Higher Education and Lower Emissions- How Washington D.C. Universities are Taking Sustainability Seriously

By: Allie Goldsmith

WASHINGTON- As record high temperatures, devastating natural disasters, and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) rollbacks break headlines, optimism about the nation’s environmental prospects has reached an all time low. In the higher education sector however, private institutions are reflecting their millennial constituents’ affinity for sustainability by making the environment a top priority.

In the Washington D.C. area specifically, colleges like George Washington University (GW) and American University (AU) have responded to student feedback and are acting to minimize their environmental impact by developing initiatives that reduce carbon emissions, better manage waste, and promote ecosystems.

“At GW, the sustainability office was created because of student energy and student support,” said Kimberly Williams, the Stakeholder Engagement Associate at GW’s Office of Sustainability.

“There are young people across the country that care deeply about the environment and climate change, and they want the institution that they’re living at to be taking action and doing its part”.

Since launching in 2008, GW’s sustainability office has incorporated several initiatives into its operations to address these concerns, including sustainable energy projects, ecofriendly campus grounds keeping, and waste management initiatives.

Two years ago, GW partnered with Capital Partner’s Solar Project, which aims to reduce carbon emissions for institutions by providing solar power from offsite locations.

“GW embarked on an effort to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by getting a portion of its energy from a solar farm,” said Williams. “Through this project, GW is now 50 percent solar (powered).”

GW co-owns this solar farm with AU, which is located south of Elizabeth City, NC., and covers 287 acres of land. The farm works to abate approximately 84,900 metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent and provides power for GW, AU, and GW University Hospital. This equates to removing about 17,900 cars from the road.


AU has also made generous strides in reducing its carbon footprint and better managing waste. AU aims to become carbon neutral as early as 2020, and has reduced its carbon emissions by 52 percent since 2005.

After partnering with the Capital Partners Solar Project, AU relies on offsite and onsite solar power for 100 percent of its electricity, said Hannah Debelius, the Outreach and Communications manager at AU’s Office of Sustainability.

Debelius said to counterbalance emissions from sources that cannot be otherwise directly diminished, such as study abroad travel, AU purchases carbon offsets.

“Because we aren’t looking to reduce the amount of students that study abroad, we purchase carbon offsets,” said Debelius. “These are essentially projects that do good for the environment in the same amount that we have a negative impact.”

Through a carbon offset program that works with local women in Nairobi to sell more efficient wood burning cook stoves, Debelius said AU has already completely offset study abroad emissions for this year.

“We really want the solution to match the problem,” said Debelius. “Through this program, women in Nairobi have more opportunity to go to school because they aren’t collecting wood, and they’re helping the environment as well.”


While GW and AU have made considerable accomplishments in the name sustainability, both institutions still face considerable setbacks.

Williams noted the challenges GW’s urban campus poses for sustainability efforts, namely the limited space for large-scale sustainable infrastructure like solar paneling and its affect on student awareness.

“Because Capital Partners Solar Project is an offsite solar farm, every day as students are walking around, they aren’t seeing that physical representation of our energy source,” said Williams. “As a result, many of our students don’t actually know that we are 50 percent solar (powered).”

Zach Dobelbower is the Associate Director of Energy and Sustainability for Washington D.C.’s Department of General Services (DGS), and said another one of the biggest challenges D.C. faces in making infrastructure sustainable is balancing the need for renewable energy with energy efficiency.

“Renewables are only one half of the equation,” said Dobelbower. “And from my perspective they’re less important than efficiency.”

Dobelbower said that improving the energy efficiency of buildings in the D.C. area reduces the need for renewable energy sources like solar power, which ultimately lowers bottom line costs.

“If we’re able to improve the efficiency of a school by 20 percent, that all of a sudden means the 100KW solar system that was intended to cover 5 percent of the load is now covering 10 percent of the load,” said Dobelbower.

In other words, higher efficiency in buildings means a lesser need for the renewable energy, which unlike efficiency requires a great deal of funding to implement.

Williams also said that while social media outreach and training within the GW community helps inform students about sustainability efforts, GW’s urban location makes it difficult to control waste produced by external members of the D.C. community.

