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AU Moves Closer to Carbon Neutral by 2020

Illustration by Val Bochkov

At American University, doing the right thing just got easier. With the arrival of orange compost bins over the past couple months, AU community members no longer have to toss their organic waste in landfill-bound bins. 

Instead, their food scraps, pizza boxes, and napkins will be composted to make a nutrient-rich soil.  

Composting is critical, explained Chris O’Brien, director of the Office of Sustainability, not just for AU, but for the planet as well.

"Globally, topsoil is being lost at a rapid rate and arable land is being diminished," he said. "By capturing and composting organic material, we’re creating more ground to help fight erosion and control sediment run-off."

With this campus-wide composting push, along with other initiatives like a recent transition to biodiesel and an effort to make campus office spaces greener, the university is moving ever closer to its Climate Plan goal of carbon neutrality by 2020.

When AU President Neil Kerwin signed the American College and University Presidents’ Climate Commitment in 2008, he pledged that the university would take meaningful steps to address climate change. In 2010, AU unveiled an ambitious plan not just to reduce the institution’s greenhouse gas emissions, but to ostensibly eliminate them in the next decade.


In accordance with the ACUPCC requirements, AU has adopted a green building policy, as well as a sustainable purchasing policy; encouraged public and multimodal transportation; sourced at least 15 percent of electricity from renewable sources; and has initiated campus recycling, composting, and repurposing plans.

The ACUPCC also required schools to participate in the waste minimization component of the national RecycleMania competition. Last year, AU took home the Grand Champion prize for that competition by achieving an 85 percent recycling rate on campus. This year, the university chose not to defend its title so that it could focus on developing a campus-wide composting effort.

WATCH: How To Compost At American University

"We’d like to be a leader in addressing climate change," said O’Brien,

Multiple organizations have recognized AU for its sustainability efforts. For the third year in a row, the Princeton Review named AU to its Green Honor Roll for achieving the highest possible green score in its college rating system in 2013. Only 21 of 322 schools reviewed this year in the Guide to Green Colleges were named to the Honor Roll. 

In 2012, the university earned the Green Power Leadership Award from the Environmental Protection Agency for its commitment to purchasing renewable energy.

Signs of Progress

The AU Climate Plan has four strategies in place to achieve neutrality — reduce consumption; produce renewable energy in the form of wind, solar, and waste; buy green power; and buy/develop offsets for travel and other unavoidable emissions. The university had made great progress in most of those areas, O’Brien said.

MORE: Earth Month Schedule of Events at AU

The School of International Service is a LEED Gold certified building with a green roof and 27-kilowatt solar photovoltaic array. Many other buildings on campus are currently seeking LEED Silver status. At the time of its installation in 2011, the university’s 2,150-panel solar array was Washington, D.C.’s largest.

The university buys renewable energy credits equivalent to 100 percent of its expected electricity consumption. By purchasing these credits, AU is offsetting the energy delivered to the campus via the electricity grid.

Reducing energy use on campus is one of the most difficult adjustments to make because the initial cost is very expensive, though the savings over the long term can be great. One recent energy efficiency project that will have a big impact is the lighting retrofit of Bender Arena, O’Brien said. Within two years, the university should start seeing sizable savings from that change.

One of the more significant signs of progress, O’Brien said, is the shift to B20 biodiesel blend fuel for the shuttle bus fleet and other diesel-powered equipment. A few months ago, the nine diesel buses transitioned to biodiesel, which will lower their greenhouse gas emissions by 20 percent, said Mark Feist, assistant director of facilities management.

AU now buys the biodiesel fuel in bulk and has it delivered to campus. Instead of filling vehicles at a local gas station, all buses can get gas from a tank on campus, which Feist said makes good business sense.

"Environmentally, we really want to do the right thing," he said. "And there is a cost savings, which is always nice."

AU also boasts electric vehicle charging stations, access to Zipcars on campus, a Capital Bikeshare station, and an employee rideshare program called Zimride.

Making Sustainability Easy

One of the more visible sustainability initiatives is the new campus-wide composting. In an effort to reach zero waste status, the Office of Sustainability has been installing compost bins around campus for organic material. The Terrace Dining Room and other dining facilities around campus have been composting organic waste for three years and in 2011 AU began composting paper towels from restrooms. O’Brien’s office figured it was time for the entire university to follow suit.

A residence hall waste audit by the Green Eagles — a paid staff of students tasked with promoting sustainability around campus — showed that AU was diverting 80 percent of its waste through recycling, reuse, and composting. That’s up from around 60 percent in 2010.

"We’ve made lots of progress in composting over the last couple of years," O’Brien said. "A big source of our waste is materials that can be composted. So composting is a really important change for us."

After the new organic waste bins are placed around campus in residence halls and other university buildings, O’Brien said he expects the waste diversion percentage to be around 95 percent. Some waste simply can’t be diverted, like singe-serving items made from composite materials. Think K-Cups, those single use coffee packets, or potato chip bags.

O’Brien thinks that the new bins will be successful because they don’t require much of a change in behavior. If composting, like recycling, is made easy for people, they will do it. That will happen by removing landfill bins from around campus and replacing them with zero waste stations that feature receptacles for landfill trash, organic waste, paper, and metal, plastic and glass.

"We want the default to be the green choice, not the brown choice," O’Brien said. "We want to make it so you won’t have the opportunity not to do it."