5.8 Other GHG Mitigation Strategies
5.8.1 Waste Disposal
It may not be intuitive, but waste disposal and waste management practices impact our carbon footprints. A big part of the reason is that throwing things away -- just like every other activity – involves energy consumption and that typically means burning fossil fuels. Also, if garbage and trash are burned, there are additional releases of carbon dioxide – though some of those emissions can be mitigated or offset if the waste is burned in a waste-to-energy plant because such a plant displaces fossil fuel combustion. If the end point for your campus garbage and trash is a landfill, methane will be produced through decomposition. On a mass basis, methane has around 20 times the global warming potential of carbon dioxide – so landfills can have a substantial climate change impact. This climate impact of landfills is mitigated if the methane is captured and either “flared” (burned in the open atmosphere – releasing water vapor and carbon dioxide) or burned in a boiler or power generating unit to produce useful heat or electricity that displaces the fossil fuels that would otherwise be used to produce that heat or power. Thus, while the devil may be in the details, it is clear that reducing waste disposal can be an effective GHG mitigation strategy.
Campuses can cut waste through waste reduction programs (buy and use less, reuse, etc.) and by improved recycling and composting programs. Recycling keeps waste out of both the incinerator and landfill. It also contributes to the manufacture of new products made of recycled materials which are more energy efficient to make and, thus, are responsible for less GHG emissions. Composting prevents organic waste (kitchen produce waste plus landscaping trimmings) from being needlessly transported to the landfill and turns these materials into a useful product for keeping the campus green.
Participating in the annual Recyclemania competition is a great way to improve and boost recycling on your campus.
CA-CP’s Campus Carbon Calculator will calculate the emissions associated with campus waste volumes, how that waste is disposed of, and the amount of recycling your school is doing. The Calculator will not, however, calculate the GHG emissions benefit associated with “closing the loop,” i.e. using recovered materials to produce products with recycled content – though that climate protection benefit is real nonetheless.
5.8.2 Embodied GHG Emissions in Products
As just pointed out, not all campus GHG emitting activities are captured by greenhouse gas emissions inventory tools. However, since our ultimate goal is to address the problem of climate change in as comprehensive and effective a way possible, it is important that all GHG emissions sources be identified and as many as possible mitigated irrespective of whether we can quantify or take credit for the benefits.
Since nearly everything that is purchased contains embodied fossil fuel and thus GHG emissions, purchasing policies and practices are of critical importance even though their related emissions and mitigations fall in the categories of “can’t be quantified” and “can’t be used for carbon credit.” To reduce these GHG emissions, colleges and universities can:
- Implement purchasing policies and practices that, well, discourage purchasing!
- Establish reuse programs
- Swap shops or swap websites that facilitate the reuse of materials between campus and institution offices
- Policies that make it easier for schools to give still-useful unwanted items away
- Programs that allow students to donated unwanted clothing and other items on end-of-the-semester move out days
- Buy products which contain high levels of recycled content
- Buy locally produced products
Another way of addressing this issue would be to buy carbon neutral products. The market is just beginning to develop. The Carbon Reduction Institute has developed a certification program for carbon neutral companies and products.
AASHE maintains a list of campus green purchasing websites. Two additional resources are the Responsible Purchasing Network and Buying for the Future: Contract Management and the Environmental Challenge by Kevin Lyons (2000).
5.8.3 Food Service and Food Choices
Another area of campus activity that can have a substantial GHG impact (though not quantified by your GHG emissions inventory) is campus food service and food choices. Mitigation strategies here include:
- Increase purchases of locally produced food
- Prepare food in more energy efficient kitchens
- Reduce waste, recycle and compost
- Encourage eating lower on the food chain, i.e. less meat
There are many reasons to buy locally produced food including benefits to the local farmers and the regional economy and establishing a connection between the food we eat and where and how it is produced.
Kitchen cooking equipment can be notoriously inefficient. Think industrialize-size toasters that are left on whenever the foot service outlets are open – probably consuming enough electricity and producing enough waste heat to heat an average home. Think pizza ovens left open – constantly venting heat. Kitchens also have ventilated cooking hoods over stoves that pull a lot of heated air out of the building (and may or may not be equipped with heat recovery to reduce that waste). If the cooking occurs in campus buildings, its carbon footprint will be captured by your GHG inventory.
Composting pre- and post-consumer food waste reduces solid waste disposal, produces soil amendments for campus gardens, and can serve an educational purpose – especially if students are involved in setting up the program, collecting the compostables, and managing the compost pile.
In 2007 the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization released a comprehensive report entitled Livestock’s Long Shadow which documents the global environmental impacts of meat production. One eye-opening finding of this report is that livestock production is responsible for 18% of annual global greenhouse emissions – a larger slice of the “emissions pie” than the transportation sector. Thus, food choices and diet deserve at least as much consideration as transportation choices, and eating less meat becomes an important GHG mitigation strategy. However, some sensitivity is required when encouraging people to eat less meat or try a vegetarian diet because in our society food choice is considered to be a more private matter than, say, vehicle or light bulb choice. But whether we like it or not, the disproportionately large carbon footprint of a hamburger is just one more inconvenient truth about climate change. It’s important that we educate about all the behaviors and activities that contribute to global climate change and encourage people to take action to reduce their climate impact.
Clean Air-Cool Planet is in the process of developing a module for its Campus Carbon Calculator that will calculate the carbon footprint of campus food service, highlighting the need to address diet as well as operations.
AASHE maintains a list of campus websites on sustainable dining initiatives.
This guide was produced with financial support from the American College & Univerisity Presidents Climate Commitment.