“The fact that we’re not quite as much of a physical bubble as other campuses might be is challenging,” said Williams.

“There are folks from elsewhere in the city that get off at the Foggy Bottom metro stop and go to the State Department or the World Bank, and end up walking through and across our campus.”

Debelius also mentioned waste and the challenges it poses for AU’s sustainability efforts.

“The challenge with waste is that the way we do things on campus might differ from how students might have grown up disposing of their waste,” said Debelius.

Because many students don’t grow up composting and recycling the way AU’s campus does, it is challenging to get student’s to adhere to this new way of trash disposal, said Debelius.

Elissa Baum is a junior at AU, and said that while she attempts to be mindful when she goes to throw away trash on campus, she’s often distracted or too impatient to deliberate which bin is correct.

“I think students are in such a rush most of the time, they don’t want to take a moment to think about whether or not their coffee cup is recyclable,” said Baum.

“Also, all it takes is one person to contaminate an entire container of recycling, so I think that makes it even tougher.”

Another culprit of carbon emissions in the U.S. is the agricultural industry, which colleges and universities rely heavily on to feed their large student bodies.

About 40% of American universities source their cafeteria food from large private companies such as Aramark and Sodexo. These companies are preferable to universities because they can increase revenue for schools by raising meal costs for students.

While great for universities, contracts between large food corporations and universities can discourage the use of local food producers, and exacerbate the negative environmental impact of factory farming practices.

John Zechiel is the co-owner and founder of Washington’s Green Grocer, an online grocery delivery service that provides high quality, locally grown produce to customers in the local D.C. area.

Zechiel said locally sourcing food is important for a multitude of reasons, but primarily for concerns related to food safety and food security.

“Small farmers are better farmers than the big companies who use lots of chemicals, and most small farmers are organic growers,” said Zechiel. “Also, sourcing locally means your food is fresher.”

In the event of a national crisis, said Zechiel, there runs the possibility that food can’t be delivered across the country, which also suggests a need for local sources food.

“Should anything happen in the country, such as a plague or a bombing, and for some reason Florida and California can’t get their food to us, there needs to be food available on the east coast,” said Zechiel.

While Zechiel stressed the need to make locally sourced produce more available, he also emphasized that large scale farming, when done organically and with food safety concerns in mind, can be favorable to small local farming.

“To feed the country we need to produce so much food, that even if everyone wanted to eat locally, it simply would not be possible,” said Zechiel.

“Within 50 or 100 miles of D.C., for example, we simply don’t have enough small farms to feed D.C., so we need those factory farms to feed people.”

Universities like AU and GW understand that while fresh, safely grown, nutritious food is important, they still have to feed thousands of students on a daily basis.

AU’s partnership with Aramark for their dining services has aimed to incorporate quality and locality into its food service as best it can.

For instance, the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE), which functions as the predominant rating system colleges report to in order to assess their own sustainability, has rated AU at a gold level currently, said Debelius.

“In order to achieve that level, we have to submit what percentage of food purchased on campus is organic or local, or comes from a small business or small farm,” said Debelius.

AU and Aramark also work together to compost all food waste that occurs in food prep. “If they’re peeling potatoes or chopping up pineapple, all those leftover scraps get composted by a local composting company,” said Debelius.

While also reliant on a large food service company, Restaurant Associates, for the majority of its cafeteria dining, GW has taken several steps to ensure local organic food is available to students.

GW partnered with The Real Food Challenge in 2014, a national, student-led initiative aiming to provide healthy, sustainably grown, local and fair-trade food to colleges and universities.

GW has also made it easier for students to access local produce by incorporating into their meal service the option to sign up for community supported agriculture (CSA). Through CSA, students are delivered locally grown fruits and vegetables on a weekly basis, said Williams.

Universities like AU and GW both accredit their environmentally driven students for helping them make sustainable choices, and said that they will continue to strive towards sustainable goals.

“We love it when students are coming up with more creative ways to be more sustainable and pushing us to do better,” said Williams. “The student energy that is driving us forward has been a big part of the story here at GW.”


About Alexandra Goldsmith

Senior at American University pursuing a BA in Print Journalism and a minor in Justice and Law. Part-time Barista at the Davenport Coffee Lounge.

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