A Glimpse into the Future: A New Report by NWF on Campus Greening Efforts

The Declaration, Volume 5, Number 1: December 2001  [Research]

Excerpted from “State of the Campus Environment: A National Report Card on Environmental Performance and Sustainability in Higher Education”

By Mary McIntosh, Julian Keniry, Kathy Cacciola and Stephen Clermont

As our nation and world struggle to define the parameters of a sustainable future that supports environmentally sound practices, economically equitable and socially just systems, recent findings in a National Wildlife Federation (NWF) report on higher education environmental performance are encouraging.

State of the Campus Environment: A National Report Card on Environmental Performance and Sustainability in Higher Education is based upon a survey of 891 colleges and universities in the United States. With support from the Educational Foundation of America, NWF commissioned Princeton Survey Research Associates (PSRA) to conduct the first comprehensive national survey ever undertaken of environmental initiatives at U.S. institutions of higher learning. The web-based survey found enhanced environmental responsibility driving decisions in every part of campus life, affecting everything from curriculum to purchasing decisions to landscaping, with over 80% of respondents claiming activity in one or more areas. Despite the high participation levels in many areas, such as lighting efficiency upgrades and recycling aluminum containers, higher grades of paper, and corrugated cardboard, there is still room for improved performance across the board

Review Process, Methodology and Response Rate
The survey was designed by NWF staff, in consultation with PSRA and over 140 internal and external peers. NWF solicited feedback from leaders in higher education associations, environmental organizations, and dozens of campus-based administrators, faculty, students, and other environmental professionals. Balancing the need to collect detailed qualitative and quantitative information with the desire for a high response rate necessitated many tough decisions about what to include and leave out of the survey.

This web-based survey was distributed in three separate modules to presidents, provosts and chiefs of facilities (or plant operations) at over 3,900 colleges and universities in the U.S. At the beginning of the study, a hard copy letter was sent to every president inviting him or her to participate in the survey. This communication was followed up by email invitations to the provost and facilities chief. Questions covered institutional goals and policies, curriculum integration, environmental literacy, transportation, energy use and conservation, purchasing and recycling. The survey generated 1,116 responses from 471 presidents (or executive officers), 320 provosts (or academic officers) and 325 chiefs of facilities, with a total of 891 institutions responding (almost 22 percent of schools). (The margin of error for results from the facilities and provost module is ±5 and for the president module is ±4.)

NWF and PSRA believe the sample is not overly skewed towards respondents who wanted to utilize the survey to highlight exemplary programs for three reasons. First, several campuses with exemplary programs that we already know about did not respond to the survey. Second, significant numbers of respondents admitted having little to no programming, such as recycling, in place. Third, in some of the comments received, respondents admit to struggling with environmental programming and feel their campus is just beginning. NWF and PSRA chose not to conduct non-respondent sampling, feeling that for these reasons, the integrity of respondents was basically ensured.

Vision from the Top
The motivation for implementing environmental programs transcends regulatory compliance or cost savings. NWF asked college presidents why they were adopting environmental programs in everything from curriculum to purchasing decisions. The number-one response, from 64 percent of those surveyed, is that environmental programs fit with the culture and values on America’s campuses. That is another way of saying that an environmental ethic has taken root at the institutions where tomorrow’s leaders are being trained. Presidents also cite public relations (47 percent) and cost-effectiveness (41 percent) as important factors. A smaller number (17 percent) also noted the importance of environmental programming in recruiting students. Despite the significant interest in environmental sustainability, trends in performance vary across categories.

Environmental Lessons in the Classroom
Although there are encouraging signs that colleges and universities are working to educate students on environmental topics, trends in college curricula are relatively weak compared with the greening of operations and management systems. On the one hand, half the schools surveyed have programs supporting their faculty’s professional development on environmental topics and 43 percent offer major or minor programs in environmental studies. On the other hand, unless they are majoring in biology or environmental studies, students in many institutions may complete their studies without gaining basic environmental literacy. Only 8 percent of campuses require all their students to take environmental studies courses regardless of their major.

