June 09, 2015 | Gina de Haan

In Calvin’s new strategic plan, passed in January 2014, the college pledged to develop environmental sustainability as “a valued theme in Calvin’s educational framework, scholarly agenda and operational practices.”

That valued theme was explored in depth in early June when 80 people from across the campus, representing students, staff and faculty, gathered at the DeVos Communication Center for the fifth biennial Sustainability Summit.

The purpose of the morning-long gathering, said Calvin economics professor Becky Haney, chair of the event, was two-fold, to provide information to the entire Calvin community about the types of sustainability activities that are already being undertaken at Calvin, and to let attendees know about the benefits the college might realize by tracking sustainability in a more formal way. 

Said Haney: “As a community, we need to find ways to continue to rally around this conversation, flesh it out, figure out how we want to get traction in all these areas that we discussed in terms of measuring, tracking and developing performance indicators.”

Monitoring its tracks

One of the key questions Calvin is considering is how to track and incentivize sustainability that is going on campus-wide, some of it highly visible, but much of it, including some of the highest-impact cost savings, perhaps hidden or not yet discovered.

One current index, the Calvin Sustainability Scorecard, has been in place since the installation of the Calvin Energy Recovery Fund (CERF) in 2009.

The April 2014 scorecard looked at the college’s efforts in everything from recycling to college courses with a sustainability focus to water usage. It noted that energy consumption and carbon dioxide emissions continue to be a challenge for the college, while areas showing improvement include a significantly lower amount of incinerated and landfill waste and a five million gallon decrease in water consumption. Other areas showing positive momentum were Calvin's composting program and local food purchases.

“This scorecard collects data, to the best of our ability, about efforts for each of the 13 categories in the college’s Statement on Sustainability,” said Haney.

A new approach

But, as “to the best of our ability” suggests, Haney believes that Calvin could also consider enlisting the help of an outside source in order to improve the college’s efforts to embrace and enact sustainability as a core value.

So, at the recent Sustainability Summit one of the presentations was on the Sustainability Tracking, Assistance and Rating System (STARS), used by more than 700 colleges and universities, including many of Calvin’s peers, such as Grand Valley State University, Western Michigan University, Baylor University and Hope College. 

STARS, said Haney, is the gold standard for tracking and reporting sustainability in higher education and enables meaningful comparisons over time and across institutions using a common set of measurements developed with broad participation from the campus sustainability community.

“We want to increase our ability to integrate sustainability in our business practices that affect our triple bottom line,” said Haney. She says it's about profits, people and planet. Calvin considers not only the financial effects of its business decisions, but also how these decisions impact the environment and society. “We’ll save money and save the planet.”

This past spring, students in Haney’s environmental economics class did research projects focused on four different areas of sustainability at Calvin: water reduction, campus fleet, student commuting and low-impact dining. They reported their data using STARS, and Summit attendees had the opportunity to see informative posters made by Haney’s students on these topics.

They also had the opportunity to attend breakout sessions on specific areas of sustainability at Calvin. The five breakout sessions covered topics from student-led sustainability projects and building energy reduction to local, low-impact dining services and clean and renewable energy.

Fruitful endeavors

Another event at the summit was a keynote address by Brett Pasinella who discussed Calvin’s sustainability efforts in comparison to other colleges, commenting on the strengths and weaknesses of the college’s current efforts. Pasinella is the senior manager of innovative services at Second Nature, and he formerly served as a campus sustainability coordinator and as a sustainability consultant for higher education organizations. Pasinella gave Calvin high marks for its wide range of ongoing sustainability activities.

Among those activities is CERF, which helps Calvin establish environmentally friendly projects. Through the efforts of CERF, the college has saved one million kilowatt-hours of electricity, 1.5 million gallons of water, 770 metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions and $100,000.

In addition to the accomplishments of CERF, Calvin has minimized its environmental footprint in a number of other ways. The Green Cleaning Program was adopted for the entire campus; a community garden behind the Knollcrest East Apartments supplies Calvin dining services with some of its greens and also provides a learning lab for low-impact best practices; a state-of-the-art weather station monitors temperature, humidity, transpiration and other relevant data so that the campus grounds will be watered with the least amount of water as possible; and student-led programs such as the Kill-a-Watt dorm competition encourage energy conservation. Other ongoing green activities at Calvin include the Calvin Environmental Assessment Program (CEAP), the Plaster Creek Stewards Program, the use of a single-stream recycling system and campus-wide composting.

Stewards of creation

In addition, Pasinella provided suggestions for other near-term actions for Calvin and challenged the college to demonstrate leadership within the Christian college community by building a foundation of sustainability values around Calvin’s theology and mission statement.

Biology professor Dave Warners, who attended the Summit and has used sustainability in his research and his teaching, appreciated Pasinella’s challenge to Calvin, noting that Reformed Christianity has always had a high regard for creation.

“We believe God speaks to us though the creation and that we learn about God by interacting with and studying creation,” said Warners. “Learning to live in a sustainable way reflects the kind of love God has for creation and is an expression of our love for God.”

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