The University of Iowa met most sustainability goals it set a decade ago, but failed in a key area — garbage going to landfills.

The University of Iowa released a report this spring on its progress towards its 2020 sustainability goals.

Based on the original goals, the school met targets to:
– Use less energy in 2020 than it did in 2010.
– Get at least 40% of campus energy from renewable sources.
– Drop per capita emissions from university travel by at least 10%.

UI failed to divert 60% of campus waste away from the landfill by recycling, reusing and composting. The 2019 rate sits at 39%.

Campus sustainability efforts — in particular, President Bruce Harreld’s pledge to go off coal by 2025 — have faced increasing pressure from climate advocates in recent months, according to a monthslong IowaWatch project. Iowa City climate strikers led by City High School students began demanding the university expedite its move off coal, and their support increased when famed environmentalist Greta Thunberg visited an Iowa City protest in October 2019. The report released this spring shows areas for change or improvement, university officials said. Already the university has released goals for 2030.

Erin Irish, a professor of biology and chair of the UI Sustainability Charter Committee, said she was “pleased as punch,” with the results, though she said final progress won’t be known until the end of 2020.

Erin Irish, University of Iowa professor of biology

The amount of garbage going to the landfill is a complicated goal, said sustainability committee members.

Emily Manders, a senior on the sustainability charter committee and an Office of Sustainability and the Environment intern, said she felt the unmet goal on landfill waste was written poorly. It was nearly impossible to meet, the Cedar Rapids native said.

Irish agreed.

“On the surface, it looks like it was a failure, but it’s actually a good story that’s a little more complicated,” she said.

How UI got here and what’s next

The university announced its 2020 Vision for Sustainability in 2010, following a 2008 Earth Day promise to prioritize sustainability by then-President Sally Mason. Several Big 10 peers had already implemented similar plans.

“I think there was a pent-up demand,” said Liz Christiansen, then the director of the UI Office of Sustainability. “The students were really wanting to do a lot of things.”

Dan Guckert, University of Iowa
associate vice president of facilities management

Christiansen worked closely with Don Guckert, associate vice president of facilities management, and others to create goals.

The first four set specific quantitative targets, but the final three goals are more “aspirational,” leaders said, focusing not on hard measures to decrease the school’s environmental footprint but instead on campus culture. These goals pledged to increase sustainability-related student opportunities, research and community partnerships at the university.

“We felt as a higher education institution we had to include the other parts of who we are,” said Guckert.

These goals are less specific and less measurable than the others.

Sustainability staff said they believe efforts established since 2010 — like sustainability degrees, student organizations and research fellowships and grants — meet the three “aspirational” goals. The report provides some specific metrics, including that 387 students are enrolled in the school’s sustainability certificate program, UI sustainability-related research has received $135 million in funding and that the housing and dining division purchases over $900 thousand worth of local foods annually.

Now the focus goes to the next decade. The university’s leadership released a framework May 7 for a new set of 10-year goals. The 2030 goals subcommittee intends to announce specific, measurable targets in the fall.

“In hindsight, we can always do better than we think, so we should be stretching on our 2030 goals,” said Stratis Giannakouros, director of the school’s Office of Sustainability and the Environment.

Waste reduction falls short of goal; is recycling the right way to go?

In 2010, the university’s waste diversion rate — the amount of refuse directed away from the landfill via recycling or composting — was around 25%. By 2019, 39% of campus waste had been composted, recycled or reused, falling short of the 60% target.

Stratis Giannakouros,
director of the University of Iowa
Office of Sustainability and the Environment

Beth MacKenzie, the campus recycling coordinator since 2016, attributed this largely to UI health care’s limitations. Christiansen said her team had barely considered the hospital’s waste management challenges, including its dependence on single use equipment.

The UI campus, apart from the hospital, had a 2019 diversion rate of 47%.

The total 2019 waste diversion rate for the main UI hospital and off-campus UIHC locations in Iowa City was 21%. These locations recycled 18% of total waste and composted about 3%. Equivalent data for 2010 is unavailable.

