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Find Your Foothold

May/June 2020

By Karla Hignite

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UNC–Chapel Hill’s Three Zeros Environmental Initiative articulates a clear vision and provides a solid position for making headway on its sustainability goals.

In 2015, despite significant sustainability success over the years, leaders at the University of North Carolina (UNC) at Chapel Hill realized that they lacked a comprehensive strategy for addressing sustainability campuswide. “We wanted to bridge our academic and operations initiatives and set a plan to move forward,” says Cindy Pollock Shea, the university’s sustainability director.

Focus your goals. After collecting input from numerous working groups, surveys, and pop-up interviews—and employing conversations with high-level academic and administration leaders to better focus and prioritize proposals—the university unveiled its ambitious Three Zeros Environmental Initiative. The proposed campuswide plan would catalyze sustainability activity around three goals:

  1. Net zero greenhouse gases.
  2. Net zero water.
  3. Zero waste to landfills.

According to Shea, while more work was needed, the university already had a structure in place to analyze energy usage, prioritize where upgrades should occur, and allocate resources to projects with the highest return on investment. UNC–Chapel Hill had reduced its energy consumption by 34 percent per square foot since 2003, at a cumulative avoided cost of $427 million. Likewise, following a severe drought in 2003 and again in 2007, the university made major strides on its stormwater management system and reduced potable water consumption by about 63 percent per square foot.

Fine-tune your approach. Zero waste has been the toughest goal to tackle, admits Shea. “As of 2019, we were at a 43 percent diversion rate. Our thought was that we should first reduce the level of waste coming on campus through smarter procurement and by changing the purchasing behaviors of faculty, staff, and students.” A secondary focus would be on increasing the level of waste stream recovery through reusing, recycling, and composting, Shea says. “That has required ample and ongoing training and education about what can be recycled, what can be composted, and how to properly dispose of specific items. Cups, for example, can be tough for people.”

With energy efficiency initiatives, you typically have a few people making key leadership decisions for the institution, Shea says. “It’s much more difficult to get 40,000 people on your campus to make correct and consistent decisions on a daily basis about where to recycle or discard their waste.” It can be hard to move the needle on a zero-waste initiative because you have to rely on everyone making smart consumption and waste stream decisions most or all of the time.

Allow room to grow. While the Three Zeros framework helps explain the university’s sustainability agenda, the process of rebranding did pose some initial challenges in that sustainability encompasses such a broad scope of concerns and activities, Shea says. “Part of this process has been thinking through where other important initiatives might find a home.” For instance, to accommodate growing interest, “health and wellness” became a spinoff programming focus area.

Another area of great interest is food—specifically, increasing the purchase of humanely produced, locally sourced products, Shea says. “We serve 30,000 meals a day, so this requires a good deal of attention and coordination by our dining services.” Likewise, various student-led projects and clubs have introduced sections of edible gardens across campus and helped UNC–Chapel Hill become a Bee Campus USA affiliate, with a “pollinator palace” installation.

Fund your plan. Beyond the legwork to establish goals and get campus buy-in, Shea cautions that perhaps the hardest part is implementation—finding the resources to follow through on what needs to happen by a certain date. “This final point is essential because if you don’t prioritize with resources to execute your plan, it can die on the vine.”

KARLA HIGNITE, Fort Walton Beach, Fla., is a contributing editor for Business Officer.

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