For a greening Cornell, three is a gold STARS charm

Cornell Composting Facility
Robert Barker/University Photography
One of many components to make up the university's recent STARS score, composting discarded food scraps at the Cornell Composting Facility.
Amanda Vargo and Jiaming (Adrain) Zhang
Lindsay France/University Photography
Amanda Vargo, left, and Jiaming (Adrain) Zhang encourage sustainable actions at the 2014 Zero Landfill Game.

In the continuing effort to save energy, enhance environmental operations and increase sustainability research and education, Cornell earned its third consecutive gold STARS rating from the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education.

STARS – the Sustainability Tracking, Assessment and Rating System – is a self-reporting tool that colleges and universities can use to measure progress and compare their rankings. Cornell moved up a notch – at 73.34 – to become one of 58 schools earning gold status out of 308 rated schools for 2013. Last year, Cornell received a 70.58 score and was one of 47 schools earning gold status out of 241 rated schools. No schools earned a platinum score this year.

For the operations category, Cornell scored a 57.57, surpassing last year’s 50.98 mark. The operations score is substantially above the 48.83 average mark for all schools earning gold. In the education and research category, Cornell scored 69.74, up from a 66.46 last year. In the planning, administration and engagement category, Cornell scored 80.72 – well above the 74.06 score average for other schools.

One of the key changes in STARS scoring came through the campus dining subcategory, as the score moved from a 5.0 last year to 7.4. About 45 percent of Cornell’s food expenditures meet one or more of the STARS criteria: Cornell earned points for obtaining dining hall food grown and processed from within a 250-mile radius; using USDA certified organic food; using Marine Stewardship Council certified seafood; and for using fair trade foods.

For the Cornell dining halls, the university grows its own fresh potatoes, winter squash and corn in season; purchases about 27 percent of its fresh produce locally and regionally; and makes its own dairy products.

Dan Roth, director for campus sustainability, explains: “Cornell’s dining procurement choices have significant impacts on our regional economy and environment, as well global implications. Cornell gets its milk products and apples from the university’s own farming operations. In fact, we use fair trade coffee, and that has huge implications for growers in coffee regions around the world. Around the world, fair trade supports and ensures grower well-being.”

“Since Cornell Dining gets so much produce from 25 local farms, energy is saved on trucking food in from long distances and encourages the regional economy,” Roth says.

Annually, Cornell highlights several sustainability projects. The university received innovation credits for participating in the national Healthy Gardens, Healthy Youth project; “Sustainability in Skills for Success,” a human resources program that encourages staff to reduce their environmental impact; the Statler Hotel’s EarthView Sustainable Hospitality program; and the new Cornell Institute for Climate Change and Agriculture program, which helps to identify new crops to grow in a climate-changing world.

Another category of significant improvement was curriculum. For the 2013-14 academic year, Cornell offered 163 sustainability-focused and 268 sustainability-related courses. The sustainability-related (6.62 percent) and sustainability-focused (4.02 percent) courses involve 10.6 percent of all of courses offered at Cornell. These courses are offered in 74 departments, comprising 71.2 percent of all departments at Cornell.

With a desire to make Cornell even more environmentally efficient, Roth says: “While the Sierra Club ranked us No. 5 as greenest school for last year’s STARS gold score, we are striving for platinum. Cornell can achieve this national first with an all-hands-on-deck approach.”

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John Carberry