As the COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated, protecting patients and staff from pathogens requires large volumes of disposable equipment.

“Patient care and safety is obviously the number one priority in the health care industry, so that takes precedence over whether or not a product is recyclable,” said MacKenzie.

The UI hospital’s diversion rate is below top performers. A 2015 study found that half of hospitals in Maryland recycled 28% or more of their waste, with the highest achiever reaching 39%.

The UI does appear to have met the target from the Healthier Hospitals initiative, an industry effort that encourages a 15% recycling rate for hospitals. The hospital did not respond to a phone call from IowaWatch.

Despite the current numbers, Christiansen said when she set the goal, she had believed the university would be able to “get close.”

But by MacKenzie’s estimates, both the main campus and UIHC would need to divert every possible recyclable or compostable item to get there, reaching maximum achievable diversion rates of 79% and 40% respectively, she said.

Sustainability advocates said that kind of change may be impossible.

UI Student Government President Noel Mills, 21, of Waterloo, Iowa and a sustainability advocate, said she sees difficulty in getting students on board.

“You can put recycling and compost bins out, but that doesn’t mean people will do it,” said Mills. “Educating students on compost and recycling sounds great, but that’s a way bigger culture change that needs to happen in society.”

The city landfill can only accept organic waste like food scraps and yard refuse with almost no contamination, free from inorganic materials like plastic and foil.

Compost collected in designated bins at the Iowa Memorial Union is always contaminated and always sent to the landfill; the bins are mainly educational, MacKenzie said. Dining halls pulp food waste into compostable sludge, and there is a small dorm composting program. Other public spaces don’t have any composting infrastructure.

Recycling infrastructure, however, is available everywhere and is somewhat more widely understood, MacKenzie said. Whether or not to comply comes down mainly to personal choice. Still, MacKenzie said the campus recycling rate plateaued years ago.

“I think the lesson we learned from that goal is we should focus on minimizing generated waste rather than recycling it,” Guckert said.

Changes in recycling worldwide

His comment comes during an uncertain time in the recycling industry. At the end of 2017, China stopped accepting most imported plastic and paper waste, slashing the world’s largest market for recyclables. As a result, the value of those materials plummeted, and many recyclers around the world have had to landfill or stockpile recyclables.

Republic Services of Cedar Rapids processes the university’s recycling. A representative said in an email the company has been able to continue moving recycling materials because it exports less than 0.5% to China, relying instead on other international and domestic markets.

MacKenzie said she is uncertain recycling will remain viable. The university’s most recent contract with its waste pick-up provider allows either party to exit on short notice if single stream recycling becomes uneconomical.

This uncertainty is among the reasons the 2030 sustainability goals subcommittee is planning to shift the focus away from recycling.

“We for many years have been recycling just for the sake of recycling,” MacKenzie said. “That’s not necessarily the way we should be going about it. It set us up for this mentality of ‘just put it in the recycling bin and then someone else will take care of it.’”

Beth Mackenzie,
University of Iowa recycling coordinator

She said campus has managed to cut per capita waste generation 18% since 2010. The transition from paper to digital documents contributed significantly to that drop, according to Christiansen and Giannakouros.

MacKenzie said she would like to adopt the principles of sustainable materials management (SMM) going into 2030. SMM involves minimizing environmental impact over the full lifecycle of a product, from production to disposal.

“The worst stuff, that’s just going to end up in a landfill, probably should not even be walking onto campus,” Giannakouros said in support of SMM.

What the “worst stuff” would entail is not always black and white, MacKenzie said. She provided the example of single-use foil pouches of coffee. They are not recyclable, but they have lower carbon footprints than alternatives like metal canisters.

The SMM approach would be research-intensive and would require cooperation from the university purchasing department, but it could help reduce overall consumption. Student body president Mills said she favored sustainable purchasing because it would place less responsibility on students and more on campus leadership.

Success in energy efficiency

The announcement in April said that as of 2019, total campus energy use was “slightly lower” than in 2010, despite 5.5% growth in the student population to more than 32,000 and about 20% growth in campus space to over 21 million square feet.

