learn through real-world experience in volunteer work, research, study abroad, and club activities.

3. University of Virginia, Charlottesville

This university is one of the nine higher education institutes recognized as a Green Ribbon School by the U.S. Department of Education. The University of Virginia has earned this title by committed to the engagement in the community and by empowering students in sustainable living programs that really make a difference. The programs of note here include the Green Labs Program, the Green Workplace Program, and their Recycling and Waste Diversion.

All the programs provide groups and individuals with straightforward steps on how to improve their impact on the world by doing research, working, and simply living the program as a lifestyle.

4. University of Maryland, College Park

The University of Maryland in College Park has made sustainability one of their biggest priorities on campus in recent years. All the departments of the school are involved in developing and implementing the various initiatives that the school has created.

The initiatives are designed to involved both the campus itself and the surrounding communities, encouraging engagement in a more environmentally friendly lifestyle. Several faculty members are involved in sustainability research as well, and the school is in collaboration with local organizations that allow students to get involved off-campus with programs and make a difference through volunteer work and internships. Plus, there are more than 20 student groups that focus on these issues.

5. Chatham University, Pittsburgh

One of the most environmentally friendly universities in the country is Chatham University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The school has pledged to become carbon neutral and is constantly working to make the whole campus greener. It’s an officially recognized Tree Campus, created by the Arbor Day Foundation, meaning it meets the standards of sustainable forestry. Chatham is also a participant in regularly in the national recycling tournament, RecycleMania.

One feature of the university is Rea House, which is the school’s small environmentally themed dorm that lives and works together in this small community of 28 students to have a green lifestyle as much as is humanly possible.

6. Arizona State University, Tempe

One of the pioneers of green colleges is Arizona State University. It’s home to the nation’s first school of sustainability, offering both undergraduate and graduate level degrees for students interested in sustainability careers. The degrees are available on multiple campuses, including online.

The school also has facilities for faculty research, which students participate in. This provides hands-on learning. Students are encouraged to study abroad, take internships, and work as volunteers in sustainable initiatives around the world.

Beyond academic programs, students are also encouraged to participate in the many on-campus student organizations that work to make the campus and surroundings communities more environmentally friendly.

7. University of Massachusetts, Amherst

The first public university to divest from fossil fuel holdings was this school, the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. It’s also one of the country’s largest food service provides to commit to serving only local, sustainable food sources. They are, of course, therefore known for being one of the primary leaders in sustainable campus life.

The university is home to the School of Earth and Sustainability, which provides students and faculty a hub for studying and researching around this topic of environmental sciences, sustainability, and renewable energy. The school also boasts of an efficient recycling program and one of New England’s largest solar panel projects.

8. University of Oregon, Eugene

The University of Oregon in Eugene seeks to remain one of the leading green universities in the country. They constantly improve their programs and increase the scope of their sustainability efforts. Multiple departments and groups at the university participate in the efforts to create a truly consistent culture of sustainability across all walks of life, both on and off campus.

The university operates its own community garden, seed library, and has a zero-waste program that’s engaging and benefitting to the campus as a whole, as well as the community around the school.

The dining halls and housing also work towards being sustainable by using energy-efficient equipment, using in-season produce, and giving students access to free reusable water bottles and refill stations. Plus, all the paths on campus are designed to be shared by bikes.

9. Warren Wilson College, Asheville

Another leading green university in North Carolina is Warren Wilson College. The students here are at the center of the sustainability efforts. The school emphasized personal responsibility in caring for the environment and the students have been encouraged to develop habits that reduce waste of all kinds.

The college has also committed to completely divest from fossil fuels and has signed onto the Real Food Challenge to buy and serve food only that has been sourced locally. It respects both the welfare of humans and the environment and seeks to be a zero-waste institution by 2032.

10. University of California, Berkeley

The final leader on our top 10 list is the University of California at Berkley. The school prides itself on its many sustainability-based campus programs that help the school towards its goal of being carbon neutral by 2025. The university has already made significant progress towards that goal and will reach it if it continues on its current trajectory.

The majority of the students use public transit or walk and bike to get to and from campus. Five of the buildings have been completely equipped so work with solar panels only.

The school is also aiming to be a zero-waste campus and has waste diversion rates that are increasing, thanks to the campus recycling programs and student-managed programs. The faculty is also always engaging with research for sustainability and students are encouraged to participate in these projects as a part of their curriculum as well.

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