The University’s Office of Sustainability celebrated its tenth anniversary with a party at the Andlinger Center for Energy and the Environment on Friday, Oct. 21.
Office of Sustainability Director Shana Weber said that over the past decade the Office has focused on turning campus into a demonstration of sustainability. According to the Office's operational performance dashboard, campus water use declined by 22 percent and waste per person by 34 percent from 2006 to 2015. From 2008 to 2015, the amount of paper that the administration purchased dropped by 63 percent and the number of commuter cars by 12 percent.
She identified her proudest accomplishment so far as setting the stage for the future.
"Because of the work of the last 10 years, and because there are many people on campus who are passionate about this topic, we are now able to shift our perspective to thinking about the most meaningful impact we have in our local communities and globally," she said, advocating problem solving on a broader scale.
For instance, past stormwater management efforts on the University’s campus, which occupies one percent of Lake Carnegie's watershed, can help prevent problems like erosion and road damage. In the future, the office will also try to demonstrate solutions that other institutions can implement across the watershed, Weber said.
The coming years will also see a paradigm shift in the campus plan, the blueprint for the physical manifestation of the University's strategic direction. Since 2014, the Office has been infusing improvements upon the 2006-2016 Campus Plan into the upcoming 2017-2026 Campus Plan.
"Conceptually, sustainability was a defined chapter in the last Campus Plan, if you think about the last Campus Plan as a book. This Campus Plan, sustainability is embedded at the highest planning principles level – so it's not just a chapter in the book, it's a thread in all the chapters," Weber said.
Thomas Nyquist, executive director of Engineering and Campus Energy, named reductions in waste, the number of vehicles coming to campus, and stormwater in Lake Carnegie as examples of improved sustainability within the 2017-2026 Campus Plan.
Weber emphasized that she looks forward to partnering with social scientists to analyze data that reveals how to shift attitudes and behaviors. She added that the University has shown evidence of commitment to this vision.
She noted the July appointment of Professor Elke Weber, a specialist in the psychology of decision-making around sustainability issues. The position belongs to the Andlinger Center, Wilson School, and Department of Psychology.
Elke Weber has no relation to Shana Weber.
Elke Weber noted that she applies findings from the last few decades in psychology and behavioral economics to understand how people can help themselves and one another overcome shortcomings to make choices that benefit the future. Specifically, she addresses the decisions of individuals faced with uncertainty and long time horizons.
Making people more aware of their decisions promotes sustainability, Elke Weber said. She gave the example of referencing history. "When you remind people that we as a species ... have had a long and important and illustrious past, then you're more likely to think the past mirrors the future, and that you have a long future. And if you have a long future, then people will really want to invest in it," she said.
Elke Weber is already speaking with the Office about creating different projects involving undergraduates, graduate students, and postdocs, noted Lynn Loo, director of the Andlinger Center.
Nyquist said the next Sustainability Plan will require that any architect or engineer list past experience designing efficient buildings in order to be hired by the University.
Nyquist also noted that over the next decade, more buildings will emerge, requiring more energy, water, and transportation. He said the Office will need to enable this growth while decreasing the University's environmental footprint.
The two administrators who worked with Shana Weber to create the Office approved of its work. Charlotte Treby Williams, executive vice president of the University, commended the Office for increasing visibility of sustainability issues and supporting students in initiatives that they have conceived. Vice President for Facilities Michael McKay said the Office has exceeded his expectations by connecting different areas of sustainability like food and global warming, showing their interrelations.
Loo praised the Office for greening the University and inspiring students to join the sustainability movement.
Moving forward, she suggested that the Office track its progress toward goals more closely.
“We need more quantitative measurement and assessment to see how successful we are and whether we're measuring up to our targets, and whether these targets are reasonable,” Loo explained.
McKay added that administrators are seeking ways to engage more students in sustainability.
Green Princeton Co-President Lindsey Conlan '18 expressed enthusiasm about Shana Weber and her team.
"The people who work at the Office of Sustainability are super helpful and open to student suggestions. Whenever we go to them for ‘Do It in the Dark’ or other events, either they've had a resource for us, or they've helped to connect us to someone with a resource," she said.
