Virginia Tech Magazine
Fall 2009
For Future Generations by Denise Young
How (and why)
Virginia Tech is creating a
sustainable campus
The hues of autumn might be spreading across campus, but a growing number of Virginia Tech community members have green on their minds.

According to Sustainability Program Manager Denny Cochrane, it all started in 2006, when students began to push for the reinstatement of the paper-recycling program, which had become voluntary in the early 2000s after a wave of budget cuts. It started as a grass-roots student movement for more recycling and more environmental awareness on campus and has become campus policy, with the board of visitors and the University Council approving the Virginia Tech Climate Action Commitment (VTCAC) Resolution and accepting the accompanying Sustainability Plan. And campus leaders--from the Student Government Association (SGA) and the student group the Environmental Coalition to faculty, staff, and administrators--are putting that plan into action.

Because the VTCAC Resolution was reviewed and approved using the university governance system, it is now university policy, ensuring that, from conserving energy in classrooms to reducing waste in dining halls, Virginia Tech will be a leader in sustainable living.

Ambler-Johnston Hall

Renovations to Ambler-Johnston (AJ) will meet the requirements to make the building the first LEED Silver-certified residence hall on campus. AJ will meet such standards as abatement of asbestos and lead paint, preserving open space equal to the footprint of the building adjacent to the site, water-use reduction (low-flow faucets and showers), reuse of main building structure, use of recycled material, and use of low volatile organic compound materials.


To Cochrane, sustainability means using the resources required to meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to have sufficient resources to meet their own needs. For Angie De Soto, a senior environmental planning major who is also set to take the post of campus sustainability planner after she graduates in December, matters related to sustainability also have strong resonance.

"Climate change is the defining issue of our generation. It's up to us to figure out how to live more sustainably for the future of our children," says De Soto, who has been a major voice in Tech's commitment to going green, providing leadership for students interested in sustainability. "It's important for everyone to understand that the reason Virginia Tech made this move is because of the students: 100 percent," says De Soto.

"The students are really the driving force behind all of this," Cochrane agrees, noting that students, administrators, and faculty and staff members worked together to develop a resolution and take action to lessen the university's carbon footprint.

At a December 2007 meeting with President Charles W. Steger, four leaders of the student group the Environmental Coalition, including De Soto, encouraged the president to sign the American Colleges and Universities Presidents' Climate Commitment. On April 25, 2008, Steger charged the newly formed Energy and Sustainability Committee to develop a climate commitment and sustainability plan tailored specifically to the needs of Virginia Tech and for the University Council to review and act on it by the end of the 2009 spring semester. The University Council recommended approval of the VTCAC Resolution on April 22, 2009, which was Earth Day, and the board of visitors approved it on June 1, 2009.

"The VTCAC Resolution is our sustainability compass. These 14 specific initiatives are unique to Tech," says Cochrane. "They were developed after we analyzed where we are, what we should be doing, and how we will get there."

"If we're specific to our campus and our community, we’ll be more likely to meet these goals," adds De Soto.


Promoting sustainability comes down to little things that make a big impact, such as

  • Dining services going tray-less and reducing food waste because students take less food at a time;
  • The Southgate Center composting the discarded portions of fruits and vegetables, creating a more complete circle between the food people eat and the soil from which that food grows;
  • Adding motion-sensing lights to 146 classrooms to detect when no one is in the room;
  • Upgrading the steam utility distribution system and Central Steam Plant to reduce heat and energy losses.

Yet those involved in the sustainability movement on campus know that improvements like these are adding up to save not only energy and other resources, but money as well.

Virginia Tech's 2008 Campus Tree Tour

Virginia Tech was named a Tree Campus U.S.A. site by the National Arbor Day Foundation and Toyota, and was one of nine universities to host a Campus Tree Tour 2008. To celebrate this recognition, more than 200 faculty, staff, and student volunteers gathered on Oct. 21, 2008, to hold a tree-planting ceremony, during which they planted 100 native trees--donated by the sponsors--across campus.

