A dozen reasons to hope for a greener future
Illustration by Randy Lyhus
The Earth is in trouble and the situation can sound hope less. Over the coming decades, global climate change will not only raise temperatures, it will affect our ecosystems, our health, and our quality of life. Our population is exploding and our forests are shrinking. Many of us are wasting food, water, and other natural resources, while millions of others are forced to go without.
However, if you look around the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences, there are a multitude of reasons to believe in a brighter environmental outlook. From recycling cafeteria leftovers into food for the hungry, and reducing greenhouse emissions, to bettering our understanding of climate change through interdisciplinary research, Homewood’s students, faculty, and staff are taking steps—big and small—to significantly decrease our carbon footprint.
Here are 12 good reasons to believe in a more sustainable future:
When Davis Bookhart arrived on campus in March 2006 as the university’s first manager of energy management and environmental stewardship, his agenda was as big as his staff was small. "The sustainability office began and ended at my door," he recalls.
Today the office has expanded to six staffers, including an energy engineer, a behavioral change expert, and a student outreach associate. Back then, many of the people Bookhart met around the university would wish him well in his efforts and be on their way. Today, more and more Hopkins faculty, staff, and students are calling to ask what they can do to maximize university resources in a way that won’t compromise the future. Recycling is up. Greenhouse gas emissions are down. And sustainability efforts have spread to every corner of the university.
But there is still so much more to do. And Bookhart, now the university’s director of the Office of Sustainability, knows he can’t do it alone. "We can continue to look for new technologies. We can continue to develop new projects," he says. "But to really meet some of our larger sustainability goals, we need a lot more people with their eyes open who are thinking about these issues and coming up with ideas. And, as importantly, thinking about how the little things everyone can do on a daily basis can add up to big changes." Sustainability isn’t a single office or a checklist, he says. "Sustainability is lots and lots of stories of different people all working together."
Sometime this spring, Gilman Hall will be recognized for its energy-saving, environmentally responsible $85 million renovation by becoming the first LEED- certified building on the Homewood campus. But Gilman’s faculty, staff, and students aren’t waiting for third-party certification to commence living green. They started the day the building opened last July.
Occupancy sensors for lighting are installed in every room, and exterior faculty offices have occupancy sensors to control heating and cooling, too. It’s the first building on campus with recycling receptacles embedded in the walls, and all of the bathrooms are equipped with water-saving dual flush toilets. Alkimia, the atrium cafe, is a "zero waste" facility–where everything from the Harney and Sons decaf Ceylon tea bags, to the takeout containers holding blue cheese salad, to the salad itself, is compostable or recyclable. And Gilman Hall is the first classroom building at Homewood to pilot a composting program. To date, those 10 yellow compost bins in Gilman kitchen areas have assisted in diverting 1.07 tons of organic waste from landfills.
That former waste will make its return to campus this spring in the form of .5 tons of rich, black compost that will be sprinkled on office philodendrons and Boston ferns.
This is how Dezeray Cephas ’12 spent her summer vacation last year: Scrambling under desks searching for energy-efficient power strips, counting thousands of energy-hogging old model fluorescent light bulbs in need of energy-saving replacements, and flushing hundreds of toilets, timer in hand, to determine exactly how much water they used. Glamorous? No. But worthwhile? Definitely.
As one of six student interns working with the Climate Showcase Project, Cephas worked to green Baltimore City by conducting free sustainability assessments for 20 area nonprofit organizations. Their efforts helped equip the nonprofits to save a total of $20,000 in operations costs. The EPA-funded project, a partnership between the JHU Office of Sustainability and the City of Baltimore, was the university’s first sustainability-related city outreach effort and will reach some 90 nonprofits over the next three years.
Cephas, a public health major from Baltimore, says the experience helped her learn more about her community and cemented her commitment to the environment. The most telling moment came at the end of her week with the Stadium School Youth Dreamers program, when she presented the youth center with a farewell gift bag that contained an energy efficient power strip. The building was brand-new and they didn’t need it, so the program’s students "decided to raffle off the power strip to their parents and raise money for another sustainable activity–purchasing plates and cups and a dishwasher to reduce the use of disposable plates and cups," she says. "That’s when I knew we were making a difference."
Don’t mind the loud mechanical hum emanating from inside the rear corner of the JHU power plant at Homewood. It’s not the thrum of a malfunctioning motor or the roar of a racing refrigerator. What you’re hearing is the sound of a cleaner, more efficient form of energy production at work.
