A Campus Environmental Audit at University of Wisconsin-River Falls

The Declaration, Volume 4, Number 2 : May 2001  [Operations]

By Rusty Callier

“Faced with urgent and increasing environmental challenges, our educational institutions need to educate and graduate environmental problem solvers, as well as take responsibility for the ecological impacts of their physical plants. If environmental stewardship is the goal, then auditing the campus environment is an excellent first step toward reaching it.”
~ April Smith, author, Campus Ecology

Colleges and universities around the world offer courses on environmentally responsible policies and practices. However, relatively few have applied their teachings to their own campuses and aggressively implemented environmentally ethical measures. In 1994, at Yale University, The Campus Earth Summit, sponsored by the Heinz Family Foundation, brought together faculty, staff, and students from all over the world to design what is now known as Blueprint for a Green Campus. This set of recommendations was one of the first to prescribe the means by which colleges and universities could set the example for sustainability in their communities; a means by which their own campuses could and should become living laboratories for “walking the talk.”

As April Smith, author of Campus Ecology, says, conducting a campus environmental audit is one of the first steps toward helping universities develop an effective environmental policy targeting sustainability. An environmental audit is designed to pinpoint the most significant environmental impacts and their causes. Environmental audits can result in cost savings for a university by identifying areas where resources are overused and that warrant improvement. Also, auditing can enhance a university’s public image as a good community neighbor.

In the fall of 1999, a campus environmental audit was conducted at the University of Wisconsin River-Falls (UW-RF), a coeducational, public university with an enrollment of approximately 5,800 students. The UW-RF Campus Environmental Audit – the first to be conducted by any of the 13 four-year comprehensive universities of the University of Wisconsin System – began under the instruction and supervision of Dr. Kelly Cain, a professor in the Department of Plant and Earth Science. The audit structure was adapted from the recommendations of April Smith in Campus Ecology. The UW-RF Campus Environmental Audit is the first fully functional, up-to-date audit in the University of Wisconsin System to benchmark resource consumption in order to create a campus community that is aware of its resource consumption habits. This project has resulted in an extensive database that holds short- and long-term potential for achieving an environmentally sustainable campus community – assuming faculty, staff, and students are responsive both attitudinally and behaviorally to its revelations.

The first step toward creating the audit was to secure a Collaborative Undergraduate Research Grant from the university. The research goals were to: 1) identify what the trends are and have historically been in resource consumption (i.e. water and electricity usage), and waste generation (solid waste and recycling); 2) identify buildings and/or systems where resource consumption and waste generation can be decreased; 3) provide recognition where resource-conserving initiatives are working; and 4) identify the economic costs and benefits of the campus’ consumptive habits. Over the past two years, an overwhelming amount of data have been collected, disseminated, and analyzed.

The collection of data for the audit was initially met with skepticism. Facilities managers were hesitant to turn over data that showed the campus’ consumption habits to a student who was proposing to conduct an “audit,” a concept usually fraught with negative connotation. To gain their support, it was necessary to first focus on education. By helping facilities managers understand the goals of the project, it became clear how the data would be used and how it could help them do their jobs better in the future. Over the course of several meetings, support increased as they began to understand the purpose, usefulness, and intent of the audit.

After facilities managers warmed up to the idea of an environmental audit, they started to share the data needed to get the audit started. Months of investigating utility bill statements, recycling reports and electrical meter log sheets from the 26 buildings on campus were necessary to establish a baseline. Going back in time to 1994, solid waste (recyclables), water consumption, and electrical data were collected and analyzed. It was determined that the most useful way to present the data to the campus community was through total resource usage, total cost of resource usage, average amount used per campus community member, and average cost per campus community member. Additionally, water consumption data was divided into resource use per campus building (electricity consumption data is planned to be divided similarly).

