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Recap: Drexel Discussion About Sustainability on Campus

September 27, 2021

The University's Climate Year logo over a background of flowers on campus.

What has Drexel University done to be more sustainable? What is it doing now to implement sustainability practices? And what comes next?

These questions, and many more, were answered during the Sept. 23 “Climate Year Speaker Series: Sustainability on Campus” event, in which leaders from various wide-reaching areas of the University discussed how they work together and within their teams to promote and support sustainability as it relates to the food Dragons eat, the buildings they work and learn in, and the supplies they use in the office and in the classroom.

The event was the latest in the “Climate Year Speaker Series” conversations created and promoted by Climate Year, an initiative within Drexel and the Academy of Natural Sciences to support, evaluate and create climate work and best practices.

The moderator of the event was Grace Zaborski, a junior environmental studies and sustainability major and politics minor, who recently finished a co-op with the Drexel Climate & Stability group. The panelists were:

  • Vice President of Real Estate and Facilities and Distinguished Teaching Professor Alan Greenberger
  • Vice President and Chief Procurement Officer Julie Jones
  • Associate Vice President of Business Services Don Liberati
Climate Year Speaker Series: Sustainability on Campus
Join us for this lively discussion of sustainability initiatives from the business operations side of Drexel, including purchasing, facilities management, and business services and dining operations. We'll be joined by Julie Jones, Vice President and Chief Procurement Officer, Alan Greenberger, Vice President of Real Estate and Facilities, and Don Liberati, Associate Vice President for Business Services.

Below is a consolidated and edited transcript of the virtual discussion, which you can view in its entirety above.

On how they prioritize to promote sustainability on Drexel’s campus:

Greenberger: Sustainability is an enormous topic that reaches into every aspect of our lives. At Real Estate and Facilities, we’re very involved in a very discrete, significant aspect of sustainability on campus: the energy use in our buildings and our resulting carbon footprint.

Most of the energy consumed in this country in recent years is nonrenewable: coal, petroleum, natural gas. We have a long way to go. A third of the energy consumption in this country is used to create electrical power. Another third, roughly speaking, is used around transportation, and another third is used to deal with buildings, most of which is consumed in the industrial style. The University lives in that sector of commercial activity. We must be cognizant of where the tremendous amounts of energy are used, some of which we can affect individually or through policies, particularly around transportation or, for instance, electrical generation, which is an enormous category and as individuals or necessarily even as institutions, we don’t have the kind of control on those things that we do in other realms.

One of the things that we think we need to do, and we need to do this in collaboration probably best done with some of our institutional pals at Penn and CHOP and so on, is to see whether some of the money that we might otherwise spend on things like renewable energy credits could be more directed towards renewable sources that are more in our geography, like a grid that directly serves this region. Penn is building a huge off-campus solar farm, and we want to talk to them about that. Different institutions have different financial capabilities, obviously. That’s a very early set of thoughts; whether we can legitimately embark upon that ourselves, I don’t know. But these are conversations that we want to have. Can we do it in a highly directed way so that we know that energy in the grid is coming from renewable sources? I would like to get us back to the point where we are buying more renewable energy; I’m told we did that before I came here, but there were problems with budgets and costs.

Liberati: As part of just our regular day-to-day operations, we really try to keep this as an ongoing conversation between ourselves, our business partners and between various students that we interact with regularly on campus to ensure that we’re thinking about each of our moves and how we make them.

In most cases, we’re working in partnership with someone to accomplish our goals. As I think about campus, we have locations that go throughout the campus, and in those cases, we’ll be working directly with Alan and his team on some of the initiatives they will be implementing. We’re working with our third-party partners and particularly Aramark, which has an opportunity to rethink how we deliver, serve and provide food on campus.

Jones: I think this space is so broad, and with Procurement in particular, it’s still a little undefined. A lot of what we’re doing right now is education and discovery. But what we realized a year or so ago, when we started talking about sustainability through the Institutional Effectiveness Committee, is that there’s much more work to be done here, and a lot of that upfront work is determining what kind of data we can really have access to and what sustainable purchasing looks like.

