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RecycleMania comes to Chatham

Chatham University is again competing for international recognition as a leader in campus waste reduction. RecycleMania is a friendly competition between 350 colleges and universities. For eight weeks, progress is measured by the Chatham University Office of Sustainability. Those weekly checkpoints are compared against institutions, nationally and internationally, to determine weekly winners. The goal is to promote waste reduction and encourage students to think about where the products they use every day are going. Chatham has been rated comparatively well in the past few years, but we know the numbers can improve.

This year, in conjunction with the Pittsburgh Green Workplace Challenge, the Office of Sustainability has introduced the use of an app–Joulebug–which measures sustainable practices in real time. Joulebug allows you to earn points when you save water, turn off your electricity, take public transportation or fill a reusable mug. By following members of the Chatham community, the Office of Sustainability can develop a better idea of which departments, students and staff are saving the most. It provides an entertaining dynamic to the competition.

In some ways, Chatham is at a disadvantage. Our students, faculty and staff are so diligent in recycling and composting that the baseline is already high. Statistics are measured against that starting baseline. Schools that do not regularly recycle often see huge spikes during the competition–spikes which begin to wane in April. Chatham’s spike is less pronounced, meaning that our efforts are consistently good, getting even better during the event. Compost-ready cups and on-site recyclable collection contribute to Chatham’s edge.

While Chatham does exceptionally well, we cannot get comfortable. In 2015, a social media engagement campaign was included in the benchmark competition. Chatham’s constant uploads were crashing the system. Some colleges and universities were posting direct, if a little aggressive, challenges directly at Chatham’s campaign. The result: Chatham won the competition. In total, with a 66 percent recycling rate, the Cougars made it into the top 15. Last year, Chatham’s composting program brought us to seventh place in food organics. This year aims to improve those numbers. Student participation is necessary to bring those numbers up.

Chatham University Office of Sustainability Director Mary Whitney believes that last year’s success can be replicated,

“Chatham students have an opportunity to prove that last year’s RecycleMania win was no fluke! Remember to compost your cups lids and straws from Cafe Rachel!” she says.

What you can do:

  • BYO: Bring your own containers. Water bottles, thermoses and coffee cups all make a difference in waste recording. Yes, Chatham’s dining services offer compost-ready cups. In the ecologically responsible long run, however, reusable containers will better help the environment. If you must use a disposable water bottle make sure that it is recyclable. Which leads us to…
  • Break it down. All recyclable materials will be measured. In this competition literally every ounce makes a difference. Batteries, glass, cardboard, plastic: if it can be recycled, it should be recycled.
  • Donate. Chatham’s Office of Sustainability is proud of its Greenfund initiative. Students and organizations on campus can apply yearly for a Greenfund award, which encourages green practices and initiatives in the campus community. Dining services allow students to round up their meal costs to the nearest dollar. The extra cents go to the Greenfund.
  • Stop the suck“Vampire” electronics continue to draw power. Sometimes electronics in their “stand by” mode continue to draw power. If you can turn them off, we suggest that you do. Bonus points if you can take the time to unplug!
  • Download the app. The Joulebug app is a fun way to see how you compare to others in your sustainable behaviors. Download the app, include Chatham in your username or bio, and follow your friends to start making an impact.

For more information on the competition, and to check the weekly scores, visit the RecycleMania website. For specific Chatham information, follow the Chatham University Office of Sustainability Facebook page and check their twitter updates at @ChathamSustain.


Mary Whitney Leads Chatham’s Drive Toward Carbon Neutrality

Mary WhitneyMary Whitney, MPPM, PhD, Chatham’s Director of University Sustainability, is an Ohio native who has lived in Pittsburgh since 1982, spending the last 15 years in environmental education, working primarily with citizens, teachers and their students.

As sustainability director for Chatham’s campuses, she leads collaboration on sustainability practices at the university, works to help Chatham meet its carbon neutrality goals, and teaches systems and societal transitions in the Falk School of Sustainability and Environment. Thanks in large part to Mary’s leadership, Chatham is recognized as one of the top five universities in the world for sustainability as measured by The Sustainability Tracking, Assessment & Rating System™ (STARS).

We sat down with Dr. Whitney to discuss the state of sustainability at Chatham and her role in advancing the University’s goal of carbon neutrality.

Q:     How did you get interested in the field of sustainability?

A:      I grew up in the country, free to roam and enjoy nature.  As I got older and the strip mines got closer and closer to my home, I saw the damage that was being done to the environment, including the farms and woods around my house. It was then that I began to realize that our energy needs were going to completely overwhelm the natural world that I love so much.  I started looking at ways to make energy hurt the world less.  Sustainability is exactly that – the ability to sustain ourselves on this planet without overwhelming the planet’s ability to provide us with good living conditions.