As the data was transformed into accessible tables, charts, and graphs, facilities managers’ hesitation blossomed into a symbiotic relationship that has evolved to the point where they now automatically send current data once it is compiled to be added to the audit’s official website. In fact, facilities managers are now using data displayed on the audit website to track resource use and to evaluate whether existing conservation efforts, such as recycling, are effective.

When beginning a project like this, it is important to accurately estimate the resources that must be committed to getting it off the ground, particularly time and personnel. Although this project involved only one student and a faculty advisor, it is strongly recommended to involve a team in the effort. That way, responsibilities can be divided and no one person is overwhelmed trying to set up meetings with busy faculty and staff and sift through mounds of data. In the future, this project will involve a team of students from a proposed environmental studies class. This team will be able to put their minds and skills together to think strategically about how to foster environmental sustainability and communicate the audit’s goals to the entire campus community.

A key strategy to ensuring the audit’s success is carefully selecting which systems to audit based on which would have the greatest impact on the greatest number of people on campus. Initially, for example, the plan was to audit hazardous waste materials found in laboratories; however, after more thought and research, it was decided that hazardous waste would not yield the results needed to prove the validity of a campus-wide audit. Not all students, faculty and staff use the labs on a day-to-day basis and likely would not find a hazardous waste audit as meaningful as an audit of a resource they use daily, such as materials, water or electricity. Auditing these systems would enable individuals to quantify their own resource consumption. By summarizing resource consumption and cost per person, and showing where improvements can be made or where improvements are working, the audit could become a vital part of the campus community.

The data analysis yielded some eye-catching results. Here are some of the preliminary observations based on collected data.

· In 1994-95 and 1995-96, UW-RF recycled approximately 130,000 pounds of office paper, magazines, and newsprint per year. In 1996-97, paper recycling increased 10% to more than 143,000 pounds per year. Though it is still not clear why, paper recycling dropped to a six-year low of 128,000 pounds in 1998-99.

· The average amount of aluminum, glass, and plastic containers used by the campus community over the past five years is seven pounds per person. In 1994-95, four pounds were used per person, and in 1998-99, nine pounds were used per person.

· The increase in pounds of containers used per person from 1994-95 to 1998-99 signals the great success the campus recycling program is having getting people to dispose of aluminum, glass, and plastic correctly.

· The data reveals an overall trend of reduced water consumption. UW-RF went from using 10,768 gallons of water per person in 1994-95, up to a high of 11,805 gallons per person in 1996-97, and then down to 10,581 gallons per person in 1998-99. Taking into account a campus population increase of 6 percent between 1994-95 (5,464 people) and 1998-99 (5,865 people), it is notable that the potential impact of this increase was significantly reduced by campus-wide water conservation practices.

· The cost of water used by individuals fluctuated from $10.64 per person in 1994-95 to $11.30 per person in 1998-99. Even though the amount of water used per person was less in 1998-99 than in 1994-95 the price has gone up because of the increased demand placed on the City of River Falls Water Works due to urban sprawl and the increased need for infrastructure.

· In the 1997-98 academic year, the campus underwent a major water fixture retrofitting which provided a drop in water usage per person from 11,805 gallons in 1996-97 to 10,581 gallons in 1998-99. This reduction per person was achieved despite the 6% rise in campus population from 1994-95.

· Unlike water consumption, electricity consumption on campus per student, faculty, and staff has gone up consistently. In 1994-95 the campus went from 11,694,097-kilowatt hours to 13,224,000-kilowatt hours in 1998-99. In 1998-99 the total cost of electricity on campus was more than half a million dollars.

· Total kilowatts hours used per person have gone up in correlation with population increases since 1994-95, going from 2,140-kilowatt hours in 1994-95 to 2,255-kilowatt hours in 1998-99. This increase can be attributed to more activities and classes taking place on campus and the increasing number of students with personal computers and other electronic devices.

All tables and charts from which this data was taken are accessible at www.uwrf.edu/campus_environmental_audit/. These types of documented observations, coupled with a proactive campus administration that will work to improve resource consumption habits, will lead UW-River Falls down a path toward sustainability.

