Three cheers for going green: Michigan universities honored for sustainability

Map of where top-performing green schools are located. Courtesy Sierra Club.

One of the things the University of Michigan is known for is the gigantic crowds at its football games – more than 100,000 fans regularly pack Michigan Stadium every football Saturday.

But these fans are not only packing the stands – they are packing the recycling bins. This past season, the University of Michigan Athletic Department asked fans and rival teams to help them move toward zero waste at Michigan Stadium, university officials said.

This effort and others are among the reasons why U-M and two other Michigan universities were recently ranked among the U.S. and Canada’s greenest colleges by different organizations.

The Princeton Review listed Michigan State University (19th) and Grand Valley State University (38th) among its top 50. The Sierra Club ranked Grand Valley (59th), Michigan State (66th) and the University of Michigan (71st) among its top 100.

In Ann Arbor, the stadium’s effort supports the campus-wide sustainability effort known as Planet Blue and builds on the more than 20-year history of recycling gameday waste at Michigan Stadium. Zero waste is an aspirational goal of diverting at least 90 percent of waste from the landfill by recycling and composting.

A zero waste Michigan Stadium supports U-M’s long-term commitment to sustainability in education, research and operations known as Planet Blue. It directly impacts the university’s 2025 sustainability goals, specifically the goals to reduce waste sent to landfills by 40 percent and to strengthen the culture of sustainability on campus.

Other University of Michigan efforts include:

• The President’s Commission on Carbon Neutrality. Created in Feb. 2019, the commission includes internal stakeholders (students, faculty and staff) as well as external partners that together are exploring how the university, and region, can achieve carbon neutrality. Its charge includes setting a goal, timeline and recommendations for U-M’s three campuses, including the health system, to be carbon neutral.
• Earth Day at 50 commemorates U-M’s role in the first Earth Day in 1970 and convening teach-ins and teach-outs that elevate sustainability topics with an eye told bold action and inclusivity.
• The Campus Farm and Sustainable Mondays have led to a growing list of plant-based options in campus dining. There is also the Sustainable Food Program, which “empowers students to create a sustainable food system at the University of Michigan while becoming change agents for a vibrant planet.”
• The wind power purchase agreement with DTE, which will enable U-M to reach its goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 25 percent by 2025, ahead of schedule.

Elsewhere in the Great Lakes region, the Princeton Review ranked the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry second in the nation. The Sierra Club placed the same institution third, and ranked the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee 92nd.

“Being ranked on both the lists means so much to me because it represents the work of so many people across campus,” said Yumi Jakobcic, director of Grand Valley’s Office of Sustainability Practices. “Our office can’t take credit for all of that because we have people all over working very hard on sustainability.”

The Princeton Review and the Sierra Club both use the STARS — Sustainability Tracking, Assessment & Rating System — as criteria for their rankings. The STARS ranking comes from the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education. Schools must have a valid STARS 2.0 or 2.1 rating of bronze, silver, gold or platinum to be considered in the ranking on both lists.

The STARS rating is used by over 800 schools in 30 countries. STARS participants report achievements in academics, engagement, operations, planning and administration, and innovation and leadership.
Michigan State moved from a silver to a gold STARS rating in 2019.

Going green

That’s what leveraged it into the Princeton Review top 50, said Amy Butler, director of campus sustainability for Michigan State.

“It wouldn’t be an understatement to say I’m ecstatic to be in the top 50,” Butler said. “Over 200 people were involved in actually providing the data to support the application that we submitted.”

The Princeton Review also asks for student surveys to see how sustainability issues influence their education and life on campus. The surveys also measure student support for environmental awareness and conservation efforts and the visibility and impact of student environmental groups.

“This is a moment of pride for me,” said Andrea Bair, the student sustainability liaison with Michigan State’s undergraduate government. “I think it shows that Spartans are going to be the most prepared going into the workforce and that MSU is on the forefront of this sustainability movement.”

Michigan State seniors Alexa Marsh and Ethan Jodoin promote sustainability while active in Sustainable Spartans, a campus club.

“As the first land grant institution in the nation, it’s important to recognize that MSU has a moral imperative to help others become more sustainable,” Jodoin said. “Seeing that we are at the front of the green movement is really important to me as a sustainability student.”

Fresh water

The University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee also has a gold STARS rating and ranked #7 by the Princeton Review for building sustainability practices in 2019. The campus is six blocks from Lake Michigan and prides itself on its School of Freshwater Sciences, the nation’s only graduate school dedicated solely to studying freshwater.

“Everything about Milwaukee and UWM is water, water, water,” said Katherine Nelson, chief sustainability officer of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. “It’s great to have a sustainability program where our connection to the Great Lakes is very apparent and aware and where the importance of our stewardship is seen throughout the institution.”

Grand Valley recently had an environmental studies and sustainability major approved as a new degree program. Students expressed interest in the program when it was offered as a minor, and now that it is a major, it is the fastest growing major at the university, Jakobcic said.

“We are just so fortunate to live near the Great Lakes,” Jakobcic said. “It’s just such an amazing resource, and I think we need to be good stewards of it and help it stay this lovely and more lovely for future generations.”

See the Sierra Club list at: https://www.sierraclub.org/sierra/cool-schools-2019/cool-schools-2019-full-ranking and the Princeton Review list at https://www.princetonreview.com/college-rankings?rankings=top-50-green-colleges

Helen Korneffel, a reporter for Great Lakes Echo, contributed to this report.