Table 1: Student required to take courses on environmental studies



2-Year Degree

4-Year Degree

All students




Most students




Some students




No students




Certain professions, in which environmental literacy is crucial, such as engineering and education, still benefit only modestly from environmental training at the undergraduate level. Only 12 percent of engineering and 11 percent of education programs, for instance, currently offer undergraduate environmental courses. This contrasts with 68 percent of biology departments and 33 percent of political science programs.

Table 2: Top five departments in which courses on environmental issues are taught



2-Year Degree

4-Year Degree









Political science or sociology




Business or economics




Philosophy or religion




Energy and Water Conservation at Work
With the national energy policy debate on the table, the survey’s news about energy is especially timely. Indeed, those who frame the energy issue with a heavy-handed emphasis on simply increasing fossil fuel supplies should take heed. America’s colleges and universities are already moving forward on an alternate path, one that emphasizes conservation and efficiency.

Nearly a quarter of those schools surveyed meet at least some of their energy needs from renewable sources. Respondents cited a number of innovative sources for energy including photovoltaic panels, geothermal heat pumps, and waste heat, as well as solar hydrogen and other types of fuel cells. And almost all have programs in place or in the works to increase the energy efficiency of lighting, heating, ventilation, and air conditioning systems. Additionally, more than half the schools have developed efficiency design codes for new or existing buildings. Taken together, these initiatives represent crucial steps toward a cleaner and more sustainable energy future.

Table 3: Implementation of energy efficiency programs and plans to do more




Lighting efficiency upgrades



Heating, ventilation and air conditioning upgrades



Water efficiency upgrades



Efficiency design codes for new or existing buildings



Life-cycle analysis for energy project evaluation



Good practices for water conservation and efficiency are also widely embraced by campuses. Seventy-two percent of respondents report they have installed efficient toilets, showerheads and faucets and that they recirculate water. A few campuses even report using recycled water for campus landscapes.

It should be noted, however, that few campuses were able or willing to report on the exact quantities of fuel and water used. Thus, this report can assess the types of energy and utility-related conservation programs in place, but is limited in its ability to assess overall impacts or to provide quantitative benchmarks for comparison. Perhaps with time, more respondents will trust that this survey information will not be used to identify campuses that consume more energy than others and will be encouraged to record and share quantitative information to aid in tracking national trends.

Closing the Loop
Energy efficiency and conservation, however, are just a part of the picture. The survey found enhanced environmental responsibility driving decisions in every part of campus life, from waste reduction to purchasing and landscaping.

Recycling, for example, boasts the highest activity levels of any issue covered in the survey. Perhaps not surprisingly, more campuses recycle aluminum (85 percent of respondents) and various grades of paper (ranging from 77 percent to 84 percent) than other materials. Almost half of all campuses surveyed, however, also recycle glass (50 percent), plastic (46 percent), and construction materials (47 percent), and compost food scraps and landscape trimmings (48 percent). Two in 10 (17 percent) campuses report they recycle 40 percent or more of their waste, and five percent of campuses report they recycle between 70 and 100 percent of their municipal solid waste.

To ensure there are markets for the materials recycled, 49 percent of campuses have programs in place to encourage environmentally sound purchasing, such as specifying that the products they purchase contain recycled content. In fact, 29 percent of campuses specify that paper contain a minimum of 25 percent post-consumer waste and, to reduce pollutants emitted at the point of manufacture, 8 percent of campuses have chlorine-free requirements for office paper. With paper being one of the largest and most costly purchases on most campuses, environmentally responsible paper choices are particularly important. While this is relatively new territory for the majority of campuses (and other types of institutions, as well), a handful of campuses have set a healthy prece-
dent for others to emulate.

Beyond recycling materials, campuses are doing a wide variety of things with regard to consumption and waste. For instance, 69 percent have programs in place to reduce the need for paper hard copies; 55 percent have materials exchange programs for computers, furniture, office supplies, and lab equipment; and 43 percent encourage lab courses to implement micro-scale experiments that will consume milliliters rather than liters.

When all is said and done, however, more than 70 percent of campus municipal solid waste on average still ends up in landfills or incinerators.