So as part of our initiatives for [the 2022 fiscal year], we’ve developed a socially responsible purchasing program and that encompasses our supplier inclusion. Now it’s added into other layers: sustainability and surplus. Our surplus program has been, I think, under-advertised, but [University Sustainability Officer] Bo Solomon has certainly been on it for quite a few years now. Annually we avoid cost of about $150,000 in disposal, and we divert approximately 30 tons from landfills. We’re broadening our sustainability impact. Now we’re doing purchasing assessments and developing what we call a sustainable procurement goal for FY 22. Basically, what it’s going to boil down to is us figuring out what type of data constitute sustainable purchasing and how much we have access to that.

On how their jobs evolved in terms of including sustainability:

Greenberger: When reflecting on my experiences in practice as an architect and then being part of the leadership of the City under Mayor Michael Nutter, sustainability has gone from being a discrete topic to being a universal topic — meaning it is part of pretty much everything we do. And the more we understand it in those terms, the better off we’re going to be in the long run. I’ve learned, particularly through my time in government, that there is not one single problem out there that gets to be solved with one answer. To have more comprehensive answers, we must spend a lot more time communicating with each other about the interrelated things we do. I think that’s the greatest revelation I’d come to the last decade about sustainability issues.

Liberati: I think there’s a much more integrated conversation going on across Drexel over the last several years about how we approach not just sustainability, but some areas where, as a University, we have an opportunity for real impact. We work with each other because, in the end, no single one of us can deliver everything.

I’ve been here now seven years, and as I’ve watched and understood how students evaluate some of our programming, seven years ago it was more weighted towards the quality of food. Over time, what I’ve seen that shift to include things like sustainability and other economic impact initiatives and how people think about and evaluate the businesses. And obviously, the quality of food and the service delivery continues to be very important.

Jones: I’ve been engaged and interested in sustainable practices long before I started in procurement. I was not nearly as educated as our students are today! But Drexel gives me the opportunity to make a greater impact on sustainability. I would say the thing that I’m most impressed by is the extraordinary work of the Climate & Sustainability Working group.Part of that is Drexel submitting our first Sustainability Tracking Assessment and Rating System (STARS) report with what I would consider a very respectable bronze rating and feeling pretty confident that a silver rating for 2022 is attainable.

On what they’re most proud about their work with sustainability:

Greenberger: The thing that I feel best about comes from the work of the task force that Julie just referenced, which has elevated this to a very visible level, and that has showed up in my world where we are talking constantly now about what we can do to run our buildings more efficiently, to use less energy and to be smarter about everything we do.

I admit that we are at the beginning. One of the nice things about that the bronze listing was the ability, as July suggested, to go to STARS with what we do right now and learn about what we can do going forward. A lot of things we’re doing make a lot of sense. We must file a report with the City of Philadelphia as a major property manager to benchmark our energy consumption, and our current benchmarking suggests that we are running about 30% more efficiently than the average of all the people in Philadelphia who must benchmark. That’s a good start. We must do better because we’ve got old buildings and old systems.

Liberati: As we roll things out, you find some things worked and some things didn’t, and some things need to be tweaked. I’ve been really pleased with my team and everybody who’s working on this to problem-solve when it comes to the things that we’re doing. As an example, one of our key initiatives has been trying to stop using single-use items for takeaway food at the Handschumacher Dining Center, also known as the Hans. We tried one solution and we found that when we give reusable containers out, students take them back to their residences and don’t always bring them back. You have to ask yourself if creating something is impactful. To address this, we purchased a unit where students can return the reusable containers that is located at North Side Dining Terrace, which is closer to the residence halls. Early data suggests that this is improving the return rate on the reusable containers. We’re taking each thing, trying it out, seeing how it works, assessing the results and then tweaking it again and again as we collect feedback. In terms of a model of how we’re going to create and be impactful with change long-term, I feel good that we’re starting to build a system that we think will work.

We’re also continuing to have our programming align with the academic mission of the University, because where there’s significant overlap, we can learn a lot. Last spring, we did an interdisciplinary case competition with students about how Drexel Business Services and Aramark can best support student safety during COVID-19 while minimizing the use of plastics. That was a really good first step and we got some great ideas about how we can communicate and think a little bit differently about some of our practices.