Q:     Why is it important for a university like Chatham to become carbon neutral?

A:      Carbon neutrality is the goal of balancing out an institution’s carbon emissions with reductions and purchasing green power, etc. Chatham’s goal is now to be more than carbon neutral – we are working to have zero-net energy.  In other words, we want to make as much green power as we use.  We also are looking at net-positive energy, where we make more green power than we use, and put that out onto the grid to improve conditions for everyone.

Q:     Please describe what you believe are the top priorities for Chatham in terms of reaching carbon neutrality in 2025.

A:      We do annual greenhouse gas audits to get a good idea of where we are in terms of our institutional carbon and methane emissions.  Over half of our annual emissions come from our electric use, since the grid in our region is primarily coal.  So we are prioritizing electrical efficiency across all campuses – installing LED lighting in all buildings and outdoors, adding motion sensors to turn off lights, and more.  These are all very simple-to-implement strategies. Our next largest source of emissions is our transportation – both the campus fleet and also the cars belonging to faculty, staff and students.  To address this, we have added shuttles to move more people per trip, given everyone a free bus pass, connected our shuttles to the bus way, provided bike rentals and a bike repair shop, offered car-sharing, and more.  There is more to be done, and it will take more than just Chatham working to solve that problem – it’s a public policy problem in many ways.

Q:     It stands to reason that as a University increases its physical footprint – sheer area, number of students – its carbon emissions footprint would increase as well. Yet it seems that the reverse happened here – as we grew and expanded, our carbon footprint shrank. How did that happen?

A:      That’s close – what has happened is that we have reduced our net CO2 emissions. We went from 8,705 tonnes of gross CO2 emissions in 2007 to 14,573 in 2015, which is an increase of 67 percent, much of that due to increased electric and fuel use during the construction of the Eden Hall campus. But our net emissions went from 7,246 tonnes to 5,751 tonnes in the same timeframe – a reduction of 20%.  This is due to our extensive composting program, forest preservation on our campuses, purchasing renewable energy credits for our electricity use, and making our own solar electricity and solar hot water.

We look at emissions as a ratio to the number of students or the total square footage of our campuses as a way to measure how we are doing over time while taking growth into account. For example, between 2007 and 2015, we saw a 14 percent increase in student body, as well as a 14 percent increase in our campus square footage, due to new construction and purchases of existing buildings. Yet at the same time, we showed a 32 percent reduction in electric use.  This is because we have designed in the latest in green building technology for any new construction, and have made as many energy efficiency upgrades as we can to existing buildings. We expect to see continued reductions as we enter into our first full year of solar electric production at Eden Hall.

Q:     What are the top three programs being conducted by Chatham from a sustainability standpoint?

A:      We look at our operations, our academics and our engagement when we measure our efforts. In operations, our energy efficiency program has been ongoing since 2007, and we have been buying green power since 2000.  Our compost program was one of the first for an urban campus, and we have committed to using all compostable products in our dining operations.

In academics, we have an entire school – the Falk School – devoted to sustainability. Here we are able to take everything we’ve learned and share it with the world. We have our campuses as living and learning sustainability labs, our faculty has expertise and shares research for sustainable systems, and our students get to put it all into practice.

My current favorite public engagement project is a joint project between the Black Student Union, Parkhurst Dining Services, Zipcar and 412 Food Rescue. This great program was designed by the students of BSU to rescue food that would otherwise go to waste for people in the community – a great sustainability project!  Parkhurst provides the food, 412 Food Rescue organizes the locations for donations, Zipcar provides free car-sharing for student rescue drivers, and students give their weekend mornings to collect and deliver food. Chatham’s Green Fund pays for other expenses, like containers.

Q:     Chatham is one of the highest ranked universities in the world for STARS, what does this mean and why does it matter?

A:      STARS is a sustainability ranking system developed by the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education.  The system’s purpose is to provide a consistent and cohesive way to track, share and benchmark sustainability initiatives.   It is designed specifically for universities and looks at sustainability across academics, operations, engagement with communities, and planning/administration.

Any level of STARS recognizes a significant sustainability achievement, and having a gold rating means that we have made a concerted and effective transformation of our university for sustainability. The recognition is public, and that matters more than just having bragging rights. What truly matters most about the rating is that it proves to others that transforming an institution for sustainability is not a crazy future-dream but a reality, achieved through patience and a deep commitment, more than deep pockets or temporary enthusiasm.

Q:     Chatham is ranked second among sustainable master’s level universities in the 2016 Sustainable Campus Index.  How did the university achieve such a high ranking and what does this mean to students, faculty and staff?

