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The University of Chicago’s Independent Student Newspaper since 1892

Chicago Maroon

The University of Chicago’s Independent Student Newspaper since 1892

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Campus Sustainability On Paper And In Practice

A look at UChicago’s track record on sustainability complicates the narrative on its recent climate goals.

[This is the second article in a series about campus sustainability. The first article, published on April 21, can be found here.] 

“Together the UChicago community can continue to make strides towards a brighter future.” 

So reads the University’s 2016 Sustainability Plan, the most comprehensive set of environmental goals released by UChicago to date. With goals ranging from building energy use, to waste diversion, to water use, the 2016 Plan and other announcements have laid out a range of prescriptions for the University’s climate action in coming years.  

While many view these new goals as promising signs of an increasing commitment to sustainability, others see a lingering gap between the University’s plans on paper and in practice. 

This installment examines UChicago’s sustainability targets and the extent to which they are being met.  


LEED Certification 

According to the University’s 2019 Sustainability Update, energy consumption in campus buildings accounts for 70 percent of UChicago’s annual greenhouse gas emissions. As a result, decreasing building energy use through “high performance buildings” has been a primary focus of campus emissions reduction efforts. 

The 2019 Update boasts that 19 buildings on campus are certified by the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design program (LEED-certified). Four of these buildings are “LEED-silver,” 13 “-gold,” and two “-platinum,” labels reflecting how many “points” a building’s design accumulates on the certification rubric. 

But, in practice, LEED certification does not necessarily correspond to a building’s actual energy efficiency—a gap found on UChicago’s campus. 

Data displayed at a presentation launching the University’s new Environmental Frontiers (E.F.) program, which will offer campus sustainability internships to UChicago undergraduates during the summer of 2020, revealed that several LEED-certified buildings on campus are underperforming. UChicago professor of geosciences Elizabeth Moyer said during the E.F. presentation that several LEED buildings, including the Searle Chemistry Laboratory and the Logan Center, have not met their certification goals. She added that Searle is a high outlier in terms of energy usage not only among other buildings on campus, but also as compared with chemistry labs in comparable climate zones nationwide. 

Arathi Gowda, an Associate Director at the architectural, urban planning, and engineering firm Sidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM), explained possible reasons for this disconnect in an interview with The Maroon

While 30 percent of all LEED points are related to a building’s energy efficiency, it is possible to gain points from aspects unrelated to energy use—such as rainwater management, proximity to public transport, and installing bike facilities—to gain certification. 

“One thing that often happens is, to get a rating, people don’t buy in towards high efficiency and energy,” Gowda explained. Instead, “they’re able to meet the prerequisites or get a few points” in other ways. 

Additionally, LEED certification is based on a “predictive energy model” of a building’s performance, rather than its actual energy efficiency; in other words, the certification is a one-time designation of a building’s predicted performance, rather than a continual assessment. 

UChicago spokesperson Gerald McSwiggan wrote in an email to The Maroon that “the University has completed a building-by-building energy use assessment for each building on campus.” However, Senior Director of Energy Management Adam D’Ambrosio said at the E.F. meeting that the University’s Facilities Services Department staff “haven’t looked in a focused way on [sic] the performance of LEED-certified buildings.”  

Evaluating LEED buildings’ performance will be one of the four main research projects available to students in the upcoming E.F. summer internship program. McSwiggan told The Maroon that the interns’ project will be “to determine the effect of LEED certification on energy use and enable the University to make additional building-specific site improvements.” 


Woodlawn: LEED-Designed, But Not LEED-Certified 

The University has pledged that “new construction or major renovation projects over $5 million must be certified by the U.S. Green Building Council with at least LEED silver.” So the recent announcement that Woodlawn Residential Commons, the new megadorm under construction on 61st Street, will not be LEED-certified has raised eyebrows among campus sustainability activists. 

McSwiggan wrote in an email to The Maroon that this is because a new prerequisite for certification regarding air circulation was introduced partway through Woodlawn’s construction process. 

“The building meets all other requirements of LEED Silver and aligns with the evaluation standard by which the Campus North Residential Commons achieved its LEED certification,” McSwiggan wrote. 

Gowda explained that there have in the past been disparities between LEED and city-mandated ventilation requirements. However, she said, given the complex and collaborative nature of LEED building design, oversights such as Woodlawn’s often occur due to a lack of communication among team members working on the construction project. 

“Sustainability, and specifically LEED, is not just a checklist…It’s really about an integrated design process, where every single team member contributing to the project knows how they’re doing that,” she said. “Typically, those [issues] happen when the integrative process breaks down a little bit.” 

Publicly available documents from the Cook County Recorder of Deeds show that the new dorm is being constructed under a Ground Lease arrangement with Capstone Development Partners, meaning the University does not own the building itself, but only the land below it, for the 65-year duration of the lease.  