Jones: The thing that I’m most proud of is something I’m proud of on behalf of Drexel because other than being a champion, I’ve had very little to do with it. The Institutional Effectiveness Committee on Sustainability that was established here a couple of years ago came out of a University-wide call to talk about things that we think Drexel is missing or could do better. That committee was led by [Vice President, Finance/CFO] Lisa Miller of the Academy of Natural Sciences; all of this extraordinary work that’s happening now was born of that committee, and it’s leading to the creation of a Drexel Office of Sustainability, which will have a physical location and will gather and plan all of that great work that has been done around our campus.

I’m also proud of educating myself on these topics professionally and then trying to put policies and practices in place that we have been lacking. A couple years ago, after conversations about this type of work, I researched and found a school that really does this the best, which is Arizona State University, and have a great relationship with a wonderful vice president out there who has shared a lot of valuable information.

On what they’re working on to support Drexel’s future sustainability efforts:

Greenberger: As I said before, our biggest goal relates to our energy usage and our ability to be carbon neutral. Lots of institutions are making pledges about carbon neutrality, and none of that stuff is easy and nobody is sure of where they’re going and how they’re getting there. Carbon neutrality at an institutional level can be achieved completely by buying renewable energy credits. What that means is you can pay money that would be used to buy or enable there to be more extensive wind and solar farms, for example, many of which will not be immediately in this area. It’s a good thing if you did that, but it can’t be the only way we’re doing this. We have to reform our own house as well.

We’ve been looking at our systems throughout our buildings, which range from sophisticated and new to antiquated and not new at all. The cost of upgrading those systems is high and disruptive. Potentially, we batted around numbers in our own shop anywhere from $50 to $100 million in improvements that we would like to see me to our system infrastructure. The good news is that there are a lot of firms out there — control firms, energy supply firms, HVAC firms — that are perfectly happy to either loan you money at decent rates or finance the overhaul of systems by themselves and have the energy savings that come with that pay for those costs. In the next year, probably even in a shorter period than that, we’re going to at least embark on such a project, have it defined, see whether it works on paper, and if it does, try to implement it and test it and see what happens.

We’re also spending a lot of time and attention on control systems, old air handlers, and chillers and boilers. There’s also staffing and the ability to monitor these things properly to make adjustments so that our systems are running as efficiently as we can relative to the conditions that are out there on a given day.

Jones: With carbon neutrality being the goal, there are things that we can do. For example, when we book flights, we could pay additional fees to offset that. For my group, we’re looking at our suppliers and our partners and talking about climate-friendly procurement with them. Again, my immediate focus is really compiling data and trying to see what type of data is available. What do we need to be tracking differently? And then what are best practices in procurement and implementing that across the University?

We also must focus on individual groups or departments and what we all can do. As a result of the pandemic and hybrid working model, my team gave back half of our physical space to reduce our footprint. There are still some accounts payable functions that can’t be fully electronic, but we’re basically almost fully electronic. And I’ll tell you, during one of my first times back in the office, I saw all these papers on my desk and I thought, “I lived without this for 18 months. What could it have possibly been that was so important that it had to be printed out?” Now there isn’t even a scrap of paper on my desk.

Liberati: In the near term, we are looking at anywhere we have single-use plastics still that exists within the infrastructure of any of our partners and trying to figure out how we eliminate them from the system. At the Urban Eatery, we recently switched to compostable utensils as a step towards this goal.

I think the other opportunity that may be a little bit unique to Business Services is looking at food waste and trying to think about how we continue to provide good amounts of food at the quality that people would expect out of the dining program, but trying to minimize where we might have waste anywhere we can.

The last thing is, like Julie said, we think about our sourcing, especially with our third-party partnerships. We work closely with Julie and her team to think about continuing to drive our partners to the community and businesses that are local, and continuing to reduce the amount of time and travel that our supplies take getting here to us to campus.