The ability of the audit to strengthen its role in campus decision-making is dependent upon the infrastructure for its maintenance. Currently, a new course proposal is being considered for teaching the combined skill areas of environmental assessments and environmental audits. The campus environmental audit was significant to the development of this proposed course, which would be taken primarily by Environmental Science majors and would provide direct and transferable skills in seeking employment in corporate or consulting settings. The course would actively engage students in collecting, disseminating, and publishing resource consumption data on systems already audited, but also enable them to audit campus systems that have not yet been assessed.

Systems yet to be audited provide an exciting opportunity for the audit to be incorporated into other areas of the campus. These areas include, but are not limited to:

· Campus Design – is the university utilizing sustainability-based planning principles when considering land-use, building, and landscaping plans for the future?

· Storm Water Runoff – what is the runoff contribution from the campus in terms of chemical and thermal pollutants to the local Kinnickinnic River, a Class I trout stream of national reputation?

· Transportation and Parking – what is the impact of commuting and parking on campus and the local community, what is being done to make transportation to and from campus more efficient, and what initiatives are there to minimize the impact of parking?

· Paths (walking and biking) – are campus paths useful and well used or are they troublesome and unaccommodating?

· Composting – the campus already has an extensive composting program that integrates animal manure from the farms with paper and food wastes from the campus. What is the input and output of this system and what are the cost-benefit efficiencies of the system?

· Procurement Policies – is UW-River Falls purchasing recycled content products and sensitive to the environmental and social impacts of where its supplies come from?

· Workplace Environment – what is the quality of the workplace environment in terms of air, space, light, aesthetics, and ergonomic design? Are there associated health and/or productivity issues with their work and study environments?

· Hazardous Materials and Waste – what are the historic and current inputs and outputs of the current hazardous waste system? How much is produced? How is it handled? Where does it go?

· Pest Control – what is done to manage bats, rats, bugs, and weeds, etc., and are the methods consistent with a commitment to sustainability?

· Environmental Literacy – what efforts are being made to educate the campus and local community? Are they working and how do we know?

This audit is an attempt to bring attention to resource consumption on campus and evaluate potential impacts. All the information gathered during the auditing process is being updated yearly as new data is obtained. The audit website is both accessible and functional. It includes a section of e-mail links to contact people working on the audit, provides websites for interested campus community members to go and learn more about campus auditing, and contains a section on frequently asked questions.

It is easy to neglect a careful study of the impact of a campus on local resources. It is easy to look at other people and say, “Well, I’m not as wasteful as that person,” or “I recycle, what more can I do?” To be truly sustainable and make progress toward sustainability, it is absolutely essential to establish benchmarks on resource consumption. If benchmarking is not in place for monitoring resource use, it is very difficult for an institution to be accountable for its actions. If resource consumption is not benchmarked and the campus community is unaware of its consumption habits, it is impossible to work toward resource-conserving solutions.

[1] Smith, A. April and the Student Environmental Action Coalition. Campus Ecology, 1993.
[2] Data referred to in this article can be viewed at UW-RF’s Website, www.uwrf.edu/campus_environmental_audit/
[3] Interview with Carl Gaulke, River Falls Utility Finance Director
[4] Interview with Tim Thum and Manny Kenney, University of Wisconsin-River Falls, Department of Facilities Management
[5] Interview with Tim Thum and Manny Kenney, University of Wisconsin-River Falls, Department of Facilities Management

Rusty Callier is a senior Land Use Planning major and Conservation minor at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls. With help from Environmental Science & Management Professor Dr. Kelly Cain, Rusty has actively pursued auditing campus systems for two years. He will be starting an MBA program with an environmental management concentration this fall at the University of St. Thomas in Minneapolis, MN. Any questions or comments can be sent to him at: RustyCallier@aol.com, or can be mailed to him at: 409 North Clark St. Apt#3, River Falls, WI 54022.

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