"Sustainability is broader than just the environment," says Cochrane. "It involves economics and social responsibility." For example, at the conclusion of the 2008 fall semester, and in accordance with the Campus Energy and Water Policy 5505, the university set all thermostats to 68 degrees. This initiative alone saved the university more than $200,000 between the end of the fall 2008 semester and January 2009.

Dining and Housing Services Director Rick Johnson has seen firsthand that small changes can go a long way. For example, when the Southgate Center began composting in January 2009, the center reduced landfill waste by 2.5 tons of food each week. Johnson says they hope to extend the program this year to all dining facilities on campus.

In addition, the Farms and Fields project in Owens Food Court provides students with local, organic, and natural food selections. "We hope that when the project is fully developed, all products served there are local, but right now, the industry is pretty young, so local vendors can't provide enough year-round to supply all of our needs locally," notes Johnson. All dining halls now also boast recycling areas for customers to dispose of plastic bottles and aluminum cans, and all dining facilities' kitchens now recycle all metal cans, reducing waste.

Both the D-2 and Schultz dining facilities have gone tray-less, a move spurred by help from such student organizations as the Residence Hall Federation (RHF), the SGA, the Environmental Coalition, and the Student Advisory Committee. "The waste in D-2 was really extraordinary because once you had that tray, you just piled it on," says Johnson. "Now, you can still go back and get as much as you want, but you hold your plate in one hand and your glass in the other, and you take less food at a time, so there's a reduction in waste."

Many of the movements on campus are student driven and are tailored to help each Virginia Tech student to lead a more sustainable lifestyle. For example, the SGA has partnered with the RHF, U.S. Foods, and Au Bon Pain to provide a reusable bag to every meal-plan holder. "We're really trying to change behavior," says SGA President Brandon Carroll.

SGA has played a large role in helping students to go green and has even created two new positions dedicated to sustainability: the director of green initiatives, held this year by Alex Funk, who handles programs like the Green Effect Game in which recycling is encouraged and students educate tailgaters about recycling at games, and the director of sustainability, a position held by Nathan Latka, who is involved in policymaking. “We’re utilizing our talent to maximize our voice,” says Carroll.

The SGA also teamed up with TCP, the largest producer of compact fluorescent lightbulbs (CFLs) in the country, to distribute 1,500 CFLs to Blacksburg homes during the Big Event. "We're making the Big Event not just about community outreach, but also a green event."

2009 Governor's Environmental Excellence Award
Virginia Tech's fall 2008 Campus Tree Tour and tree-planting ceremony were honored with a 2009 Governor's Environmental Excellence "Bronze" Award. The award was presented to Virginia Tech for "its demonstrated commitment to the stewardship of Virginia's natural resources through its Tree Campus U.S.A. 2008 initiative."

Pictured are (from l. to r.): Virginia's Secretary of Natural Resources L. Preston Bryant Jr., Virginia Tech's Sustainability Program Manager Denny Cochrane, Virginia Tech's Associate Vice President for Facilities Services Mike Coleman, Virginia's Director of Environmental Quality David Paylor, and Virginia's Director of Conservation and Recreation Joe Maroon.

Carroll notes that behavioral changes are the most important and will make the biggest impact. "It's the little things like recycling or adjusting your thermostat. The small things will add up to hopefully make Virginia Tech a model for sustainable practices."

De Soto, who wrote the Behavior and Campus Lifestyle section of the Sustainability Plan and helped to pen a sustainable-living guide for students, also emphasizes the important role each individual plays in making sustainability a reality. "Every one of us can make a difference. What it breaks down to are the daily decisions of each individual. The carbon footprint of our society is just the carbon footprint of each of us added together. It has to be a societal effort to be more conscious of our actions."

For the Virginia Tech community, these changes are well underway, thanks to leadership and cooperation from all aspects of campus life: faculty and staff members, administrators, and students.

