Policies, companies, restaurants, and homes are all ‘going green.’ Universities are no exception to the new wave of environmental consciousness. In fact, students at college campuses around the world come up with some of the most innovative and creative ‘green’ initiatives to lower their schools’ carbon footprints, increase recycling, and spread awareness.

The oldest national environmental organization, the Sierra Club, compiles a list of the top most sustainable schools in America every year. This year’s winners will be hard to beat as campuses come closer and closer to their carbon neutral goals. Here are the top five greenest universities from this year’s competition, and some of the initiatives that make them the coolest schools:

#5 Cornell University
Offers 340 sustainability classes
25% decrease in GG emissions over 2 years
35-acre botanical garden
100-acre arboretum

#4 University of California, Davis
60% of waste is diverted
Holds weekly on-campus farmers markets
Agricultural-education powerhouse
America’s biggest planned zero-net-energy community

#3 University of California, Irvine
19-megawatt cogeneration facility
Saves 20 million kWh per year since 2009
16-acre botanical garden
LEED Silver minimum requirement for buildings

#2 Dickinson College
Collects grease from restaurants for biodiesel
Uses wind power to offset all electrical needs
Student-grown produce served at cafeterias
Solar panels power school’s irrigation

#1 University of Connecticut
Offers 600+ sustainability courses
15% decrease in water use since 2005
30% of meals are vegetarian
Retrofitted buildings prevent 2,640 tons of CO2 emission

While the schools come in different shapes and sizes, and have varying levels of LEED certification, GG emissions, and waste profiles, all of the universities on the Sierra Club’s list share common projects and areas of focus for sustainability. These areas can serve as checkpoints for all college campuses aiming for greener footprints.

Sustainable Areas of Focus
· Energy efficient building design
· Renewable energy
· Water re-use
· Locally produced food
· Waste disposal
· Green transport
· Sustainability curriculum
· Awareness raising events
Students in other countries are engaging in equally innovative sustainability projects. The International Sustainable Campus Network (ISCN) features some of the most pioneering ideas circulating around international campuses with state of the art technologies and comprehensive sustainability programs. The ISCN also holds a Sustainability Competition with four award categories: building, campus, integration, and student leadership. The 2013 Winners are as follows:

Excellence in Building: University of Gothenburg, Sweden
The Energy Saving Project at the Laboratory of Experimental Biomedicine overcame infrastructural challenges and air quality requirements in the building with the highest consumption of energy on campus, and achieved 25% energy reduction.

Excellence in Campus: Lappeenranta University of Technology, Finland
The Green Campus Project involving comprehensive innovations in renewable energy technologies, energy storage technologies, environmental management systems, and energy efficient buildings.

Excellence in Integration: Chatham University, PA USA
The Zero Net Carbon Emissions Project is the first fully aligned program in the word that integrates sustainable development, living, and learning. While the private institution has expanded footage by 36%, increased enrollment by another 45%, it has managed to reduce its greenhouse gas net emissions by 68% since 2007.

Excellence in Student Leadership: Zhejiang University, China
The Green Truth Program integrated creative student energy and mobilized sustainability efforts across the campus. Now the university holds science and technology competitions, new media programs, survey projects, and Green Chess events.

The potential to curb climate change and help alleviate social and environmental injustices lies in the hands of young, passionate, and resourceful college students entering the work force today. Amongst the hundreds of thousands of college graduates there will be leaders, innovators, and educators leading society into a more sustainable future.

The next generation of policy makers and executives has the ability to pave the way with more cohesive sustainable legislation; scientists and engineers can invent new green technology to harness renewable energy sources; passionate teachers can instill ethical and sustainable values in younger generations; and activists will continue to challenge systems and institutions, allowing for awareness and evaluation of areas that still need improvement. Students today have all of the resources to make a change. In the words of the famous Jesuit Ignatius of Loyola, it is our time “to go forth and set the world on fire.”

– Gloria Kostadinova

Sources: Top Universities, Sierra