On challenges their teams face when implementing sustainability practices on campus:

Greenberger: I’ll give a few examples to show you the complexity of the problem. One thing is, what should we be doing to promote access to campus via mass transit over cars? At this point of the COVID-19 pandemic, transit is slowly coming back, and Don and I recently had a conversation about parking, like whether we should change the cost of parking or change other systems to create incentives to use mass transit. Another COVID-related item is about ventilation and air. There is an increase demand for outside air in the spaces we live inside. All mechanical systems are based on the premise that you have some outside air mixed with recirculated air inside at your conditioning, but too much requires massive amounts of energy. And frankly, the systems are not designed to handle it anyway. So, again, there are numerous sort of contradictions in the system that we need to be open about and discuss thoroughly and decide where we — not simply as our systems, but as a community — are willing to put our money where our mouth is.

Jones: Education is a challenge both for my team and the community. Some of these larger facilities and energy-related topics are well covered, but when you start talking about sustainable purchasing, there must be some education around that. Another challenge is going to be financial implications and impact.

On what they’ve learned when pushing for sustainability changes at Drexel:

Greenberger: For me, it’s these consequential contradictions within systems that continually pop up. You thought you were going down that path and it turns out that path is either not as easy or not as effective or costs far more money than you have. We must reckon with these decisions about how to balance that with the goals that we have.

The good news is the thing that’s not a surprise, which is that there’s a real personal impetus for our faculty, staff and students behind figuring out what the right thing is and doing it. If there’s more appreciation for the complexities of getting there, the better off we’re all going to be.

Liberati: You learn a lot along the way. For example, about two years ago, we put a digester down in the Hans to basically turn food into liquid waste, and I learned so much during that process. It’s good when you learn a lot about how things work and that you are then able to apply that along the way. I think there’s a ton of opportunity if there’s a lot of openness to trying to figure out what those opportunities are and how we can implement them.

Jones: It’s been a constant evolution of learning for me. I was surprised at how many opportunities there are to incorporate sustainable purchasing practices, and I continue to be surprised, and I’ve also been pleasantly surprised at how much we were already doing around the campus and how much interest and engagement there was already before things were more formally organized. The learning will continue. I’m encouraged by these conversations and the interest of the campus.

On addressing resistance to bringing sustainable business practices to higher education:

Liberati: We really haven’t had any, but I have to bring up education and communication. If we give out reusable bags or reusable cups, how do we help everyone understand how and why to use them? It’s about trying to find the balance of putting things out and encouraging participation and continuing to reinforce it over time.

Greenberger: I would only offer that if there’s any place that you ought to encounter lesser resistance, it probably is in an institution of higher education.

Jones: We can implement mandates when configuring our travel and expense software. We could mandate that when anyone books air travel, they pay that fee for the offset. But what’s the University’s tolerance for it? And it does come down to individual departments trying to work within a budget that is already challenged, so how does the University balance and fund that?

And, like Allen said, we are an institution of higher education with a long history of innovation, community impact and environmental awareness. And, you know, it’s the right thing to do, and it’s the necessary thing to do for our future.

On advice for individuals interested in campus sustainability:

Liberati: I would encourage anyone to reach out. You can reach out to me personally. You can go to the Business Services website and see what we do. But if you have ideas or things that you would like to work on, we’re open to trying to figure out how we can work together to have an impact.

Jones: Get involved. There are committees that have already been developed and will continue to evolve. From a purchasing standpoint, we can do department audits to help you look at your spending habits. We’re developing a print policy. So, you know, if we could all be supportive of that, that’d be great, because, I already have trepidation about reaching out and telling people that they must give me back their personal printers.

Climate and Sustainability has a wonderful website. Procurement has a socially responsible purchasing website that links out to that, and features stories and ways to get involved.

Greenberger: Don and Julie said exactly the right things and I certainly agree. Getting involved is critical. We have ideas about how things ought to go, but we don’t have all the ideas, and we may be wrong in some instances. There’s a lot of smart people here. We welcome your input. We should take advantage of the intelligence that exists in a place like this to make the best possible decisions that we can. So yes, I would encourage you to speak up, be part of organizations and make your feelings known and do it in a respectful way, as I know we’re all capable of.