A:      Chatham has been working on sustainability from an educational standpoint for over 25 years, since the founding of the Rachel Carson Institute. We’ve been working to transform our own institutional practice for almost as long, beginning with our first green power purchases in 2000. This long-term commitment lets us make continuous improvement, and we build each year on previous achievements. We take our time to do what we think is right, review and track our progress to see if we’re meeting our own expectations, and keep working on incorporating sustainability into every part of the campus.

A powerful reason for our success is that we have a solid core of sustainability knowledge across our entire community.  It is a huge help that we have attracted so many people who include sustainability in their own work, research and everyday practice – we depend on the students, faculty and staff here to be our success in sustainability.

Q:     What do you want students to take away from their experience at Chatham?

A:     Understanding how environmental, social and technical systems interact with each other, and how to make changes in those systems.  Combine that with lots of opportunities to practice, and the confidence to go out and make those changes!


campus community profile: Kristen Spirl

(l to r) TreePittsburgh Director of Urban Forestry, Matt Erb; two visitors from Perm State University in Russia; Chatham gardeners James Rue and Mike Schneider; Kristen Spirl (second from right); Chatham gardener David Bell

This year, Chatham’s Woodland Road campus has reached its twentieth anniversary of being designated an arboretum by the American Public Garden Association. We talked to Kristen Spirl, grounds department manager, about her work in making sure our campus stays so beautiful year in and year out.

What brought you to Chatham? How long have you been here?
I came to Chatham for graduate school in 2009 and enrolled in the Landscape Architecture program. I received a Master in Landscape Design & Development in August 2012, and shortly after joined the Grounds department! My first day was September 4, 2012.

What’s most exciting about your job?
There are so many things I find exciting about my job. For one, my office is generally outdoors! And no two days are the same. Surprises occur constantly, as Mother Nature answers to no one. I get to create with living plants, making something beautiful, functional, and sustaining. I love that I get to work with students and people of diverse backgrounds and experiences. The tools of the job—tractors, chain saws, skid steer loaders—are pretty fun, too!

What season does campus look the most beautiful?
This is such a hard question! I love every season and enjoy what each period has to offer, but if I must have a favorite… campus looks the most beautiful in the fall… though, winter showcases the structure of the trees—their simple beauty, with minimal colors and textures. The spring has so much color and texture as everything awakens from its nap. Throughout, the interactions of flora and fauna are never the same.

Landscape designer and photographer Rick Darke and Kristen Spirl

What kind of difference do you see yourself making or would you like to make on campus?
I love having volunteer events. Many of the volunteers have had little or no experience being a steward of the land and it may be their first time placing their hands in the earth or planting something that they can watch grow and flourish.

My hope is always that they return in the future with their friends and family to what they’ve planted and get to share in what they’ve added to the world.”

What’s your favorite part of campus?
The Kentucky coffee tree forest and pond adjacent to Mellon Center is really unique. These are old trees, and seeing them and wildlife interacting is very special. The woods between the AFC and Berry Hall is where my favorite White Oak tree is located.

What work have you done on campus that you are most proud of
Collaborating with organizations on campus for volunteer activities is always a big one—planting trees and flowers throughout the year, with “Oc-tulip-fest”, Arbor Day, and our University Day’s Buckets and Blossoms event. Of course I’m especially proud of our Tree Campus USA status! We authored a Campus Tree Care Plan for the University and Arboretum, ensuring the five standards set forth by the Arbor Day Foundation were met for recognition. This will be the 5th year we received the honor. And throughout all of our activities, creating relationships is always special, whether within the campus community, the Woodland Road residents, the City of Pittsburgh Forestry Department or TreePittsburgh.

If you were to pick a favorite plant or animal on campus, what would it be?
I don’t know if I would be able to narrow it down to just one! Kitty is my Integrated Pest Manager, and my favorite campus cat. Blue, the white English retriever, is my favorite off-campus dog. And then there’s… ALL THE DEER! The heron that visits and feeds from the pond. ALL THE BIRDS! Bunny squirrel. ALL THE SQUIRRELS! The White Oak in the woods across from Berry Hall. ALL THE OAKS! The apple tree behind Anderson towards the Carriage house. The saucer magnolia by Dilworth Hall. ALL THE MAGNOLIAS!

See, it’s hard to pick just one!

Follow the arboretum on Instagram. 

With elements designed for the Andrew Mellon estate by the renowned Olmsted Brothers, Chatham’s 39-acre campus encompasses a 32-acre designated arboretum featuring 115 different varieties of species, including dawn redwood, bald cypress, yellowwood, katsura tree, cucumber magnolia, and Carolina silverbell. The arboretum provides an outdoor classroom for students and an inviting place to stroll and to meditate.