According to a 2018 UChicago news article, the purpose of this arrangement was “to allow the University to develop the commons without taking on new capital investment”—but a by-product of it is that, because the University does not own the building itself, it is not breaking its own LEED-Silver pledge. 


Emissions Reduction 

Another one of the University’s main sustainability goals involves carbon emissions. The University announced in April that it is increasing its emissions reduction goal from 20 percent by 2025 to 50 percent by 2030. These goals are in terms of reduction since baseline, defined as its average emissions in 2012 through 2014. 

According to the announcement, one reason for this change was that the University was ahead of its initial goal, stating that UChicago has reduced its carbon emissions per square foot of campus building space, a metric also known as “carbon intensity,” by 11 percent since baseline. “Given the early success, UChicago is prepared to take on more aggressive targets,” Assistant Vice President of Campus Planning and Sustainability Alicia Berg was quoted saying in the UChicago News announcement. 

But this progress, too, is complicated by another aspect of the new goal: a change in the metric which the University uses for their emissions goals. 

Where the previous goal was in terms of “carbon intensity,” it will now use absolute, or total, carbon emissions. Many student environmental advocates welcomed this change on the basis that carbon intensity can decrease simply due to an increase in campus area, rather than a decrease in emissions. Such a trend is reflected in the University’s past emissions data: had UChicago’s absolute emissions stayed the same from baseline until 2018, it would have seen just over an 8 percent reduction in carbon intensity simply due to an increase in campus square footage. 

But the new metric also necessitates a significantly more ambitious plan for emissions reduction. University data published in 2019 shows that absolute emissions have decreased by just over one percent from baseline until 2018—which it will need to multiply by a factor of 40 in order to meet the 2030 goal. 

McSwiggan wrote in an email to The Maroon that the primary pillar of this plan is to increase its reliance on sustainably-sourced energy. “Because emissions from electricity account for nearly half of ​the total emissions from University operations, moving to renewable electricity sources will help us meet a large portion of our 2030 goal,” he wrote. 

Gowda explained that, in order to meet the emissions goal, the University may be focusing on electricity sourcing as an alternative to decarbonizing the central utility plant. 

“A lot of the central utility plants from older universities, such as [UChicago’s], were built during a time of coal or natural gas,” she said. “It is quite expensive to update a central utility plant. To decarbonize that is a long-term goal for a university, so that may be why they’re focusing on electricity.” 

The University has not released a quantitative breakdown of what factors are expected to contribute to the 50 percent emissions reduction. 


“Shutting the Sash” to Reduce the Carbon Footprint of Labs 

Sometimes, factors which contribute to reducing emissions can be as simple as an informative and well-placed poster. This was the case in a past campaign in UChicago research labs, which consume roughly ten-times more energy than non-lab buildings.  

In an effort to reduce its carbon footprint, the University enlisted the help of student interns like Briana Moore, who researched what other universities did to decrease energy consumption in labs. Moore and her research partners recommended that the University implement a “Shut the Sash” program, based on Harvard’s program of the same name. The sash is the front-facing window on fume hoods that can be raised and lowered.  

“The main idea is that the sash on a fume hood can be lowered so you get less air flow coming through the hood. That’s both safer for researchers and saves on energy costs,” Moore told The Maroon

While in use, fume hoods cycle air out of the lab building for the safety of those working there, but there are significant energy costs if the sashes remain open when the hoods are not being used. 

“The idea was to encourage behavioral change by putting up posters or informing researchers about the energy they could save by lowering their sashes,” Moore said.  

And it worked; the University’s 2019 Sustainability Update reported that simply making researchers aware of shutting the sash resulted in a 43 percent reduction in fume hood airflow. According to the Physical Sciences Division, participating labs saw a 6.5 percent drop in energy consumption.  

Gowda echoed that these individual changes can be significant in reducing energy use. She said that behavioral factors such as the “plug load,” the energy used by appliances plugged into a building’s outlet, can account for a significant fraction of energy consumption. 

“Plug load and the fume hoods in labs—those are really big takes. In a typical office building in Chicago, that could be 20 to 30 percent,” she said. 

In fact, she said, her own office building in downtown Chicago was able to reduce its energy consumption through strictly behavioral changes, such as turning off computer monitors at night and turning off the lights in the lobby on weekends. 

“Within a year, we cut our floor’s electrical consumption by 20 percent by changing our behavior,” she said. “That was a very simple thing to cut our electricity.” 


Food Waste 

Another one of the University’s sustainability goals has been to divert waste from landfills. In its 2016 Sustainability Plan, UChicago boasted a 41 percent waste diversion rate, largely accomplished through recycling. However, the University does not currently engage in one common form of waste diversion: composting, a process in which organic waste is decomposed into a nutrient-rich substance often used to condition soil.  

According to McSwiggan, all food waste at UChicago dining halls is disposed of through an “Eco Digester,” which liquefies the food and releases it into the wastewater system. This includes both “pre-consumer” food waste, or food that was never served, and “post-consumer” food, such as scraps left on students’ plates following a meal. 