The new $8.5 million cogeneration plant, which went into action last summer, produces 38,000,000 kilowatt hours of electricity annually using a turbine combustion engine powered by natural gas. Natural gas is a cleaner fuel than coal, and producing our own electricity on site means Hopkins needs to buy less electricity from outside sources. But those aren’t the only reasons why the new plant is significant. Say you take 100 units of fuel and put it into a traditional thermal electric generator. It produces only 35 useful units of electricity, and throws the remaining 65 units into the air as waste. In contrast, the cogeneration system recovers that wasted energy and transforms it into 40 units of steam that is sent out across campus for heating and hot water.
"By bringing the turbine online we burn our gas more efficiently to make electricity and steam and we net an overall reduction in our carbon footprint because we reduce our carbon dioxide by 8,650 metric tons annually," says Craig Macomber, chief engineer for the JHU power plant. That’s a critical step toward the university’s ambitious goal of halving carbon dioxide emissions—across all divisions—to 141,600 metric tons by 2025.
"It’s important, it’s green, and it’s the right thing to do."
When the fall semester ended in December, there were 1,400 pounds of apples, pears, eggs, tofu, and other perishables stored in the freshman dining hall refrigerators. In the past, Fresh Food Cafe staff would have thrown the food away, since the leftovers almost certainly would have perished over the long holiday break. But this year they donated it to The Campus Kitchen, and within hours it was put to use feeding the hungry clients of the Franciscan Center, a Charles Village service center for the homeless.
The JHU chapter of Campus Kitchen, founded in March 2009, is a student group that uses surplus food to provide healthy meals for clients at six area nonprofits. Here’s how it works: Students collect donations from local restaurants and manufacturers—such as Donna’s, Einstein Bros. Bagels, and H&S Bakery. They even collect excess produce from local farms and from the JHU Community Garden—a student-run community affair located behind a university-owned building at 3105 N. Charles St. Most of the food gets delivered by student volunteers directly to needy organizations. The rest they use to cook up healthy meals for clients of local organizations such as the Franciscan Center and the soup kitchen located at The Church of the Guardian Angel in Remington.
All of those day-old bagels, orphaned box lunches, and homegrown zucchini and tomatoes add up. Between August 2009 and December 2010, the group collected 20,241 pounds of excess food, which 260 student volunteers used to make 8,451 meals.
Campus Kitchen doesn’t just fill bellies, it helps the environment. Every year, some 33 million tons of unwanted food ends up in U.S. landfills, where it produces methane—a greenhouse gas that’s 21 times more potent than carbon dioxide. "We’re doing something really simple and yet we are filling a need and opening up people’s eyes to the issue of how much food gets wasted," says Campus Kitchen coordinator Amy Bachman, an AmeriCorps VISTA coordinator. "Now that we’re here, people don’t have to throw food away."
One by one, David Furhman, director of JHU Homewood Dining Programs, ticks off the responsible dining initiatives the campus dining service has adopted over the past few years. Cage-free eggs and dolphin-safe tuna? Check. Antibiotic-free local milk and locally baked bread and pastries? Check. Tray-free dining in Homewood cafeterias, which saves 66,000 gallons of water and reduces food waste by about 75,000 pounds annually? Check. A pilot composting program at Nolan’s? Check. "Everything we do falls under responsible dining," says Furhman, whose facilities feed as many as 4,000 people a day at Homewood.
That’s great, says Raychel Santo ’14, but she’d like to see even more progress. As founder of the Hopkins chapter of the National Real Food Challenge, Santo is committed to the movement’s goal of having 20 percent of the food that campus dining serves be local, humane, fair, and sustainable by 2020.
A vegetarian who plans to major in public health and global environmental change and sustainability, Santo says she would like to see dining services someday offer such responsible choices as campus-grown heirloom tomatoes and an all-organic area within each dining hall. "People are looking for a way to make a difference in terms of climate change, and food is an easy way to do that," she says. "It not only makes you feel good, it tastes good."
Cindy L. Parker had modest expectations for the new global and environmental change and sustainability (GECS) major and minor when it was introduced in Fall 2009. "I hoped we would attract six new majors a year," says Parker, director of GECS, who holds a joint appointment as an assistant professor in Earth and planetary sciences at KSAS and environmental health sciences at the Bloomberg School of Public Health.
Within a year the program, offered through EPS, had not only met this goal, it had blown it out of the water. To date, 22 undergraduates have declared themselves as GECS majors. Even more promising, some 140 prospective freshmen expressed interest in the major last year, even though it had received limited advertising. Another 140 are interested this year. Says Parker, "That bodes well for our future."
