How Colleges Are Going Green

By | Posted October 9th, 2012

Every year in the United States, we use approximately 71 million tons of paper and paperboard. As you might expect, some of the largest consumers of paper and paper products are colleges and universities. From paper towels to printer paper, magazines to newspapers, and everything in between, colleges generate waste across several paper grades.

Colleges are realizing that reducing waste isn’t just good for the environment, but helps the school save money, too. Some schools have gone so far as creating staff positions to facilitate the switch to greener practices. These sustainability coordinators are tasked, in part, with gauging the colleges’ paper use and finding ways to reduce both waste and costs.

Reducing Waste

In 2004, Stark State College (SSC) in North Canton, Ohio, realized it had bought more than 19,200 reams of virgin paper, which equates to 9,600,000 sheets of paper. Some quick calculations reveal that replacing that much paper with just 30% post-consumer content would make a huge difference to the environment—373 trees saved and 10,358 pounds of solid waste kept out of landfills.

The school’s Sustainability Coordinator, Stefanie Smith, said SSC hasn’t yet made the switch to buying recycled paper, but is in the process of making several changes to encourage sustainability at the school. “The first step is taking an inventory,” Smith says. “We’re working on measuring how much paper the staff and student body use and then minimizing that use. Students used to have a $25 printing allowance, but we noticed a lot of paper being wasted, so we reduced the allowance to $15, and then to $10, which is what it is now.”

According to Smith, the staff also engages in interoffice competitions to see who can use the smallest amount of paper, and staff members use iPads to take notes at meetings. SSC also participates in RecycleMania, a non-profit tournament that uses friendly competition to encourage college students to recycle. “It’s a process,” says Smith. “We’re working toward reducing waste.”

Using Sustainable Practices

While some colleges are coming into environmental awareness, one college was founded on it. College of the Atlantic (COA), established in 1969 in Bar Harbor, Maine, has just a few hundred students, all enrolled in its only degree program: Human Ecology. From the beginning, the school has been a model for sustainability and environmentally friendly practices. For all its printing, photocopies, and publication needs, COA uses only 100% chlorine and dioxin free paper with 60% post-consumer waste.

Donna Gold, Director of Public Relations for the college, says that in addition to buying recycled paper, COA also recycles and reuses it. Faculty and staff make their own notepads from used paper rather than buying new ones. The staff also makes double-sided copies as often as possible. When asked whether there’s a college policy regarding the reduction of paper use, Ms. Gold said, “We don’t really have a policy, per se. It’s more a matter of internal ethics. We just try not to print anything unless it’s absolutely necessary.”

But it’s not just the small, environmentally focused schools that are trying to go green. The University of California (UC) has a comprehensive Sustainable Practices Policy that addresses several areas of environmental concern such as energy efficiency, recycling, and water. UC has pledged that by the year 2020, it will achieve zero waste, reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels, and purchase 20% sustainable food. Quite an undertaking for a school with ten campuses across the state.


Getting Students Involved

At some schools, students have taken sustainability into their own hands. California State University, Chico offers Associated Students (AS) an on-campus organization dedicated to improving student life. Members can find jobs, volunteer, and get involved in environmental pursuits.

The AS Recycling Program (ASRP) was founded in 1996. The AS Program Coordinator for Sustainability, Eli Goodsell, said that in addition to recycling about 620,000 pounds of material every year, much of which is paper, the program employs 16 to 20 students who collect recyclable materials from the 2,000 recycle bins around the campus. “So we’re not just reducing waste, we’re creating jobs,” he said.

The ASRP also manages a Reuse Store where students can get free office and school supplies. Students are encouraged to bring in their gently used (or unused) items, including notebooks, printer paper, books, and folders, and to take whatever they need.

Goodsell says students are very receptive to the Reuse Store and make great use of it. “We give away about 2,000 pounds of materials every year,” he said. “In addition to reducing waste, it also helps out some of the new students who may not be able to afford to buy all the supplies they need.”


If all of the nearly 4,500 institutions of higher learning in the United States made these kinds of efforts, just think of how many trees could be saved, how much landfill space could be freed up, and how much money could be saved on the production and purchase of new paper products. As more colleges and universities become aware of and make efforts toward sustainability, paper waste could be greatly reduced nationwide, and perhaps eventually, worldwide.