Charting a course to carbon neutrality

More than 30 years ago — long before sustainability, green technology and renewable resources were buzzwords — the Sisters of Mercy heralded an environmental movement on campus that is growing and thriving.

In 1978 the Sisters planted more than 300 trees and shrubs on campus, followed by 290 more the next year. Four of those trees were recently named “County Champions,” designating them as the largest of their species in Linn County. In the decades since the Sisters’ trees took root, Mount Mercy’s environmental efforts continue to develop and broaden.

Today, environmentalism has assumed a greater role in the public sphere and weighs heavily on the public conscience. Through advocacy, education and hands-on efforts, Mount Mercy is reducing its carbon footprint.

“The Sisters were progressive people,” says Vice President for Finance Barb Pooley, who serves as a member of the Campus Sustainability Committee. “They have a remarkable history of identifying issues others haven’t focused on and of making changes; that’s their legacy.” Pooley, who is active in sustainability efforts on her family’s farmstead, wants to ensure that the Sisters’ environmental legacy lives on.

Planting seeds…

Mount Mercy President Christopher Blake, a native of London, has a personal stake in the environmental movement. “In England I used public transportation to get most places, which is starkly different from my experiences in the United States,” he says. “Car parks — or as they are called here: ‘parking lots’ — are less common in Europe. I use that as an example and reminder that here in Iowa — and particularly at Mount Mercy — we can do small things that will make a difference in helping the environment.”

Based on his personal interest in sustainability, Blake encouraged members of the Strategic Planning committee to consider including “environmental responsibility” in the institution’s guiding document, The Plan for Mount Mercy University. The committee agreed, finalizing a goal “to develop and implement an environmentally responsible and community conscious campus facilities master plan.” Spurred by that charge from faculty and staff, Blake investigated the American College & University Presidents Climate Commitment (ACUPCC), an organization whose focus is to increase the efforts made by colleges and universities to eliminate global warming emissions. The presidents who sign the ACUPCC document pledge to lead their campuses to climate neutrality.

Eager to see climate neutrality become a reality, Mount Mercy administrators created the Campus Sustainability Committee. “There was the need to form a committee,” says committee chair Colette Atkins, director of the Advance program. “We did not want to sign the ACUPCC commitment before we knew we could follow through with our actions as an institution. We also recognized that a group would be helpful to organize and educate others on campus about sustainability and its positive impact on campus.”

‘Challenging but achievable’

The committee’s first task was to review carbon footprint and energy audit results conducted on campus in 2007 and 2008. The audits helped identify the biggest environmental issues on campus, and also showed the committee what Mount Mercy was already doing well.

The assessment of Mount Mercy’s carbon footprint enabled the institution to compare the data for electricity consumption, heating and cooling, commuting, and waste management practices in 2007 and 2008. The data proved to Pooley and others that electricity consumption was a major roadblock in the path to a greener campus. Sebesta Blomberg and Associates, the organization that conducted the study, discovered that the majority of campus emissions resulted from electricity consumption, which increased from 54.5 percent in 2007 to 57.0 percent in 2008. On a positive note, the total metric tons of carbon dioxide emitted on campus annually decreased from 9,156 in 2007 to 9,009 in 2008.

After learning that electricity consumption was a concern, Mount Mercy joined forces with Alliant Energy in the summer of 2008 to generate a plan to create a more environmentally conscious campus. The current academic semester has already seen the results of numerous campus improvements in areas ranging from electricity-saving lighting fixtures to energy star compliant machines and appliances. Alliant also completed energy audits for each building on campus.

The data served as a compass, and Mount Mercy soon charted a new course to energy efficiency through several key initiatives. Mount Mercy chose to install an energy management and control system to simultaneously control the heating, ventilation and air conditioning in each individual room on campus. Insulation was installed in College buildings to conserve and maintain temperatures in the buildings.

The results looked promising, and after evaluating the changes based on the two studies, the committee endorsed and recommended the signing of the ACUPCC pledge by President Blake. “We understood that it would be challenging, but achievable,” says Atkins, of the charge to become a climate neutral campus. Approximately six months after the formation of the Campus Sustainability Committee, Blake signed the President’s Climate Commitment in May 2009.

Living the legacy

During the 2009–10 academic year, the Campus Sustainability Committee will educate students, faculty and staff about green decision making and offer multiple ways in which they can become involved in sustainability efforts. “The more you know and the more you understand, the easier it is to do,” says Atkins. “The way to get folks excited about environmentalism is by teaching them and giving them the tools.”

One educational platform implemented this academic year is to provide residential students with recycling bins in their rooms. “Students can now set their recycling bins outside their rooms,” Pooley says. “We want to make recycling more convenient for students because recycling is such a basic thing they can do to help.”

Additionally, the campus will monitor paper usage by restricting the amount of free printing available to students. With the new printing controls, students will be allowed 350 free prints per semester and after reaching that limit, will have to pay for each additional page printed. To date, campus printing has decreased significantly. “We are trying to make people more aware of printing and make them take a second look to see if what they are printing is necessary,” Pooley says.

One long-term goal set by the Campus Sustainability Committee is to make Mount Mercy a “water bottle free campus” within the next three years. Ultimately, commercial water bottles will no longer be sold in the Hilltop Grill or in vending machines throughout campus. Instead, students are encouraged to use reusable bottles. Last year, entering students were given reusable Mount Mercy water bottles for free and many water fountains on campus were upgraded in order to make it easier to refill reusable water bottles.

“We are an educational institution founded by the Sisters of Mercy, and it’s our duty to grow students,” says Atkins. “When the President signed the ACUPCC commitment, he had a vision for how Mount Mercy should act in accordance with the environment. Now we are on our way toward meeting the sustainability goals within the President’s Climate Commitment. I think our founders would be proud of our efforts.”

The following items were recycled last year as part of Mount Mercy’s sustainability efforts:

  • 1,210 cubic yards of cardboard and paper (190,000 pounds of cardboard and 115,700 pounds of paper).
  • Approximately 60 cubic yards of aluminum and plastic pop cans and bottles (3,600 pounds).
  • 163 cubic yards of water and milk bottles (5,300 pounds).
  • 58 cubic yards of tin cans (8,700 pounds).
  • 1,432 fluorescent bulbs equaling 1½ cubic yards.
  • 56 light fixtures removed from Hennessey Recreation Center as part of the Alliant Energy upgrade were dismantled and sorted, resultingin the recycling of 3,360 pounds of steel, aluminum and copper.
  • Approximately 1 cubic yard (200 gallons) of used motor oil.
  • Approximately 1 cubic yard of alkaline and lead acid batteries and fluorescent light ballasts.
  • 40 cubic yards (6,000 pounds) of metal from aging appliances, doors and frames, used plumbing fittings, desks, chairs and bed frames.