As of October 2016, the most recent month public data was available, campus energy use was 3.5% below the 2010 baseline.

“We felt that given we could see in terms of campus growth at the time, that we would be able to offset that appetite,” Guckert said. “We set an absolute line.”

The university’s facilities management communications manager declined to provide IowaWatch with numbers for 2019.

Guckert said the energy use reduction was achieved primarily through a method called “Fault Detection and Diagnostics,” which uses sensors, dashboards and analytics to catch “leaks” early. His department also made upgrades in research and medical buildings with high energy demand and has held new construction and renovations to LEED efficiency standards.

Giannakouros pointed out that efficiency advances in technology like light bulbs and screens have contributed to the reduction as well. Similarly, advances in vehicle technology allowed the campus transportation department to cut per capita vehicle emissions by 10% in 2014, six years ahead of schedule.

Fleet manager Mike Wilson said his department has also prioritized purchasing “carbon efficient” options, like hybrid and electric vehicles, as well as running Cambus vehicles on a biodiesel blend, among other things. By 2019, per capita vehicle emissions were down over 30% per capita.

Renewable energy goal met; leadership seeks more ambitious targets

The university met 27% of its 2019 energy needs through renewable energy generated at the campus power plant.

One and a half of the plant’s five boilers run on biomass, a mix of oat hulls from the Cedar Rapids Quaker plant and “energy pellets” made of “non-recyclable industrial byproducts,” according to Ben Fish, associate director of utility operations.

“They’re a drop-in replacement for coal,” he said.

The plant has experimented since 2003 with several forms of renewable biomass as fuel for its boilers, which mainly generate steam to heat campus buildings. The university generates 75% of its energy, purchasing the remainder off the grid.

The university meets approximately 25% of its annual energy needs by purchasing electricity from the grid as well, Fish said. MidAmerican Energy’s Iowa “retail customers” like the university can claim that 51.4% of the energy they purchase comes from renewable sources—mainly wind— per the utility’s “GreenAdvantage Program,” founded in 2017.

“What I would prefer is for part of the 2030 goals to contain something that asks the University of Iowa to have firm contracts for that renewable energy rather than assume that MidAmerican is going to continue to do the right thing,” Fish said.

As of February, he said he believed the university would be able to meet at least 40% of its energy demand through biomass alone by June, though COVID-19 has delayed that step. Fish said the plant planned to transition the half-coal/half-pellet boiler to run fully off energy pellets with the help of private partner Engie as soon as possible.

The transition would additionally expedite President Harreld’s pledge to make the university “coal-free by 2025.”

The power plant’s other three boilers run on natural gas. In the future, Fish said he’d like to convert those to biomass, as well as explore “beneficial electrification,” adding more purchased electricity in the campus energy mix mix.

“Historically we have always considered the electric grid to be dirtier than the electricity and the steam that we were making here,” he said. “As it becomes more renewable, it makes more sense to switch more processes to electric.”

Old Capitol, University of Iowa Credit: Lyle Muller/IowaWatch

Looking forward on climate

The framework for the 2030 goals expresses the intention to reach 50% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions from the 2010 baseline, in alignment with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change recommended emission reduction targets.

Giannakouros said at a public input meeting there would be no value in setting goals that did not aim to mitigate the worst impacts of climate change.

“If we don’t do this guys, we are cooked,” he said. “Like, literally.”

The panel’s data suggest global carbon dioxide emissions must fall 45% from 2010 levels by 2030 and reach net zero around 2050 to limit atmospheric warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius.

University officials say they believe that campus has already come close to the 45% reduction target, but a formal emissions inventory is needed to be sure.

Subcommittee member Jerry Schnoor, a professor of civil and environmental engineering and national climate expert, said it’s uncertain whether the UI could reach net zero emissions by 2050.

Still, he’s excited by the intention to try.

“If we do that, we will never be accused of being less than ambitious,” he said.

Reporter Julia Poska is a May 2020 graduate of the University of Iowa, where she studied journalism. Poska researched and reported this article over several months as part of her studies.

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