UChicago takes data-driven approach to sustainability measures on campus

The University of Chicago is tracking a range of environmental metrics—from greenhouse gas emissions to the types of cleaning supplies used, providing new data to advance campus-wide sustainability goals. 

The Office of Sustainability released its first comprehensive report on Nov. 11 to inform the implementation of the University’s sustainability strategy. The office plans to publish annual updates to the baseline report.

“This important, data-driven report will allow us to pursue substantive changes that advance sustainability on campus,” said Alicia Berg, assistant vice president of campus planning with Facilities Services.

The report provides data that will help guide efforts to reduce greenhouse emissions. It includes the results of the University's emissions inventory, finding a 1 percent decrease in fiscal year 2015 emissions compared to a baseline figure representing the average emissions for FY 2012 through 2014.

“Being able to quantify emissions for the first time is a big accomplishment, and it will help us make further reductions to emissions in the future,” said Sara Popenhagen, sustainability specialist in Facilities Services.

The major sources of the University’s greenhouse gas emissions are the uses of electricity and natural gas in campus buildings, which accounted for 69 percent of total emissions. More than 200 energy efficiency measures have been completed in campus buildings since 2009, and buildings will be the primary target as the University aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 20 percent by 2025.

Establishing metrics from food to e-waste

The report looks beyond greenhouse gas emissions to sustainability-related areas such as food preparation, waste management, transportation practices and fertilizer use. For example:

  • 35 percent of food served at the University was grown, processed and purchased within 150 miles of campus
  • 41 percent of the University’s waste was diverted from landfills, primarily through recycling and composting
  • 80 percent of janitorial supplies are green products
  • 30,000 pounds of electronic waste were collected for proper disposal

The report also documents progress in several areas and lists next steps to meet future goals. For example, single-occupant automobile use fell substantially for students, faculty and staff compared to the 2012-2014 baseline, according to surveys of representative campus samples. The University is undertaking a transportation plan that will result in recommendations for further advances.

Meanwhile, nine buildings have achieved LEED certification since 2010, and all new buildings on campus since 1999 have green roofs.

Reducing water consumption

The report shows that the University has been especially innovative when it comes to water conservation, Berg said. It saves 360,000 gallons of water per year by discouraging the use of trays in dining facilities, and achieves additional reductions through the installation of 14 centrally controlled smart irrigation systems. Through a 2015 pilot project with the city of Chicago, the University installed a 120,000-gallon storm water retention system under the North Science Quadrangle. Harvested water is kept in an underground vault and later used to irrigate landscaping.

The report outlines how innovation in water conservation will continue. For instance, the Keller Center, which will be the new home of the University’s Harris School of Public Policy starting in 2018, will include a system to harvest rainwater from the roof to be used to flush toilets in the building, saving an anticipated 300,000 gallons of water per year. All new irrigation systems on campus must be smart systems that are responsive to rainfall.

“As we focus more on water conservation, we are very confident that we can reduce the use of potable water for purposes that don’t require it,” Popenhagen said. She noted that the University uses more than 600 million gallons of treated city water from Lake Michigan every year.

Next steps for sustainability

In the coming year the University will look to make progress on energy efficiency, transportation, waste reduction, water conservation and building awareness with students, faculty and staff, said Sumit Ray, executive director of energy management and strategic initiatives at Facilities Services.

Berg stressed the importance of working with partners across the University and its affiliates. Such partnerships include students who can earn credits by working on some of the University’s sustainability projects, faculty who research topics related to conservation and energy efficiency, as well as the Office of the Provost, the Computation Institute, the University Library, Argonne National Laboratory and others.