Northwestern's progress towards sustainability


Sophomore Amos Pomp arrived at Northwestern from Chapel Hill, N.C. knowing he wanted to immediately become involved in the sustainable food culture on campus. He had spent much of the previous year (as a gap year) working outdoors on a farm in Spain. Once he arrived at Northwestern, Pomp found Real Food and Wild Roots to fulfill his wish. Both of these groups have a focus on local, organic, fair foods, however their methods are different. While Real Food speaks with Sodexo, Northwestern’s food provider, and university administrators about ways to make dining in general a more “real” experience, Wild Roots members spend their time digging in the dirt around Norris planting organic produce mostly to give to Campus Kitchens, a Northwestern student group that takes excess food from dining halls to give to food insecure people in the community, but sometimes to sell at their own farmers markets. However, both groups often work together to host events, according to Real Food Co-Director Morgan McFall-Johnsen, mostly due to Pomp’s influence in both groups.

“The connection to the earth and just the stress relief of being outside and doing work with your hands and seeing a result of a bed being weeded was something that I wanted to be involved in on campus, and it’s been really great,” Pomp said.

Pomp’s involvements on campus are only a small part of the sustainability culture at Northwestern. Although different organizations throughout the world define sustainability in their own ways, it is generally understood to mean cultivating a way of life that will allow humans to thrive long into the future without compromising our standard of living or the earth’s resources. Northwestern has shown its dedication to sustainability in the past few years in a few ways. This year, it ranked 31st in the Sierra Club’s Cool Schools ranking and was awarded the silver rating from Sustainability Tracking, Assessment, and Rating System (STARS). The STARS Award was based on various aspects of sustainability including sustainability education, campus greenhouse gas emissions and sustainable food purchasing. A little further back, Northwestern has also received Bike Friendly University Silver Status, the U.S. EPA Green Power Leadership Award and Tree Campus USA Recognition. Some smaller things the university has been doing include a composting program - developed in 2012, bike lane initiatives (along with the city of Evanston), recycling programs, bike repair stations and more.

On October 3, 2017, Northwestern took its biggest step towards sustainability yet by releasing its Strategic Sustainability Plan. The plan details the university’s goals and strategies for increasing sustainability through 2021. The main outcome of the plan is for Northwestern to become completely carbon neutral by 2050, meaning zero net greenhouse gas emissions. The plan outlines ways to achieve this goal as well as many smaller goals through five areas: the built environment, resource conservation, sustainable transportation, experiential learning, and communications and engagement. Some highlights include reducing emissions 30 percent by 2030, installing one new solar photovoltaic system a year, increasing sustainable food served in dining facilities to 20 percent and increasing bicycle commuting 10 percent by 2021.

The plan was developed by working groups made of students, faculty and staff interested in certain aspects of sustainability. Each working group corresponds to one of the five areas of the plan and is headed by a staff member of the SustainNU board.

However, “the working groups are really led by the members of the working groups so [the SustainNU staff is] just there for guidance and to keep everyone on track”, said Audrey Steinbach, one of SustainNU’s Program Coordinators.

These groups met monthly from July 2016 onward as the sustainability plan was developed. They worked to prioritize and develop goals surrounding their specific area. The working groups continue to meet, even after the release of the plan, in order to check in on the goals outlined and develop more plans to help reach them.

According to a SustainNU report, “Achieving the plan’s goals will require a University-wide effort. Students, faculty, and staff are invited to join a sustainNU working group, participate in the Green Office program, join an environmentally focused student group and take action in their personal lives to conserve energy and resources.”

Fortunately, with at least 10 sustainability focused student organizations on campus, students who wish to help Northwestern reach the goals outlined in the Sustainability Plan have ample opportunities to do so. These organizations are also all open to new members - no selective process required.

The organization that works the most closely with SustainNU is Eco-reps - an organization currently led by Medill students Virginia Nowakowski and Pia Basu. Nowakowski describes the group as “one of the student arms of SustainNU.” They are the “everyday advocates” for sustainability. The group includes both the eco-representatives from each residence on campus as well as anyone else who has an interest in joining a group that reminds their friends, classmates, and dormmates to be green and also plans educational events around campus.

Real Food, one of Pomp’s organizations, is another Northwestern sustainability leader. Co-Director and Medill junior Morgan McFall-Johnsen believes involvement with sustainability on campus, especially food sustainability is important because “I’m really scared about food issues and the food system and everybody is affected by the food system. Everybody eats food. … There’s a really big environmental impact so I thought it was a really good way to make an impact in a bunch of different areas with something that has a very broad reach.”

Students for Ecological and Environmental Development, or SEED, is another of the most well-known sustainability groups on campus. It spearheads many of the Green Cup events - a month-long competition between residential halls to reduce water and electricity usage. They also usually bring in a guest speaker during winter quarter and host a large festival along with A&O productions in the spring that is an opportunity to get sustainability-minded students together and commemorate a SEED member and student who passed away during a trip to Australia.

“I wanted to continue ... giving back to the environment because that’s just an important thing for me to consider especially where I come from,” SEED Green Cup Chair Kerry Foster said, “I’m from [Dallas, Texas] and here has more established environmental concerns. Recycling programs and stuff back home aren’t really as developed as they are here and other places in the US.”

[twitter style="horizontal" float="left"] [twitter] [fbshare type="button"]