Landscapes for People and Wildlife
Campus landscapes are an excellent context in which to demonstrate ecological principles in practice. Conserving water by planting locally adapted, native plants; limiting applications of pesticides; providing food, water and shelter for songbirds and butterflies; and restoring degraded habitats are just a few of the methods campuses are using.

The most common of such programs, practiced by 60 percent of campuses surveyed, is integrated pest management (IPM). IPM minimizes applications of pesticides and herbicides through careful choice and location of plants, natural insect and disease control, and ongoing monitoring. Fifty-one percent of campuses report they plant native trees and shrubs throughout the landscape and 37 percent provide food and shelter to attract wildlife. Another 36 percent of campuses are working to restore degraded wetlands and other habitats adjacent to or on campus grounds. These actions make many campuses attractive stopping grounds for migrating birds throughout the year. They also provide areas for students to study ecological systems in action.

Transportation: One of the Weaker Links
Reducing congestion and pollution associated with travel to and from colleges and universities is one of the biggest opportunities campuses have to improve community relations and air quality. With potential savings of many thousands of dollars per parking space, reducing the need for new parking is an added incentive. Yet transportation management remains largely untapped territory on U.S. campuses. While a majority of campuses report they offer adequate bicycle racks, key initiatives for reducing single occupant vehicles, such as discounted bus passes for students, faculty or staff, carpooling programs, and incentives not to drive alone, such as emergency rides home, are practiced by fewer than 25 percent of campuses. Only 12 percent of campuses power some of their fleet vehicles with alternative fuels.

Environmental Projects Foster Student Leadership Skills
Significant numbers of campuses recognize that linking the classroom with the campus and the community is a great way to improve environmental performance while fostering student leadership skills. A majority of campuses surveyed offer students a range of opportunities to apply environmental knowledge. For instance, 58 percent of campuses have internship programs and community service projects that encompass environmental issues, and 49 percent facilitate campus service projects. Independent research projects, offered by 68 percent of campuses, are the primary mode for accommodating student interest in environmental learning.

Another way campuses are linking the classroom with practical experience is through opportunities for students to participate in campus-wide environmental councils. Eighteen percent of campuses have councils that include students.

Management Systems Broaden and Sustain Programs
Environmental councils or task forces are just one of several elements staff, faculty, and students are putting into place to ensure that environmental responsibility is sustained over time, and woven throughout all academic and administrative departments. Other important elements include setting and reviewing goals for environmental performance, staffing environmental programs, evaluating performance, providing orientation and training, instituting mechanisms for accountability, and providing staffing resources.

Goal setting and review, a key to improving performance over time, is a strategy many campuses have embraced, especially around conserving energy and environmental performance in the design of new buildings. Sixty-four percent of colleges and universities surveyed have established and review their progress towards achieving such goals. The next most common areas in which goals are established concern reducing solid waste, protecting natural habitats, and purchasing environmentally sound goods. A sizeable
percentage of campuses (29 percent) also set goals for making environmentally responsible investments and another 9 percent of campuses have goals for purchasing organic food.

Table 4: Goals set for improving environmental responsibility.



2-Year Degree

4-Year Degree

Conserving energy




Environmental performance in the design of buildings




Reducing solid waste & maximizing recycling




Protecting habitats




Purchasing environmentally sound goods




Reducing pollution




Conserving water




Making environmentally responsible investments




Purchasing organic food




Staffing of environmental programs emerges in the survey as a need. This is consistent with the fact that presidents cite competing priorities for staff time among the primary barriers to their environmental quality initiatives. The most likely program to be staffed is recycling. Fifty-one percent of campuses surveyed have recycling coordinators. Precedents do exist for other types of staffing as well; for instance, 36 percent of campuses have energy conservation coordinators, 21 percent report having a full-time administrator on the staff who manages environmental issues beyond regulatory compliance, and another 7 percent have green purchasing coordinators.