The Virginia Tech Climate Action Commitment (VTCAC) Resolution

The VTCAC Resolution, reviewed and approved by the university governance system in April 2009 and subsequently approved by the Virginia Tech Board of Visitors on June 1, 2009, contains the following 14 initiatives:

1. Virginia Tech will be a leader in campus sustainability.

2. The university will represent the Virginia Tech Climate Action Commitment (VTCAC) and Sustainability Plan in the Virginia Tech Strategic Plan.

3. Virginia Tech will establish a target for reduction of campus greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions to 80 percent below 1990 emission level by 2050 and interim targets from 2006 emissions of 316,000 tons consistent with the Virginia Energy Plan, the Governor’s Commission on Climate Change, the Town of Blacksburg, and the federal administration: for 2012, 295,000 tons (on path to 2025 target); for 2025, 255,000 tons (2000 emission level); and for 2050, 38,000 tons (80 percent below 1990 emission level).

4. Virginia Tech will work toward these emission reduction targets through improved energy efficiency, reduction of energy waste, replacement of high-carbon fuels, and other measures identified in the VTCAC and Sustainability Plan.

5. Virginia Tech will establish an Office of Sustainability to
a. coordinate programs for campus sustainability,
b. oversee implementation of the VTCAC and Sustainability Plan,
c. monitor annual electricity and other energy use and GHG emissions, and
d. working with faculty and departments, manage a campus-wide student internship and undergraduate research program using the campus as a sustainability laboratory.

6. Virginia Tech will pursue Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Silver certification or better and exceed American Society of Heating, Refrigerating, and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE)--an organization that advances technology to serve humanity and promote a sustainable world--90.1 2004 energy performance by 35 percent (ASHRAE 90.1 2007 by 30 percent) for all new buildings and major renovations. Capital budgets should account for future energy price, cost of building operation, return on investment, and environmental benefits of achieving this level of performance. LEED is a program sponsored by the U.S. Green Building Council that verifies a building's level of sustainability.

7. Virginia Tech will improve electricity and heating efficiency of campus facilities and their operations, including the heating and cooling infrastructure and operation, lighting efficiency, controls and operation, and equipment efficiency and controls.

8. The university will adopt at least four reduction measures in the waste minimization component of the national RecycleMania competition. Virginia Tech Recycling will adopt a goal of 35 percent recycle rate by 2012 and 50 percent by 2025.

9. Virginia Tech will require purchase of Energy Star (a government-backed program helping businesses and individuals protect the environment through superior energy efficiency) rated equipment, maximum practicable recycled-content paper, and other low lifecycle cost products, with exceptions for special uses.

10. Virginia Tech will engage students, faculty, and staff through education and involvement to reduce consumption of energy, water, and materials in academic and research buildings, dining and residence halls, and other facilities.

11. Virginia Tech will improve transportation energy efficiency on campus through parking, fleet, and alternative transportation policies. Alternative transportation use will increase from the current level of 45 percent, to a goal of 52 percent in 2015 and 60 percent in 2020.

VTCAC Resolution
12. The university will create and support a virtual Virginia Tech School of Sustainability or similar mechanism to coordinate, develop, and communicate related instructional, research, and outreach academic programs.

13. The university will monitor energy use and GHG emissions as well as changing internal and external conditions, prepare an annual report card showing progress toward targets, and periodically re-evaluate targets, making adjustments to targets as appropriate based on changing internal and external conditions and evolving technologies.

14. With regard to all the items in this resolution, major personnel and investment decisions, including capital projects, associated with implementing the VTCAC and Sustainability Plan will be based on a joint review of costs and benefits by university financial and facilities staff and be subject to availability of funds. Virginia Tech will provide funding to support sustainability programs through a variety of sources, which might include savings from reduced electricity and energy fuels, E&G (state) funds, loans, a Green Development Fund from private sources, and a student Green Fee.

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