Sustainability advocates like fourth-year Alana Koscove argue that composting food would be a major step forward in the University’s approach to sustainability. Koscove has been pushing for composting at UChicago for four years as a member and leader of the Campus Cafe Club, now known as the Composting Club, a branch of Phoenix Sustainability Initiative (PSI).  

Koscove said that, while the University’s Eco Digester system is “better than a landfill,” a strong composting system is ideal, as it could generate no waste whatsoever. 

“[Food waste] is not being turned into any usable product which can be used for soil fertilization,” she said. “Composting is better than using Eco Digesters because if you have a good composting system set up…where you’re producing rich compost, you can have a closed-loop system.” 

Koscove acknowledged that landfill is significantly cheaper than composting in Chicago for two main reasons. First, the spaciousness of the Midwest—different from her home state of California—means that landfill space is in lower demand and less expensive. But in addition, she said, the city of Chicago lacks composting infrastructure as a whole. 

“There isn’t a strong developed framework. There aren’t a lot of, say, anaerobic digesters around the city of Chicago for us to utilize,” she said. “Chicago is not set up, currently, for widespread, successful, commercially available, cheap composting…It’s just cheaper to throw things in the trash.” 

Chicago has no citywide infrastructure for composting food scraps, and data published by the city in 2018 revealed that it diverts less than 10 percent of its waste from landfills, far less than in surrounding cities and nationwide. San Francisco claims a nearly 80 percent diversion rate, and Seattle just shy of 60 percent.  

Koscove said that, had spring quarter classes not been held remotely, two student-run cafes at UChicago would have begun composting pre-consumer food in spring quarter—but her main hope is that dining halls, given their large volume of food waste, will begin to compost as well. 

While she has seen improvement over her four years at UChicago, Koscove told *The Maroon* that she sees UChicago environmental students as filling gaps created by the administration’s resistance to composting. 

“There’s no one in the administration right now who's putting in any kind of effort, or attempt, to get this off the ground, which is why student groups have had to do that work,” she said. “[Sustainability] is just not a priority for this institution. And so students have to make it a priority.” 

Other institutions nationwide, including the Chicago-area Loyola University and Northwestern University, engage in large-scale composting—approaches without parallel at UChicago, Koscove said. 

“We’re not a little bit behind; we are massively behind,” she said. 

Koscove said that while a handful of places on campus compost—Hillel, the UChicago Law School and Lab Schools, Grounds of Being, and the Keller Center among them—there is no campus-wide composting infrastructure. 

Leah Song (A.B. ’16, J.D. ’19) started the composting program at the UChicago Law School while a co-president of the Environmental Law Society (ELS) in 2018. She told The Maroon that she was pleased with how supportive the Law School was of the idea; the school administration agreed to a student-run test trial within a year of ELS’s initial proposal, and it has since taken over the program, absorbing composting into its regular management operations. 

But this wasn’t Song’s first attempt to promote composting at UChicago. As an undergraduate in the College, she took the course “Food and Environment Practicum: Research on Campus Cafés,” in which students produced a proposal recommending composting in campus cafes. Unlike at the Law School, this proposal fell flat; she told The Maroon that it ran out of steam when her supervisor, practicum lecturer and supervisor Sabina Shaikh, raised it with the school administration. 

“I feel like the College is reluctant to even try, which is disappointing,” Song said. 

McSwiggan wrote in an email to The Maroon that UChicago’s decision not to compost is based in part on safety and sanitation considerations. 

“Composting has historically led to issues such as pests and other related challenges that could compromise the quality and safety of our services. Eco Digesters have proven to be a safe and sustainable approach to waste diversion,” he wrote. 

While Song acknowledged that there might be obstacles to large-scale composting at the undergraduate level, she believes that a gradual transition is possible. 

“At the undergraduate level, I could see where it would be more difficult to implement,” Song said, “but then again, I do think it would be feasible if it was rolled out in phases…For example, starting with just the campus-run cafés." 

Ultimately, as Gowda told The Maroon, there is a common thread among all advocates involved in environmentalism: that ambitious sustainability measures are paramount. 

“I do think that having a goal that is more aggressive is hugely, hugely important right now— especially if we strive to get there, and if we fall a little bit short.” 


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Laura Gersony
Laura Gersony, Grey City editor
Laura Gersony is a fourth-year studying political science and environmental and urban studies. She has written for The Maroon’s longform section, Grey City, since her first year, and she has edited the section since her second year. Her work includes investigations into campus sustainability, disability issues, a mass exodus from Greek life, the end of the world, and Hyde Park's small population of subtropical green parrots. She and a colleague won an Honorable Mention from the Illinois College Press Association for surfacing a pattern of discrimination lawsuits in UChicago’s Facilities Services department. Laura covers energy and the environment for the water news outlet Circle of Blue.
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