Important environmental management elements that are not yet widely applied include conducting orientation, evaluating performance, and instituting mechanisms for accountability. While 50 percent of provosts report that their faculty receives professional development and training on environmental topics, fewer than 14 percent of campuses orient faculty, staff, or students to campus environmental policies or goals. This is perhaps one of the biggest opportunities to surface in this survey. What better way to advance environmental performance than by setting the tone when students, faculty, and staff first arrive to the campus? As environmental goals change, students and staff can be re-oriented to these programs, offering an opportunity to clarify procedures, answer questions, and reinforce the value of environmental stewardship on the campus.

Similarly, few campuses report evaluating staff and faculty environmental performance or instituting other accountability mechanisms. Only 8 percent of campuses hold campus units accountable for environmental performance through incentives or penalties. And even fewer (4 percent) formally evaluate or recognize how the faculty has integrated environmental topics into the curriculum.

Benchmarking for the Future
Assessing environmental performance is important in several respects, most importantly providing a baseline of current activity levels against which environmental trends can be monitored over time. The State of the Campus Environment provides this on a national scale. By transcending the anecdotal, the report identifies good practices and trends. As students, staff, faculty, administrators and members of higher education organizations and associations engage in debate about acceptable levels of environmental performance, campuses are able to establish performance benchmarks to assist in advancing their own campus greening efforts. National Wildlife Federation plans on conducting this survey every three years, ensuring that evaluating environmental performance is a dynamic rather than a static process.

Learning to Improve Subsequent Surveys
As with any national survey, this project has been a major undertaking. Conceived of several years ago, developed over the course of a year and administered over several more months, the project was quite successful with little to no glitches. The biggest challenge was deciding which questions to include, ensuring accurate and relevant data, while maintaining a strong response rate.

As Mark Van Putten, National Wildlife Federation President and CEO, stated, “with growing human population and consumption continuing to stress the planet’s natural resources, it is useful to ask how our institutions of higher learning are responding to the urgent need to better balance human needs with the health of the broader natural systems on which all forms of life depend.”

All across the country, colleges and universities are actively improving opportunities for progress in the curriculum, management, and operations of most campuses. Collectively, these institutions are, perhaps, best at educating students within the physical sciences about environmental issues; staffing and implementing recycling programs; and setting performance goals for energy, water and new buildings. Areas of greatest opportunity include extending formal environmental education to more students, especially engineering and education majors; and orienting students, faculty, and staff to campus environmental programs and goals.

One of the most encouraging findings in the survey is that there is a significant minority of campuses (including institutions of all types and sizes and in all regions of the country) working on the leading edge to teach and demonstrate sustainability in practice. These campuses are recycling water, using life-cycle analysis in selecting materials, restoring wildlife habitat, capturing waste heat, geothermal, and solar energy, and providing incentives not to drive alone to campus. Many of them also involve students in environmental task forces, have environmental coordinators, evaluate and report on environmental performance, and require all students to take at least one course on the basic functions of the earth’s natural systems. These initiatives provide experiential learning opportunities for students, foster good public relations, reduce costs and consumption, and set an important precedent for other institutions to follow.

We would like to thank the following co-sponsors: American Society of Landscape Architects; APPA: The Association of Higher Education Facilities Officers; Center for a New American Dream; Center for Sustainable Systems; Higher Education Network for Sustainability and the Environment; Nathan Cummings Foundation; National Association of Educational Buyers; North American Alliance for Green Education; North American Association for Environmental Education; Rocky Mountain Institute; Second Nature; Society for College and University Planning; University Leaders for a Sustainable Future; and World Resources Institute.

As the first comprehensive survey and report of its kind, Campus Ecology is interested in hearing from readers and engaging in dialogue to strengthen the next survey. Visit http://nwf.org/campusecology/stateofthecampusenvironment.cfm to access the full report, fact sheet, press release, list of participating schools, Q&A and to submit questions, comments, ideas or case studies.

Mary McIntosh, PhD., is vice president of Princeton Survey Research Associates (PSRA) and director of its Washington, D.C., office; Julian Keniry is senior manager of NWF’s Campus Ecology Program; Kathy Cacciola is coordinator of NWF’s Campus Ecology Program; and Stephen Clermont is assistant project director in PSRA’s Washington, D.C., office.

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