Forget your grandmother or your mother.  This isn’t even your older sister’s environmentalism.  Five years ago, green residence halls or organic dining would have seemed like cutting edge improvements of a campus’ environmental impact, but no longer.  “Things that would’ve been really impressive three or four years ago are now kind of commonplace,” says Julian Dautremont-Smith, associate director for the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education. 

Nearly 1,000 campuses are buying organic produce from two of the country’s biggest food suppliers, and many are taking away dining trays, saving a half-gallon of water and 30 percent food waste per student.  The U.S. Green Building Council says 250 campus buildings have received its stamp of approval, a LEED certification, and another 1600 are on the way.   Wind and solar power generation is taking off; even high-tech projects like greywater reuse are finding a home on some campuses.  As everything from printing labs to public transport gets a greener lift, here are nine projects that stand out:

Greenest conscience: Oberlin College, Oberlin, Oh.  At this famously quirky liberal arts college in Ohio, students can check their energy consumption in real-time on the web.  Each of the 17 residence halls monitors minute-by-minute power and water usage.  Most dorms also have Energy Orbs, rounded lamps in common areas that glow green if the dorm is using less than 50 percent of its average consumption, red if it’s more than 50 percent, and any shade in between.  Flick off a light or unplug your computer and see if you can change the Orb’s color.

Runners-up: St. Lawrence University, Canton, Ny., where students can conduct a “dorm audit” to check their energy waste, and Middlebury College, Middlebury, Vt., where students used Google Earth to map the number of miles their food must travel to reach them. (Biggest climate offender? Pasta.)

Most carbon-neutral: College of the Atlantic, Bar Harbor, Me., announced a net-zero emissions policy in October of 2006, offsetting carbon generated by daily operations and school commuters with investments in carbon-reduction projects.  By December 07, they were carbon-neutral. Southern New Hampshire University in Manchester was right on its heels, announcing its carbon-neutrality last May through investments in renewable energy hedge funds.

Most creative renewable power: University of New Hampshire.  By January, UNH (pictured right) will get 85 percent of its power from…its own trash.  The campus pumps purified methane from the landfill 13 miles away onto campus, then generates power on-site. The $45-million project is the first of its kind on a campus, and is expected to help stabilize UNH’s energy costs, which have doubled in the last five years.

Runners-up: Green Mountain College, Poultney, Vt., which gets 50 percent of its electricity from the methane waste of cows, and Los Angeles Community College District, whose 12 campuses are each installing a 1-megawatt solar-power system that will cover most of their energy needs.

Sororities/Fraternities: UNC-Chapel Hill, Chapel Hill, N.C., Undergrads started the nation’s first environmental honors fraternity here in 2006, with a mission to encourage scientific research that supports a sustainable society. The campus boasts a 350-student strong environmental studies program, so Epsilon ETA knew it had a robust base from which to draw. The co-ed frat has attracted roughly 100 eco-conscious students in the last two years and is drawing up plans for a sustainable frat house. With interest from campuses across the country, Epsilon ETA hopes to go national this year.

Greenest athletics: University of Colorado at Boulder.  UC-Boulder is the first college to try to make its home football games zero-waste.  Dubbed “Ralphie’s Green Stampede,” after the real-life buffalo that’s the football team’s mascot, the school expects to recycle or compost 90 percent of waste generated at its football field this year, where one home game produces 10 tons of trash.  It’s also looking for ways to offset energy consumed year-round by the stadium—and by the team when it travels.

Greenest cafeterias:  University of California at Santa Cruz.  Alums organized a co-op of six small farms (pictured below), which grow 25 percent of the campus’s produce.  Students and faculty conduct research on the farms; in the summer, dining hall chefs and farmers brainstorm menus, so farmers grow what chefs want to cook with.  Once a year, the farms supply enough food for a 100 percent organic meal.  And all the coffee on campus comes from a fair-trade farm in Nicaragua, where UCSC students can spend a semester learning Spanish and sustainable business practices.

Runner up: Warren Wilson College in Asheville, NC, where students spend 15 hours a week sweating it out on an organic farm that helps feed the school.

Greenest alternative dining ware:  Stanford University, Stanford, Calif.  Small cafes and to-go eateries have become a staple of student life—and the bane of landfills.  These small campus outlets don’t have space or facilities to store and wash reusable flatware.  Enter…the potato.  Last year, Stanford replaced plastic utensils with forks, knives and spoons made out of potato starch, and put compost bins next to trash cans in its cafes.  It composts the flatware—and salad bowls, which are made from sugarcane—off-site, and uses what comes back to fertilize dining gardens and the Stanford Community Farm.

Greenest study abroad: Living Routes, Amherst, Mass.  Study abroad is one of the last college frontiers yet to green.  Living Routes organizes eco-study abroad programs open to students at any college or university.  The experiential learning programs place students in eco-villages in India, Scotland, Senegal and Israel for a semester of sustainable living and learning (students can also go to Mexico or Peru for January terms).  That life looks different in Senegal, where residents in 45 thatched-roof villages struggle toward electricity and economic development, than it does in the Scotland, where the challenge is to sustain Western-style living with a lighter footprint.  Back at home, students commit to lifestyle changes that will help offset emissions from their plane rides.

Runner up: Middlebury College in Vermont.  This fall, students studying on its campuses in France, Spain and Italy will craft sustainability criteria for campus operations abroad appropriate to each country; in the spring, a new crop of study-abroad students will evaluate the satellite campuses, and this summer, study abroad directors will brainstorm how to improve their practices.

Greenest buildings: University of Florida at Gainesville.  The Gators have 55 projects—covering 3 million square feet—registered for LEED certification, the most at any campus nationwide; 10 have already been built. 

Runners-up: Arizona State University in Tempe, where its 175,000-square foot biodesign institute (pictured below) is one of only 12 campus buildings certified as LEED-Platinum, the USGBC’s highest standard. Also, Berea College in Berea, Ky., where renovation of historic Lincoln Hall, built in 1886, made it the state’s first LEED-certified building.

Story by Jina Moore. This article originally appeared in "Plenty" in September 2008.

Copyright Environ Press 2008

Read more: Get involved and help make your campus greener

Photos:

1. Greenest conscience: ZUMA Press

2. Most creative renewable power: affullerton / Flickr

3. Greenest cafeterias: davidsilver /Flickr

4. Greenest study abroad: frozenchipmunk / Flickr

5. Greenest buildings: mlinksva / Flickr