From electricity-generating canopies to banning single-use plastics, find innovative ideas from these top sustainable campuses

by Brianna Crandall — December 14, 2020 — The 2020 Sustainable Campus Index was recently released by the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE). The annual publication recognizes top-performing colleges and universities overall and in 17 sustainability impact areas, as measured by the Sustainability Tracking, Assessment & Rating System (STARS). The report also highlights innovative and high-impact initiatives (samples below) from campuses that submitted STARS reports in the most recent calendar year.

Institutions that achieved the top spot overall according to institution type include:

  • Associate Colleges — Nova Scotia Community College
  • Baccalaureate Institutions — Colby College
  • Master’s Institutions — Thompson Rivers University
  • Doctoral Institutions — Colorado State University

Institutions that achieved the top spot in each sustainability topic area are listed below. The full list of top performers is provided in the report.

  • Air and Climate — Arizona State University and Colby College (tie)
  • Buildings — University of California, Merced
  • Campus Engagement — Berea College, Cornell University, University of Connecticut (tie)
  • Coordination and Planning — Thompson Rivers University and University of Alberta (tie)
  • Curriculum — Colorado State University
  • Diversity and Affordability — Stanford University
  • Energy — Thompson Rivers University
  • Food and Dining — University of Winnipeg
  • Grounds — Cascadia College, Chatham University, George Washington University(tie)
  • Investment and Finance — Arizona State University
  • Public Engagement — University of Connecticut
  • Purchasing — Dalhousie University
  • Research — Binghamton University; Florida State University; University of California, Irvine; University of California, Merced; University of California, San Diego (tie)
  • Transportation — Columbia University
  • Waste — Nova Scotia Community College
  • Water — Colorado College, San Francisco State University, University of Connecticut (tie)
  • Well-being and Work — University of Massachusetts Lowell

AASHE’s Executive Director Meghan Fay Zahniser remarked:

The Sustainable Campus Index uplifts stories and achievements from campuses throughout the world that are working to create a more just and equitable society. I’m honored to celebrate the accomplishments of these institutions and am hopeful their leadership sets an example that many will follow.

Highlights of best practices

The report also highlights numerous innovative initiatives undertaken by these top sustainable campuses, including:

  • A public/private partnership for a solar array, with over 83,000 photovoltaic (PV) panels spread across four campus locations and a research park;
  • Three large-scale PowerParasol canopies that provide pedestrian and event shade while generating electricity, thereby reducing the urban heat island and extending usable space on campus;
  • Solar installations that provide nearly 6,000 shaded parking spaces and shaded seating in the softball stadium;
  • Geothermal system that replaced coal-fired boilers and chilled water equipment with the nation’s largest ground-source geothermal district energy system, which produces both hot water and chilled water (project provided thousands of jobs, halved the campus carbon footprint, and is saving some $2 million annually);
  • 4.5-megawatt solar farm that generates nearly 25 percent of the campus’s total electricity needs, saving $17 million annually in utilities and financing construction of a new laboratory;
  • A system-wide single-use plastics policy gradually banning the institutional purchase of all single-use plastics (with exceptions for ADA compliance) to reduce waste and protect Pacific marine life;
  • First higher education campus to commit to the Living Community Challenge, a master planning framework that incorporates regenerative design strategies into seven performance areas: place, water, energy, health and happiness, materials, equity, and beauty, with requirements for each on topics such as agriculture on campus, human-powered mobility, and biophilic environments;
  • A 1.5-mile loop Living Lab Trail with interpretive signage across the campus and throughout its buildings to help visitors to appreciate what is involved with LEED-certified buildings, geothermal heat exchange, solar PV, solar thermal, wetland and prairie restoration, bioswales, bicycle transportation options, and wellness;
  • Carbon neutrality ommitment made in 2009 and achieved this year; through building renovations, adoption of 100% renewable energy on-site and locally, the construction of a net-zero energy/carbon library, and efficiency projects, the college has reduced on-site, scope 1 and 2 emissions by 75%, while also mitigating business travel and commuting, solid waste, waste water, and paper purchasing with investments in off-site projects that actively remove greenhouse gases from the atmosphere; and
  • Food recovery program to recover catered consumable food for distribution to food-insecure community members; program complies with safety standards and includes a timed notification system, enabling the university to support a food recovery program without assuming an unacceptable amount of liability.

See the 2020 Sustainable Campus Index for more details.

STARS is a transparent, self-reporting framework developed by AASHE for colleges and universities to measure their sustainability performance. With over 1,000 participating institutions, STARS is a leading tool for measuring higher education sustainability performance. All reports are publicly accessible on the STARS website and include additional best practices and a benchmarking tool.