Conlan added that she wished the Office would incorporate sustainability into the freshman orientation programming.
"It'd be great if the Office of Sustainability could be part of that. I think that could set a tone for the ethos of sustainability even more strongly because it's one of the first things we hear," Conlan added.
Williams credited the Office with advancing many different projects, such as carbon emission targets, resource conservation, research, and education and recommended continuing that trajectory.
"I think what the University can do most for the world is research to come up with solutions ... making sure that students graduating from Princeton will be citizens who care about these issues and be motivated to do something about them, whether it's in their professions or their individual behavior. It's my hope that students are getting the exposure they need to these issues so that they can be part of the solution as we move forward," she said.
Various factors pushed the Office to form in late 2006. Since at least the mid-1980s, the University administration has sought ways to make campus more sustainable, and students joined these efforts in the late 1990s and early 2000s, McKay explained.
A group of students, faculty, and staff called the Princeton Environmental Oversight Committee was running environmental initiatives for the University, according to Nyquist. The word "sustainability" went unused, he noted.
However, the administration recognized the need for someone to coordinate the activities under the umbrella of a cohesive vision, Shana Weber said. A Yale sustainability manager visited campus, and soon after a University alumnus offered funding for a sustainability manager.
"The release of Princeton's first Sustainability Plan in 2008 was a major milestone because it was the first time the institution defined the full scope of what it means by 'sustainability,'" Shana Weber said.
Nyquist said he considers the event the biggest accomplishment of the Office so far.
"People cared about the environmental performance of a building, whereas before that, we would push it internally from the engineering point of view, but we didn't have buy-in by many of the other constituencies that were designing or approving buildings. But now that we have these sustainability goals, we have processes in place for innovation and adding costs to buildings to make them more efficient. We could do that before, but it works much better now because there's this official plan and policy backed by the administration," he explained.
2008 also saw the High Meadows Foundation donate money to create projects like “Campus as a Living Laboratory” for sustainability. The fund opened new avenues for faculty research, student projects, and staff initiatives, as well as a campus-as-lab mentality that continues to this day, Shana Weber said.
"From now on, we'll be thinking about, 'How can we use the physical campus as a way to engage the academic community in research about big global problems?' Every global issue has a local manifestation – somewhere, everywhere. What is our role, as a University, in taking advantage of this microcosm that we have here to tease out solutions to those global problems?" Shana Weber said.
She noted that the Office hired a Campus as Lab manager who began working three weeks ago. Among the University’s peer institutions, only MIT has a parallel position, which began just one month earlier.
Loo applauded Campus as Lab. She recommended that more undergraduates pursue it for their senior design project. Participants could write articles about their research projects in peer-reviewed journals to benefit other campuses, she said.
The Office began releasing annual Sustainability Reports in 2009. Examining three years of data in 2011, Shana Weber's team identified trends such as declines in carbon emissions, water usage, chemical usage, and the volume of waste produced by individuals, along with an increase in rate of recycling by individuals. The Office was moving toward the vast majority of its targets.
In 2013, to check progress toward the University's goal of reducing carbon emissions to 1990 levels by 2020, the Office formed an external review panel of alumni from different disciplines and experts in the field. Shana Weber considered the moment key for validating the Office's approach and revealing opportunities.
"For an institution to be willing to bring in outside eyes, I think, really demonstrates leadership," she said.
In 2016, the Office grew to four full-time staff. The second person joined in 2010 and the third in 2013.
Throughout the past decade, the academic and operational communities of the University have cooperated well, removing what for many other institutions marks the greatest barrier to progress, Shana Weber said. She added that campus awareness of sustainability as a lens for education, service, and research keeps growing.
"I'm hoping that we can harness what we've accomplished so that it continues to provide momentum for the hard work that we do have ahead, and that we continue to motivate innovative problem solving and the personal commitment of our faculty, staff, students, and alumni to try to make a difference in what is an extraordinarily vital issue for humanity," Williams said.