Brown Takes one BIG Step for the Environment

The Declaration, Volume 1, Number 1: January – April 1996  [Operations]

BIG, the acronym for “Brown is Green,” accurately describes Brown University’s campus-wide effort to reduce its environmental impact. The Providence, Rhode Island university, whose more that 6,500 students, 2,900 employees, 86 office buildings, and 41 dormitories produce more than 3,000 tons of solid waste a year, had the potential to affect the environment as much as many medium-sized towns. Yet, the commitment and sustained efforts of the many students, faculty and administrators involved with BIG continue to diminish that impact in all aspects of the university’s operations. In keeping with the principles of the Talloires Declaration, BIG is setting an example of environmental responsibility by establishing institutional ecology policies and practices of resource conservation, recycling, waste reduction, and environmentally sound operations.

Brown is Green began five years ago out of concern over rising energy costs, low participation in the campus recycling program, and other wasteful campus behavior. Student projects has begun to identify resource-saving ideas, yet there was no formal and unified process to test and utilize these ideas. BIG sprang from the Center for Environmental Studies’ desire to work in two areas-energy conservation and solid waste management. In January 1991, Brown President Vartan Gregorian appointed the Brown is Green committee to advise and encourage implementation. The committee developed seven principles to guide the university’s projects and future actions.

The Seven BIG Principles

  1. The University should, within limits of capital availability, invest in any resource conservation project that has an expected return on investment (ROI) greater that the current borrowing rate.
  2. For all renovation and new construction projects:

    a. The choice of architects, engineers, and consultants should be based in part upon their demonstrated expertise in resource conservation design.

    b. Architects and engineers shall submit a detailed life cycle cost analysis of resource conservation options for each project, and shall certify that all options that satisfy the RIO policy (#1 above) have been analyzed.

    c. Engineering proposals prior to construction and change orders during construction will be reviewed for impact on the efficiency of any plumbing, electrical or HVAC system.

  3. Purchasing choices of items with significant resource impact should favor resource-efficiency except when special need is demonstrated.
  4. Decision-makers should be made aware of and consider the economic and environmental costs of their decisions.
  5. Conserving energy in University buildings should be a priority, with the following goals:

    a. Whenever possible, heating systems should be upgraded to allow:

      1. more uniform system control (i.e. adding more zones) and increased occupant control over room temperature during non-setback hours of operation
      2. lighting systems should provide illumination as efficiently as possible. Unnecessary illumination (e.g. when areas are unoccupied; lit with adequate daylight) should be eliminated wherever feasible.
  6. Improving resource efficiency in University communications should be a priority.
  7. Resource efficiency and environmental considerations should be incorporated in student orientation and employee training.

The success of early programs led to an offer by the vice president of finance to fund a graduate student to coordinate the program. The program is currently headed by Kurt Teichert, who came to Brown as environmental coordinator in 1992. In addition to coordinating BIG, Teichert also teaches an undergraduate environmental studies course and supervises student environmental research projects.

Brown implements its seven principles by linking student initiatives with administrative offices and campus operations. Student projects come out of one of two environmental courses; “Environmental Studies,” and “The Efficient Use of Natural Resources.” Students choose an issue on campus, research it, and then work with plant operations, university administrators, and faculty members to produce a final report. Projects have included reducing vehicle miles traveled by Brown faculty, increasing bike accessibility, reducing the use of paper and electricity in connection with Brown printing, documenting the savings from low-flow showerheads, and reducing the number of intra-campus mailings.

Many of these projects have ascended from surveys to implementation. On others, the implementation has proven more challenging, but campus awareness had been raised. Xena Huff, a Brown graduate student who has worked extensively on transportation issues, stresses the importance of projects continuing beyond a particular student’s stay at Brown. “Actions should be designed for the long term by including in the design a method of handing the project on from one group to another, from one class to another,” Huff says. In one successful example, three student projects involving low-maintenance landscaping completed in 1991 led to the creation of three internships with university grounds crew.

Other projects have even greater longevity. In 1984, students from a course on efficient use of natural resources applied for a special-interest house and received West House, a wood framed building. All West House residents take Teichert’s course, and they have applied what they learn. Thermostat covers have been removed, the electric dryer has been abandoned, the house has been weatherized, toilet dams and low-flow showerheads have been installed, all amounting to thousands of dollars in savings, half of which has been put back into the house for further environmental enhancements. In addition to cost savings, West House can boast a consistent 40 percent reduction in its gas, electricity, and water consumption.

Students were the main planning and implementation force in the early stages of Brown’s recycling program. The Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management supplied some initial funding because it was interested in using Brown as a pilot for developing recycling policies for the state. Recycling at Brown begins in the dorm room and extends throughout campus operations. It has had a significant impact. Last year, Brown recycled 39 percent of the 3,230 tons of solid waste it produced.

