Gompei the Goat poses behind a white bike with "Gompei's Gears" written on it in red lettering.

WPI Earns Gold Star Sustainability Rating

WPI is now included among an elite group of schools that define the standard in sustainability-related achievement
June 05, 2017

The Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education recently awarded WPI a gold rating in its Sustainability, Tracking, Assessment, and Rating System (STARS). The rating is a step up from the silver rating WPI earned two years ago and places WPI in a category of select schools that are achieving stellar results with sustainability efforts.

Of the 415 participants, one school received a platinum rating, 117 received gold, 201 received silver, 67 received bronze, and 29 received reporter.

After years of working steadily to improve WPI’s already solid sustainability rating, the university made its first STARS submission two years ago and received a praise-worthy silver rating. “WPI has a real commitment to sustainability,” says John Orr, director of sustainability and professor emeritus of electrical and computer engineering. “Silver was good,” he says, “but we always want to do better.”

John Orr

The STARS system is a self-reported, transparent process with checks and balances built in so schools’ efforts, while diverse, are still comparable. It also offers the full reports online (including both WPI reports), so schools may compare their activities with those of other schools if they wish. “It’s good to see where you stand, and for the motivational aspect,” says Orr. Comparing WPI’s scores to other scores gives an idea of why schools earn top rankings, notes what they are doing especially well, and helps participating schools glean good ideas.

“Now that we have earned a gold ranking, we are among an elite group of schools that define the standard in sustainability-related achievement,” says Liz Tomaszewski, associate director of sustainability. “It sets the stage to advance future goals—what can we do to further improve operations, engagement, academics, and research at WPI over the next few years that will result in cleaner air and energy and a better quality of life for everyone.”

One of the more interesting results, according to Orr, was that WPI was very highly ranked in research related to sustainability, earning 16 of a possible 18 points. He notes that the many sustainability researchers at WPI really made an impact. The Center for Resource, Recovery, and Recycling (CR3) is a major factor, but so are the many other projects, including battery recycling, basic science research in electrochemistry, in fuels, and in civil and architectural engineering building materials, as well as oil spill research in fire protection.

When all the sustainability information is gathered, it’s easy to see why WPI scored high, says Orr. “One of the values of STARS is that it motivates us to make the effort to gather the information on sustainability-related topics that range from recycling to the working conditions of our employees and our community outreach.” So Orr and Tomaszewski gathered data on the social justice aspect of sustainability, demonstrating that WPI ranks high on measures such as our compensation for staff and all categories of faculty.

Orr expressed regret that the STARS scoring system does not capture the major contributions to sustainability education and to community outreach of our global IQP program but he noted that the system must be designed to apply equitably to all types of institutions. “There was always an effort to conserve resources in operations and address human needs with technology through our academic programs,” says Tomaszewski. In fact, IQPs bear a lot of fruitful results that directly improve sustainability on campus. The Gompei’s Gears Bike Share program is one such example of an IQP idea that was implemented and is now being run by the Student Green Team. “That is something the school should be proud of,” says Orr.

Liz Tomaszewski

Orr sees sustainability as a global effort and one that considers more than just the obvious paths. WPI has embraced the three-pronged definition of sustainability as including environmental stewardship, social justice, and economic security for everyone. He likes the quote, “It’s fine to save the planet, but we don’t want to do that while people are starving.”  He also notes that it is necessary to consider that there are other living beings besides humans on the planet who have a great impact on global systems. So sustainability is not just about recycling yogurt containers or looking for ways to cut back on water usage (although both are necessary). “Sustainability is that balance among everything,” he says.

Published reports and effective policies are essential to the STARS ratings, but Orr says WPI will not implement a new policy without a real reason. For instance, in the areas of green purchasing, WPI can increase awareness about purchasing supplies that are packaged with less waste, but it is not going to mandate it.  And Orr says that across the campus he sees much support and no opposition to the sustainability efforts, but that doesn’t mean everyone will immediately change their habits. “Everybody is busy,” says Orr. “Our job is to make it easier.”

That means popular initiatives like Gompei’s Gears and the recharging stations for electric cars make it easier for faculty, staff, and students to do the right thing, and it also gives them access to some useful transportation options.

Regarding areas in need of improvement, Orr says WPI’s water usage is rising, not going down as hoped. The cause could be anything from leaking pipes to more students and more buildings, but Orr says the university is looking at the root causes. Some areas of water waste have already been corrected.

And although WPI’s average is similar to the national average of the total volume of recyclables (at about 30 percent of total volume being recycled), Orr says WPI could do better. Single-stream recycling introduced a couple of years ago is making it easier for people on campus to recycle; he says the community understands the value in aiming for a higher goal.

"...that is our greatest strength; the diversity of cultures at WPI allows the best ideas to become great actions so that our campus can be among the top leaders in sustainability.” -Liz Tomaszewski

The STARS report also shows gaps in WPI’s efforts. One of those gaps is the lack of understanding of the WPI community’s level of sustainability knowledge. This stimulated development to the recent Sustainability Literacy Survey provided good information on where the gaps in community knowledge exist. Now the Sustainability Office has good information on where to focus its efforts.

Being a residential university community brings a distinct approach to sustainability. “What makes it challenging is that our students come from such diverse backgrounds,” says Tomaszewski, "from Europe and Africa and Asia; Canada, California, and Vermont; Wellesley and Worcester. And they all have different perspectives on, and approaches to, how to take care of the earth and the life on it. For example, some students have great ideas on how to improve recycling, while others focus on minimizing waste. And that is our greatest strength; the diversity of cultures at WPI allows the best ideas to become great actions so that our campus can be among the top leaders in sustainability.”

- By Julia Quinn-Szcesuil