Designed to give students a broad knowledge base about the environmental and social science of our changing world, GECS is focused on the exploration of how Earth and its living and nonliving systems function, and how humans interact with those systems. "I’m not trying to create an army of environmentalists," Parker says. "The goal here is to have more people with a broader sense of how important our environment is to us, no matter what else we do in life. I want them to realize that everything comes from somewhere and everything goes somewhere. And that every decision that we make in our life about what resource we use impacts other people, the environment, ourselves, and the future."
Majors can choose a natural science or social science concentration, and take courses from fields including biology, chemistry, politics, economics, Earth sciences, environmental health, and environmental engineering. Classes are offered at the Krieger School, as well as the Whiting School of Engineering. Parker, who teaches an Introduction to Sustainability class and a senior capstone sustainability seminar, is offering a new four-credit course this spring that allows 15 students to do field work in Ecuador and gain a global environmental perspective.
Among the students traveling to Ecuador is Keith Spangler ’11, who arrived at Hopkins in Fall 2008 planning to major in biology with a premed focus. "The environment was a passion of mine, but I never considered it a career," he says. Then he took Introduction to Sustainability and it wasn’t long before he decided to major in GECS and to pursue a career in climate change policy. "If we don’t address climate change, we are not treating the world in a responsible way and it’s going to catch up with us," says Spangler, who plans to finish his undergraduate studies in August and hopes to land an internship with the Environmental Protection Agency before heading to graduate school. "I’ve come to realize that environmental policy can save lives on a much greater scale than I ever could as a physician."
Sustaining life on Earth in the face of global climate change is an enormous issue and its study stretches across many disciplines, divisions, and departments at Johns Hopkins, but until recently there was no single entity that encompassed the breadth and depth of environmentally focused classes, grants, fellowships, and research opportunities Hopkins has to offer.
With the creation of the Environment, Energy, Sustainability and Health Institute (E2SHI), housed at Homewood, that’s about to change. The new research institute is dedicated to coordinating and encouraging interdisciplinary research and teaching that addresses the health and sustainability problems caused by our changing global environment.
To promote multidisciplinary research in topics related to the environment and support graduate education, the institute awarded $75,000 in graduate fellowships and $75,000 in seed grants to faculty researchers in March. Among the three $25,000 projects awarded seed grants was one from a team made up of faculty from the Krieger School’s Department of Chemistry and the Bloomberg School of Public Health; they are exploring a new methodology to filter water using carbon nanotubes.
The fellowships and seed grants will be funded annually and reviewed by selection committees composed of interdisciplinary faculty. This year the committees received some 30 competitive applications from across the university, confirming to Darryn Waugh, chair of the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences, that the timing is right for E2SHI. "Climate change is one of the most pressing issues that we face," says Waugh, who studies such issues as stratospheric ozone depletion and climate change. "The institute helps give us the opportunity to make progress."
News that global warming will cause the average temperature to rise by 3 or 4 degrees in the next 100 years is difficult to get excited about, unless you happen to be an arctic polar bear.
"What does matter to people," says Benjamin Zaitchik, an assistant professor of Earth and planetary sciences, "are things like the security of their water supply, their safety from floods, landslides or forest fires, and the consistent availability of affordable food. These are all [affected] to some degree by the way that climate change affects the hydrological cycle."
Using a combination of climate and surface modeling and satellite imaging data, Zaitchik, whose research is focused on understanding, managing, and coping with climatic and hydrologic variability, is working to develop a realistic picture of how the hydrologic cycle is evolving–and to predict what will drive changes in the future. The goal: to help stave off some of the most severe consequences of climate extremes. "There will always be uncertainty, but better information about the likelihood of these changes will allow us to plan ahead and be resilient to change when it arrives," he says.
Zaitchik’s research is largely interdisciplinary and spans the globe. One of his current projects focuses on determining the effect of climate variability on the water balance in the Nile River Basin. "The big question with the Nile is how can we ensure that there’s enough water for everyone in a basin shared by 10 countries?" he says. His is the first initiative to date to combine NASA satellite observations with hydrologic models to form the most comprehensive picture of the distributed water balance in this area. With water a source of great political tension in this region, Zaitchik hopes the data he generates help foster cooperative management of this valuable resource.