Each dorm room is provided with a container to collect recyclables, newspaper, white paper, mixed office paper, corrugated cardboard, glass bottles, and limited types of plastic bottles. Individual buckets are separated into larger bins at centralized locations. The larger bins are lined with clear plastic bags so recyclables can be seen easily. The separated bags are placed outside by custodians twice a week and are picked up by a contracted waste hauler. In addition, each semester, dorms run collections for reusable clothing and other durable goods. A student group distributes these goods to community organizations throughout Providence.

The same system of recycling extends to the campus’s office buildings, libraries, labs, and copy centers. Each building has a volunteer recycling coordinator, and student interns monitor the program in coordination with the plant operations custodial staff. The interns check on campus buildings, research potential, source-reducing alternatives, and manage a database of recycled and landfilled materials.

On a campus of more than 10,000 potential recyclers, which experiences an influx of new students each year, organizers say publicity and information are vital components in the program’s success. All new students receive information on what and how to recycle, and information sessions are conducted in all first-year dorms. Electronic bulletin boards, posters, and periodic advertisements in the school papers encourage participation, and marked containers located in centralized areas make it convenient.

Brown’s Food Services also plays an active role in reducing its solid waste. Its job extends beyond recycling food packaging, corrugated cardboard, office paper, and mixed recyclables to encouraging source reduction and “recycling” food waste. Reusable mugs are sold and students receive a discount on beverages when they use the mug. An awareness program tries to reduce the use of other disposable items, especially napkins. Family-sized cereal boxes have been replaced with bulk bins of cereal. Food garbage is collected in 55-gallon drums and hauled away by a local pig farmer. All programs were initiated by students and implemented in conjunction with Teichert and the associate food service director.

Program coordinator Anne Lawrence explains that beginning to recycle was a challenge. “Recycling was difficult to implement, because our labor force is extremely large, including some temporary labor-whereby we deal with new faces on an almost-daily basis-and diverse,” Lawrence says. “Occasionally, we encounter language barriers which makes communication difficult to get our stable full-time workforce to learn new habits.”

After training sessions and multi-lingual labels and instructions were introduced, most of the staff adjusted to the new recycling system. The results are impressive. Last year, the amount of food waste being segregated increased from 275 tons to 712 tons.

The replacement showerheads and exit sign lighting were two projects with calculable economic paybacks. The showerheads were replaced following the recommendation of a student BIG project. The cost to retrofit 750 showerheads was $11,368 but the avoided cost per year was $26,066 due to decreased water consumption. Although problems were encountered in the installation due to aged mixing valves, payback for the project occurred in less than six months, and students haven’t complained about the change in water pressure. Several years ago 1,500 conventional exit sign bulbs were replaced with lower wattage, longer lasting Eternalamps. Because exit signs burn 24 hours a day, the change in bulbs significantly reduced the total kilowatt-hours consumed and the maintenance hours required. The old bulbs lasted only 2,000 hours, the new bulbs are guaranteed to last 5 years-480,000 hours.

Although students were not directly involved in the design and construction of Brown’s new Undergraduate Sciences Teaching Building, it has been a learning experience. The project presented BIG with a green opportunity to design a building to be a model by environmental standards, “The process of environmentally responsible design is the critical component of a green building,” explains Teichert.

The process began with setting forth the criteria for a green building, which included considerations of energy efficiency, conservation of resources, occupant health and productivity, transportation efficiency, and potential impacts on the surrounding air, land and water. Lead architects Koetter, Kim and Associates then took into account available daylight, heat recovery, the recycling of demolition and construction wastes, and the full costs and impacts of each piece of equipment purchased. The firm is a member of the American Institute of Architects Committee on the Environment, and Brown is a member of the United States Green Building Council (USGBC), which provided access to guidelines, specifications and advice.

As a 9,400-person institution, Brown has advantages in the business of recycling and purchasing. “The advantage of size is that we are more attractive to vendors, consultants, and designers when they bid on any one job or product, because they know that they may be able to do a considerable amount of business,” Teichert says. “Not only does an account with Brown bring large volume, it also becomes a high-profile client and reference for the vendor. Brown’s reputation for environmental programs puts us in an advantageous position with firms looking to increase their profile in ‘environmental services.'”

There are also disadvantages to size. The decentralization involved in the many levels of bureaucracy makes decisions harder to implement. For example, monitoring the flows of toner cartridge on campus became difficult without a central purchasing authority. Environmental audits are also difficult on such a large scale because by the time the students gather information, much of it is dated.

Brown is still compared to many large state universities. It does not have a recycling and waste manager. Currently, the tasks are divided among staff and students, which is less efficient than having a specialist concentrating specifically on waste management. Yet the need for dedicated student involvement is also an advantage, and Brown serves as a real environmental model for a new force of environmental citizens.

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