Sustainability week

Sustainability at Virginia Tech plants trees along West Campus Drive outside Harper Hall on September 17, 2015.

The Princeton Review has placed Virginia Tech on its Top Green Colleges List for 2021.

In order to make the list, colleges must have upstanding sustainability practices and a healthy quality of life for students on campus. Rankings are calculated using institutional data provided by school administrators. Out of the nearly 700 colleges considered, 416 were chosen to be on the Green Colleges List, and only 50 were chosen to be on the Top Green Colleges List.

“It’s a real source of pride for us (to be placed on the Green Colleges List),” said Sustainability Program Manager Nathan King. “It speaks to the entire campus community, because it really does take everyone to make a university sustainable and reach those high rankings of The Princeton Review.”

At Virginia Tech, the Office of Sustainability has taken efforts to bring about change on campus. In particular, much of the university’s environmental efforts can be seen within Dining Services. Sustainability initiatives are also ramping up for Housing and Residence Life, where new construction and renovations seek to achieve LEED silver or higher certification from the U.S. Green Building Council. Recently, O’Shaughnessy Hall, renovated in 2018, achieved LEED Gold certification.

“Our guiding principle really goes around, ‘How do we promote sustainable dining both within our campus community and also our greater community?’” Sustainability Manager Blake Bensman said. “We are working to make our dining more sustainable, but also our student living opportunities on campus.”

A sustainability initiative that most students are familiar with is the Reusable-to-Go Program, in which dining halls offer a green plastic reusable container with their meal for free. Students return the containers after use to be cleaned and used again.

“One container can keep 250 single-use containers out of the landfill,” Bensman said. “They are about 0.44 pounds, so 250 times 0.44 is right about 110. So, the average container can keep over 100 pounds of plastic out of the landfill, which is huge for us.”

A lesser-known initiative makes an even bigger impact. Some of the produce, such as vegetables, meat and milk, that is used to make dining hall meals come from local sources, reducing the school’s carbon footprint from transportation.

“We serve Virginia Tech products within our dining halls from Homefield Farm,” Bensman said. “It’s about fifty thousand pounds of organic produce that is produced in our dining centers and sold at our farmstand each year. VT Meats is also a big partner; the meat is raised by CALS (College of Agricultural Life Sciences) and they serve about ten thousand to fifteen thousand pounds of VT raised beef, pork and lamb each year. We also have VT-produced milk at the Dairy Complex at Kentland Farm, which is 10 miles west of campus. Annually, we serve about 23 thousand gallons of milk at our Dietrick Hall, and that includes about seven thousand gallons of chocolate milk, which is my favorite.”

Another factor The Princeton Review used to select Green Colleges was student opinion, gauged through an online survey done throughout 2019 and 2020. The survey included ratings on how sustainability issues affected student lives on campus, support from students and administration on environmental awareness and the impact and visibility of student environmental groups.

“I think it’s really great that our college is making sustainability a priority,” Liz Fairfax, a freshman marketing management student, said. “I have taken advantage of the Reusable-to-Go boxes, one, because it is good for our community and our Earth, and also because Virginia Tech pushes students to use them by implementing a 25-cent charge if you choose to use a nonreusable container. It’s a win-win for everybody.”

Students also have the opportunity for bringing about change on campus as well, whether through internships with the Office of Sustainability or through the Green RFP (Request of Proposals for Sustainability Initiatives) Program, in which students can submit green sustainability proposals.

“We got about 65 proposals this year, so we’re looking for which ones are feasible to implement and fund,” King said. “We funded something like 83 different proposals over the last 10 or so years, and well into the millions of dollars of proposals have been funded. That is one area where every year we are continuing to add new sustainability projects in our campus.”

The Office of Sustainability still has many plans for the coming years, adhering to the Virginia Tech Climate Action Commitment, initially approved in 2009 and revised in 2013.

“Our Climate Action Commitment, which is our overarching guiding policy, as well as the STARS Report, which functions as the university’s sustainability plan, are guiding documents into the future,” King said. “We really do look at (the Climate Action Commitment) from five years out, to 10 years out, to 30 years out, and what that vision for the future is going to be, whether it is carbon neutrality by 2050, or implementing a climate action Living-Learning laboratory and all sorts of other goals. That is creeping toward, hopefully, senior administration approval later in the spring if all goes well, and that is going to be huge for advancing sustainability into the future here.”