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April 19, 2023

Greening MSU

From lowering emissions to reducing campus waste, Michigan State University celebrates sustainability achievements on its way toward climate-neutral operations

Reaching across Michigan and extending globally, Michigan State University has made long-standing commitments and progress in sustainability through cutting-edge research, experiential learning opportunities for Spartan students, community engagement and improving sustainable operations.

On the East Lansing campus, Spartans are taking a multipronged approach to realizing the bold goals outlined in the university’s strategic plan of reducing greenhouse gas emissions and achieving climate-neutral operations by 2050.  

In 2019, MSU achieved its first Gold rating for sustainability through the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education’s Sustainability Tracking Assessment and Reporting System, or  AASHE STARS, becoming one of three Gold-rated institutions in Michigan. MSU received its second Gold STARS rating in 2022 and is currently the highest-rated institution in the state. 

“There isn’t one fix or action that will meet our environmental stewardship goals. Our roadmap is a combination of existing technology, technology in development, energy conservation, creative problem-solving and community engagement,” says Sherri Jett, MSU director of power and water. 

That strength-in-numbers approach is something Spartans have always done well and will be key to achieving the university's sustainability goals in the future. 

Cutting campus greenhouse gas emissions

Almost since its founding, MSU has generated its own steam for building heating and electricity, retooling and updating the operation over the years with technological advancements and changing needs in the community.

The university was an early adopter of microgrid technology, producing its own electricity and operating its own microgrid since 1894. Microgrids are now recognized for their reliability and cost savings. Today, MSU’s T.B. Simon Power Plant uses steam to generate electricity in a process known as co-generation. Steam from this process is also used to heat and cool most buildings on campus.

Turbine generator 5 takes steam energy produced by the boilers at 900 pounds-per-square-inch and converts it into energy that is used to produce electricity. Photo by Gabbi Ahlborn.
“Co-generation operates at its most efficient when we are able to maximize the electricity produced from the amount of steam needed for campus heating and cooling,” says Jett. “We are constantly looking for operational adjustments that can improve efficiency and make an impact.”

The recent addition of reciprocating internal combustion engines and a high-efficiency boiler — separate electric and steam production equipment — has resulted in higher overall efficiencies for the power plant as well as a reduction in fuel consumption and carbon dioxide emissions, often referred to as greenhouse gas.

“The engines and new natural gas-fired steam boiler are our largest steps forward in environmental stewardship since eliminating coal use in 2016,” adds Jett. 

MSU’s solar carport array is the largest in North America, covering more than 5,000 parking spaces. Photo by Derrick L. Turner.
MSU has reduced its greenhouse gas emissions by more than 40% since 2010 through measures that include eliminating coal as a fuel source, incorporating energy efficiency improvements, installing solar carport arrays and an anaerobic digester that generates electricity from campus organic waste, and implementing energy conservation measures. 

“Conservation is good for everyone. The less that is needed, the less that needs to be produced; this results in lower costs and less emissions,” says Jett.

While MSU receives rebates for its energy reduction efforts every year, the most recent rebate was significant — nearly $1.5 million. It represents carbon emissions savings equivalent to approximately what 85,500 trees would absorb over 10 years. 

In addition to the enhancements at the power plant, other efforts that contribute to rebates include upgrading HVAC units in multiple buildings, transitioning to LED lightbulbs across campus, managing laboratory fume hood operations and growing the university’s fleet of electric vehicles.

Working toward zero waste 

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, municipal solid waste landfills are the third-largest source of human-related methane emissions in the country, accounting for around 14.5% of emissions in 2020. That is approximately equivalent to the greenhouse gas emissions from 20.3 million passenger vehicles driven for one year, or the CO2 emissions from nearly 11.9 million homes in one year.

MSU actively works to reduce the amount of waste sent to landfills through reuse, resale and recycling. On average, 55% of waste from campus is diverted from landfills. 

Service assistant Michael Chapman stocks shelves at the Surplus Store with items collected from campus. Photo by Steve Jessmore.
The MSU Surplus Store and Recycling Center processes all the waste, recycling and extra materials on campus — from kitchen waste to office supplies. The facility also operates a public drop-off recycling center available to anyone in the community.

“We’d rather reuse than recycle or discard, so our team sorts through everything that comes in,” says Kris Jolley, manager of the MSU Surplus Store and Recycling Center. “In addition to being good environmental stewards, we need to be good fiscal stewards of our assets by maximizing value and use.” 

