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Sustainability at AU

Sustainability is the ability to meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs. It’s about using our resources responsibly, but it’s also about making sure all people today and in the future can thrive. The concept of sustainability is comprised of three pillars: environment, society, and economy. When a system is good for the environment, people, and the economy, we get closer to achieving sustainability.

In 2009, American University signed Second Nature’s Climate Commitment, acknowledging the threat of climate change and the unique role universities can play in fighting it. The Office of Sustainability was created to assess AU’s impact on the environment and work with the community to improve our campus systems to lessen that impact. Since then, we’ve been working to measure, report, partner, and act on a wide variety of sustainable activities. In 2018, AU became the first university to achieve carbon neutrality, our most significant milestone yet.

Yes, we track and report on our progress in several ways. We calculate and report our annual inventory of greenhouse gas emissions through Second Nature. To measure progress in the environmental, social, and economic aspects of sustainability work, AU uses the Sustainability Tracking, Assessment, and Reporting System (STARS). Finally, we evaluate our progress against AU’s sustainability plan.

At American University, many departments and organizations are engaging with sustainability on campus. The Office of Sustainability, Facilities Management (which includes Zero Waste, Arboretum and Grounds, and Energy and Engineering teams), Transportation, and Dining Services are all actively engaged in implementing sustainability initiatives. In addition, offices across campus are certified Green Offices, over 600 faculty members are certified Green Teachers, and numerous student organizations are centered around at least one aspect of sustainability.

AU’s campus is currently home to 10 LEED-certified buildings, with an additional building in the process of becoming certified. In addition to investing in offsite renewable energy, AU has installed nearly 2,500 solar panels on rooftops across campus.

Yes. AU offers several programs to encourage and incentive sustainable commuting, include the U-Pass program and a bicycle commuter benefit.

We’d be happy to assist. First, please review our website; the answers to many common questions can be found throughout the site. Then, you are welcome to contact sustainability@american.edu to schedule a time to meet with an Office of Sustainability staff member. When writing, provide as much information about your project as possible. Please note: If you are working on a group project, please meet with us as a group. We do not have the capacity to meet with group members individually. In addition, please contact us as early as possible; last minute requests cannot always fit into our schedule.

Getting Involved

Access our Green Living Guide for ideas and inspiration. Everyone can contribute to improving the health and wellbeing of our environment, both on and off campus. Taking local, individual action in our daily lives and advocating for larger, systematic changes in our society are both essential to mitigating climate change.

Yes, the Office of Sustainability offers sustainability internships for undergraduate students on a yearly basis. We also support additional internships and volunteer opportunities for undergraduate and graduate students, as needed. To be notified about upcoming opportunities, please sign-up to receive our newsletter.

Please visit our Events Page to see what’s coming up. We hope to see you at an event soon.

Planning for a Sustainable and Zero Waste event starts before you place your catering orders. To host a Sustainable and Zero Waste event, consider our Green Event Guidelines.

Absolutely. We maintain a list of environmental student organizations on our Get Involved page under “Students.” Please contact individual organizations for more information.

The Office of Sustainability offers a number of resources if you’d like to include campus sustainability in your class. Campus sustainability tours can be requested or self-led tours and assignments can be used. We also collect data on sustainability efforts across campus that students can analyze. Contact sustainability@american.edu to discuss your class and learn what might work best for you. You can also join over 600 faculty members in becoming a certified Green Teacher through the Green Teaching Program.

If you have an idea for campus sustainability project, or if you’d like to implement a project yourself, please contact sustainability@american.edu to schedule a time to discuss your idea with a staff member. We can help you refine your concept, determine the feasibility of the project, and help identify necessary campus partners. The Office of Sustainability also administers a Sustainability Fund for students, faculty, and staff projects.

Carbon Neutrality

Carbon neutrality refers to achieving net zero greenhouse gas emissions. In 2018, American University became the first university, first urban higher education institution, and first research university to achieve carbon neutrality.

