The 2,700 revelers who attended Arizona State University's most recent staff barbecue cast aside more than 580 pounds of soda bottles, plastic cutlery, leftover food, and other assorted trash. But less than .03 percent of that, or what Mick Dalrymple, ASU's director of sustainability practices, describes as "about half a bag," was actually carted off to the landfill. The rest, sorted by hand by frat boys and other volunteers, was composted or recycled.
The school's dedication to waste reduction (among other things) has earned ASU a spot among America's greenest schools in the Sierra Club's annual "Cool Schools" ranking.
The school stands at No. 6 out of 202 U.S. colleges and universities — a jump from No. 10 in 2015.
Northern Arizona University, by comparison, ranks 52nd, the University of Arizona No. 162.
ASU recycles or composts 35.6 percent of its trash, Dalrymple tells New Times. That represents an improvement over last year of about 2 percent. The school's greenhouse-gas emissions have dropped 17 percent since it began collecting data in 2007, Dalrymple says — despite the fact that ASU has expanded campus space by 33 percent and increased enrollment by 34 percent over that time period.
Some of ASU's approach to sustainability is by-the-book.
All new buildings at ASU are certified through the U.S. Green Building Council's Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) program, the gold standard in sustainable construction. To save energy in older buildings, the university has switched out fluorescent light bulbs in favor of more efficient LED bulbs and installed occupancy sensors so the lights turn off automatically when people leave a room.
Much of the gains, though, have been more creatively won.
The school produces some of its own power: It has 88 solar panels that double as parking-lot shade structures, for instance. And it grows some of its own food: Volunteers harvested 3,600 pounds of dates last year from trees planted on campus, according to Dalrymple. Oranges from on-campus trees are juiced and served as Devil-ade at catered events.
To decrease landfill, athletic facilities at ASU only have recycling and compost bins — no trash cans. Food vendors don't sell anything that isn't renewable. ASU provides recycling services for far more than the typical glass, metal, and paper, including plastic bags and batteries, Dalrymple says. The school has even contracted with local businesses, such as EF Block, to turn discarded Styrofoam into building bricks.
ASU encourages students to leave their cars at home (or forgo purchasing a vehicle altogether) by offering an on-campus car-share program, managed in partnership with Enterprise, that allows students to rent by the hour. It has made the campus more bike friendly by offering valet service for bicycles.
Even as ASU continues to improve its sustainability practices, Dalrymple says at least some of the school's ascension up the Sierra Club's rankings can be attributed to shifts in the environmental group's scoring system.
This year, the group gave more weight to programs that address energy and transportation — areas in which ASU is strong, because it believes, according to an e-mail sent to participating schools, that "global climate change is the most pressing environmental threat today." The Sierra Club also grilled schools on their investments in fossil-fuel companies, on the grounds that divesting is "an important strategy for transitioning to a 100-percent clean-energy economy."
By the Sierra Club's reckoning, the College of the Atlantic, a small liberal-arts institution in Bar Harbor, Maine, is the nation's greenest school. The State University of New York's College of Environmental Science and Forestry comes in second, and the University of California–Irvine, Colby College, and Stanford University rank third, fourth, and fifth, respectively.
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More than 60 percent of the 10,434 parents and students surveyed for the Princeton Review's "2016 College Hopes & Worries Survey" indicated a college's commitment to environmental issues would influence their decision to apply to or attend a particular school.
Dalrymple says that in order to achieve its goal of being truly sustainable, ASU still has a long way to go.
The next big challenge: to reduce water waste, which the university has largely overlooked because cutting back on water use doesn't bring the same financial rewards as cutting back on energy use.
"The goal of a university isn't to have no impact," Dalrymple says. "It's to have a big positive impact."