Some of his other projects involve working with environmental engineers to study how evolving climate patterns influence water quality and sediment delivery in the Chesapeake Bay, and with public health specialists to determine how climate factors affect malaria transmission in parts of the Amazon. This interdisciplinary collaboration is part of what attracted the climate scientist to Hopkins in 2008 from his previous role as a foreign affairs officer specializing in climate change issues at the U.S. State Department.
"The water questions we are asking are really tricky," says Zaitchik, "and you can’t cover the waterfront by yourself."
When you spend day after day on the same university campus, you start to notice things. Like the dim incandescent lighting in a certain parking garage, or the dozens of urinals and toilets in the library that use more water than they should. Some people might notice these things and move on, others might complain. But Sean Murphy ’11 takes action.
Through his work with the Sustainable Hopkins Infrastructure Program (SHIP), a cooperative effort of students and the Homewood facilities office, Murphy works to identify opportunities for sustainable development and retrofit projects at Homewood. After crunching the numbers, he and his SHIP mates pitch projects to Hopkins administrators that reduce environmental impact and operating costs.
SHIP has had $850,000 in projects approved to date. Among the group’s successes are the installation of low-flow toilets and urinals in the Milton S. Eisenhower Library (which saves $6,600 and 1.1 million gallons of water annually), and new LED light bulbs in the Hopkins Club Garage (which avoids 58,000 pounds of carbon dioxide and saves $5,500 a year). This spring, thanks to SHIP, the 425 metal halide lights lining Homewood campus paths will be replaced with energy-saving LEDs.
"SHIP has really been the cultivator of change on campus," says JHU energy engineer Edward Kirk. For Murphy, SHIP’s student director, seeing the changes his group has effected on campus is rewarding. "It feels good to know that each project is a legacy a student leaves behind–and a step toward a more sustainable Hopkins," he says.
Finding ways to make the Milton S. Eisenhower Library a more sustainable place to work and study isn’t listed on Adriane Koenig‘s job description. But that doesn’t prevent Koenig, an administrative coordinator for research services, from doing her part. As one of 40 Green Campus Reps at Homewood, Koenig volunteers as the go-to person for the library’s greening efforts. Her proudest achievement? Replacing the water cooler in the library staff room with a tap filtration system that creates less plastic waste and makes the most of a local resource.
"You don’t have to be the sustainability coordinator to make an impact," says Koenig, who is also a graduate student in environmental science and policy. "I may be only one person, but I feel like I am part of a larger team working to transform Hopkins."
Green Campus Reps started at Homewood in 2009, under the leadership of Leana Houser, JHU sustainability coordinator, and the program expanded to other campuses this year. In addition, Homewood has 18 Green Lab Champions working to green their labs in biology, chemistry, and the Department of Geography and Environmental Engineering. And a similar volunteer program for students–known as ECO-Reps–offers freshmen the chance to lead efforts to create and engage in pro-environment projects. Last year’s ECO-Rep team of 10 students worked with Carrie Bennett, Homewood community/student liaison, to promote and coordinate JH-U-Turn. The inaugural event transformed a mountain of donated clothes, household items, and furnishings from student move-out into $5,800 for the Johns Hopkins Neighborhood Fund–and significantly reduced end-of-semester waste from 180 cubic yards to 6 cubic yards.
When Toyota Prius drivers look at their dashboards they can see at a glance exactly how much gas they’ve consumed on each trip they take. That small bit of real-time information makes them more aware of their driving habits and encourages them to compete against themselves and their neighbors to adjust their driving in order to improve their miles per gallon.
This spring, the 3,000 undergraduates who live on campus are experiencing the Prius effect through Energy Dashboards, interactive touch screen monitors that have been installed in five dorms that allow them to view–in real time–how much water and energy their dorm is using. Starting in the fall, students will be able to use the dashboard information in a series of competitions to see which dorms can reduce the most energy and water.
Hopkins students are a competitive bunch who like data, says Diana Wohler ’11 (above left), co-chair of Students for Environmental Action, the group that has coordinated past campus energy challenges. She’s hoping the new dashboards will not only encourage more students to participate, but that behaviors like taking shorter showers and turning off lights and laptops when leaving for class, will become regular habits after the competitions end. "We can’t go out and buy our own Prius," she says. "But when you get to see the numbers and see the impact of the choices you are making, that’s so powerful."
In addition to the winners in each competition, one student will be selected
as the top participant in all three challenges and will win a bike, bragging rights, and a championship title. At press time, the exact title was undetermined. Wohler has a suggestion: "What about Captain Planet?"■