Each week, approximately 40,000 discarded items from campus are added to the Surplus Store and made available to campus units (in lieu of purchasing new items), or for public purchase either on campus or online. The store averages $3 million in sales each year, with funds going toward supporting the Surplus Store and Recycling Center and MSU’s sustainability efforts. 

“About 50% to 60% of what is thrown away is recoverable, so if you are in doubt, let us decide. Lots of items have value for sale, reuse or donation, even seemingly basic items like pens and pencils,” says Jolley. “If it is a durable good, let us determine how to keep it out of a landfill.

“We always try to figure out how to maximize use. Even if MSU can’t use something, there may be other places that can.”

Educating a community

Eco Reps from across campus coordinate with one other on projects and programs promoting sustainability among their peers. Photo courtesy of Carla Iansiti.
The peer-to-peer education program Eco Reps promotes sustainable practices among MSU students living on campus. Reps serve as ambassadors for sustainability in residence halls and encourage environmentally responsible behaviors through education and activities.

“The Eco Rep program is very welcoming and inclusive. There are students from many different majors, but we all share a common interest,” says Alyssa Andela, a second-year student and Eco Rep in North Case Hall. “Sustainability can be an overwhelming concept, especially in low-income communities like where I grew up. I want to work to make these things more accessible and equitable for all.”

With more than 15,000 students living on campus during the fall and spring semesters, Student Life and Engagement employs multiple programs promoting sustainability in residence and dining halls, from vermicomposting to social responsibility campaigns.

“Recently we introduced the MSU Reusables Program, offering a reusable container option for mobile ordering at the Holden and Holmes dining halls,” says Carla Iansiti, the sustainability officer for Student Life and Engagement. “The entire program was conceived and operationalized by students on the Student Sustainability Leadership Council. They knew what they wanted and what would work for the majority of students; then they made it happen.”

During Pack Up. Pitch In., students are encouraged to donate shelf-stable food items as they clean out their rooms at the end of the semester. Photo courtesy of Carla Iansiti.

As students prepare to move out at the end of spring semester, the annual Pack Up. Pitch In. event is in full swing. Students can drop off any items they don’t want to take home with them at service desks in all residence halls.

“We hope to have at least a 40% diversion during Pack Up. Pitch In. from students using the donation areas in their residence halls,” says Iansiti. “Last spring students donated more than 12,000 pounds of nonperishable food that we distributed to the MSU Student Food Bank, Safe Place and Student Parent Resource Center as well as multiple local organizations.”

Achieving climate neutrality

“It’s all about balance,” says Jett. “Sustainability happens at the intersection of environmental, economic and social responsibility. Efforts also must be equitable, feasible and tolerable to our everyday lives.

“Finding the balance between these is the challenge we all face and making a difference takes us all rowing in the same direction.”

Climate neutrality is defined by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change as “the idea of achieving net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by balancing those emissions so they are equal or less than the emissions that get removed through the planet’s natural absorption.” Basically, balancing emissions with what the environment can handle naturally. 

The Beaumont Nursery includes a greenhouse and growing fields where trees grow from seeds to eventually be planted on campus. Many seeds come from trees removed from campus. Photo by Gabbi Ahlborn.
As one of the biggest, greenest campuses in the nation, MSU has earned the Tree Campus Higher Education designation from the Arbor Day Foundation for its commitment to and care of its trees. The more than 20,000 trees on campus — which is considered an arboretum — and the one-for-one replacement for any removed tree maximize the university’s ability to sequester carbon. Project Wingspan is helping combat invasive species that can lead to the extinction of native plants while making campus a friendly place for bees, butterflies and other native pollinators.

The use of mass timber in the construction of the STEM Teaching and Learning Facility has been recognized by the Wood Works Product Council and Forest Stewardship Council. Photo by Nick Schrader.
As the university expands its academic and research infrastructure on campus, its commitment to green building practices grows. MSU received its first Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, or LEED, certification for a building project in 2009 and multiple gold certifications have subsequently been awarded. Every new building and renovation project is completed in a manner that reduces the campus’s carbon footprint using green building methods and materials. The most recently completed new building, the STEM Teaching and Learning Facility, is the largest building in Michigan to use mass timber. Its lighter weight, faster construction timeline and lower carbon footprint makes it a better substitute for steel or concrete.

“There are a lot of actions we take — some small, some significant — that have a positive impact on our environmental stewardship,” says Jett. “That’s what we do. Spartans take integrated, multi-faceted approaches to changing the world.”

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