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How Can Higher Education Institutions Be More Sustainable?



As a college student in the United States, I saw the same story again and again as I went to a small university in New York City and my friends went to larger state schools throughout the country. Red solo cups for drinking, sometimes provided by the school, completely covering the front lawn of a college building. Free gear handed out at every event—keychains, cheap t-shirts, pens, pencils. So many pens and pencils–a ridiculous amount.

Not only is this wasteful, but it encourages a throw-away convenience culture that has become so pervasive in the West. As we shift the focus onto higher education institutions and their responsibility to sustainability and the environment, the framework surrounding their mythos suggests something inherently systemic. The actual design of  these buildings doesn’t have the intention to uphold standards of sustainability, which is problematic as we look to sustainable, green design as a required standard in the near future.

US colleges utilize an average “of 18.9-kilowatt-hours (kWh) of electricity and 17 cubic feet of natural gas per square foot of floor space each year.” For those not based in the United States and using the metric system, 17 cubic feet is 0.48 cubic meters. Harvard University, one of the most well-known colleges in the world, is 5,076 acres. Doing the math based on these averages, Harvard University alone uses 4,178,989,584 kWh of electricity and 3,758,870,000 cubic feet of gas per square foot. For comparison, a US household on average uses roughly 10,649 kWh in electricity, nearly a 200% difference.

A key part of this is how many college campuses offer resources like computer labs, twenty-four-hour libraries, and classrooms that can be utilized after hours. Combined with the screen time it takes when a professor is giving a PowerPoint lecture, or when events are hosted on campus like concerts or movie nights, the amount of electricity usage drastically increases. As resources become limited and the effects of waste and overconsumption are damaging the climate, we need to look at how buildings can be more green and inclusive to sustainable design practices.

What defines sustainable architecture? According to The Spruce, characteristics of this design model can include buildings with water conservation systems, limiting energy usage, and reducing the overall human impact on the environment as much as possible. Let’s get into the nitty-gritty of how higher education institutions globally can do something to reduce their ecological footprint.

To combat the issue of powering electronics, buildings can be equipped with solar panels to provide solar energy or utilize wind energy in combination. Instead of demolishing original buildings and structures, trashing the materials and equipment used to make and maintain the building, retrofitting is a more sustainable alternative. Retrofitting might be more expensive, but the costs of the previous electricity bills being decreased would offset the costs and require less labor (e.g. not having to call in a construction crew to rebuild a completely new building). If materials are needed to modify the structure, sustainable architecture firms suggest buying materials and finishes from environmentally responsible resources, specifically from companies that use recycled materials.

Another simple, but not as efficient, option beneficial for  daytime is to construct buildings with more windows, allowing more natural lighting to find its way into rooms. For  evenings, motion sensor lights are key, so that the rooms are lit only when spaces are occupied.

Schools that aren’t in urban environments more than likely have the luxury of being able to plant trees and a variety of different flowers and vegetables. Foods such as vegetables can be used within institution cafes, and dining halls, reducing purchasing costs. Although it’s not likely that they will be able to grow produce in a large quantity, offering organic options and fresh vegetables is a luxury that cuts down on emissions that arise from shipping and packaging when purchasing externally.

Schools in urban environments can still have features such as rooftop gardens. The Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) in New York City has rooftop gardens, which help insulate the buildings and reduce the need for air conditioning and heating, which previously drew on more electricity usage.


Drawing back to the issue of unnecessary waste, perhaps, instead of giving out new pens each week to students, refillable pens or pencils at orientation and future refills are a more efficient solution, a simple alternative that can drastically reduce single-use waste.

While there are many solutions and ideas to ponder upon, the bottom line is this: institutions need to re-evaluate the structure of their systems, in a way that has a definite long-term impact. Yes, recycling is a positive step in the right direction, but by looking at both the foundation of how the school is built, and the way it is operating logistically, it exposes a completely different problem, one that the earth pays for in the long run.

Ashley Hajimirsadeghi is a writer and artist based in Baltimore and New York City. Her work often deals with intergenerational trauma, utilizing cinema from a cultural, sociological, and socioeconomic lens, and the impacts of urbanism and loneliness. An undergraduate at the Fashion Institute of Technology studying International Trade, she hopes to advocate for sustainable and ethical practices in the global marketplace.


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