First, we calculated how much carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases the university releases into the atmosphere from daily campus operations. We measure and report on our emissions from our electricity and natural gas use, commuting, campus vehicles, air travel for university business, athletics, and study abroad, landfilled waste, and a few other small categories. Then we figured out how to manage and eliminate those emissions. To do this, we used a three-part strategy of 1) reducing our emissions, 2) investing in renewable energy both on our campus and beyond, and 3) purchasing strategic carbon offsets for emissions sources we are still working to reduce.

AU reduced energy use on campus by upgrading facilities and encouraging individuals to reduce their energy use. For example, our Facilities Management team conducted efficiency projects, like swapping traditional lightbulbs for LEDs, automating building systems, and conducting energy audits, that decreased our campus energy use per square foot by more than 20% between 2005 and 2017. Learn more about how AU reduced emissions.

AU has invested in both onsite and offsite renewable energy. We’ve installed approximately 2,500 solar panels on rooftops across campus which provides about a half of a percent of our total electricity use. In 2016, AU partnered with George Washington University and George Washington University Hospital to build three large solar farms in North Carolina with about a quarter of a million panels. These solar farms are located within our energy grid and provide about 50% of our electricity. To manage the rest of our electricity use, we purchase Renewable Energy Credits, or RECs. These credits equate to real energy that is being generated from renewable sources like wind and solar. We purchase them to cover the electricity that our local utility provider generates, which is not necessarily renewable (e.g. natural gas).

To achieve carbon neutrality, we had to account for emissions from sources that cannot be replaced with renewable energy. Study abroad travel, ground transportation, and waste disposal all generate carbon emissions, and these emissions cannot be completely eliminated with current technology. We purchase strategic carbon offsets to balance the scale. Our carbon offsets are third-party verified and provide benefits to communities beyond reducing carbon emissions. For example, a current offset project in Kenya provides families with efficient cookstoves, in addition to offsetting our emissions from study abroad travel.

Our annual emissions inventory is third party certified by Sightlines, Inc. Our inventory is publicly available for review on Second Nature’s reporting platform. Second Nature administers the American College & University Presidents' Climate Commitment (ACUPCC), now called the Climate Commitment.

Reaching carbon neutrality does not mean that AU’s sustainability work is done. There are many ways that our campus can become more efficient, healthier, more environmentally responsible, and better prepared to manage the effects of climate change. To that end, we’re currently in the process of rewriting our sustainability plan to reflect new goals, policies, and programs that we are working toward.

Waste Management

AU offers mixed recycling bins across campus for paper products and bottles and cans, in addition to separate receptables for e-waste and plastic wraps and bags. Visit our Zero Waste page for a list of items that can be recycled and where.

Yes. In accordance with the D.C.’s recycling guidelines, all items should be clean and empty of food and residue before recycling.

AU offers compost bins in many buildings across campus. Visit our Zero Waste page for a list of items that can be composted.

Compost, recycling, and landfill waste are collected in separate bins with corresponding bags of different colors: compost is collected in compostable green bags, recycling in clear bags, and trash in black bags. Our campus compost is collected by a team of paid students who work with AU’s Zero Waste team. Recycling and trash bins are emptied by the university’s housekeeping staff. From campus, all recycling and trash is transported to a waste transfer station in D.C. where the bags are sorted onto municipal trucks that deliver them to the proper facility. Our compost goes to an industrial composting facility in Prince George’s County, Maryland.

No. No one will sort your waste for you. The only person who has control over what materials are put into which waste stream is you. If you are unsure about which bin to use for a certain item, we recommend throwing the item in the landfill bin. We say “when in doubt, throw it out” because if a compost or recycling bag becomes contaminated with incorrect items, the entire bag will likely end up in the landfill.

Have a question about campus sustainability?

Get in touch with the Office of Sustainability.

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