GW Ecosystems Enhancement Strategy Unveiled

The university commits to reviewing its impact on ecosystems locally, regionally and globally and identifying ways to improve them.

November 7, 2012

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On Earth Day earlier this year, the George Washington University announced a series of goals to improve ecosystems affected by its footprint. Today, the university is releasing the GW Ecosystems Enhancement Strategy, which describes how the university will enhance the ecosystems on its campus, in the region and around the world.

Because ecosystems reach across environmental and social issues such as climate change, water scarcity and access to natural resources, GW is using an ecosystems services framework to address its sustainability goals related to the operations and administration of the university. Ecosystems services are the benefits that people obtain from their natural environment – things such as clean drinking water, crop pollination and outdoor recreation.

“As an institution GW is taking an honest look at its interaction with the system of plants, animals, soil and water that provide us with air to breathe, food to eat and places to enjoy,” said Meghan Chapple-Brown, director of GW’s Office of Sustainability. “We are on an ambitious journey. GW will strive to uncover innovations to enhance ecosystem services in a way that mitigates risk and generates long-term value for the university and the planet. We don’t yet have all the answers, but we are exploring options to be a healthy part of local and global ecosystems.”

The strategy has six main focus areas: strengthen habitat and optimize natural space; promote healthy air and climate; foster clean and abundant fresh water; support sustainable food production systems; optimize waste decomposition and treatment; and encourage a natural urban environment that helps enhance physical, mental and social well-being. Under each focus area, GW lists long-term and short-term targets to help it create its vision for urban sustainability. The Office of Sustainability is forming working groups to develop action plans to meet its goals.

“The Ecosystems Enhancement Strategy provides an overarching framework for possible future action plans such as a zero-waste plan, a sustainable food plan or a plan for sustainability in academics and curriculum,” said Ms. Chapple-Brown.

As GW continues its progress, it will have an opportunity to adjust long-term targets according to technological, policy and market shifts, as well as outline the next short-term step toward reaching a target. The university will also conduct additional research and gather further input from key stakeholders to ensure GW is utilizing best practices to reach its goals.

GW has specifically committed to enhancing the biological richness of the campus and will start by drafting guidelines for habitat-friendly outdoor spaces.

“The university is attempting to integrate the way we manage our grounds while enhancing GW's natural habitat and ensuring better stewardship of the local ecosystems,” said Jim Schrote, director of facilities management and member of the Sustainable Grounds Working Group.

The university has also pledged to source products that reduce the impact on biodiversity, climate and water, and sustainable procurement strategies will be developed for paper, electronics and water by 2015. A sustainable paper procurement initiative is already underway.

As a large urban university, GW purchases a significant volume of products to support its faculty, staff and student community. Sourcing raw material inputs, processing and manufacturing paper and transporting it to GW impacts natural, human and economic capital on a global scale.

The Procurement Office and the Office of Sustainability have partnered to develop a strategy to influence more eco-friendly paper consumption at the university. These two offices are encouraging the university community to switch to copy and printer paper that contains a minimum of 30 percent recycled content for most everyday uses. The two offices have created a balanced scorecard tool for paper purchasing that provides users with additional information on environmental and social characteristics of paper processing so that the purchase decision can be made on sustainability attributes in addition to traditionally used price and quality dimensions. The scorecard evaluates paper products by economic, environmental and social factors, such as meeting fair labor standards.

“An ecosystems services approach to business planning and decision-making processes enables leaders to consider the true value of natural assets within the context of human activity,” said Ridhima Kapur, research associate for University Sustainability Initiatives. “This concept is a relatively recent one, and GW is among a pioneering group of organizations globally to adopt this approach to sustainability.”

For GW employees considering changing their office’s paper product, the tool provides the ability to compare their current copy paper with up to two alternatives. Based on average usage for that office, the tool provides both a graphical and text representation of the resource reduction and financial impacts of moving from one product to another. The tool is already having an impact at GW.

Ashley Rollins, special assistant and office manager in the Office of the Executive Vice President and Treasurer, used the scorecard when she switched her office to 100 percent recycled copy paper.

“It helped me to compare options based on various factors, and I discovered a win-win for our office and the environment,” she said.

Donna Ginter, the director of procurement, said the balanced scorecard could be used in other procurement processes and her office will work with the Office of Sustainability over the next year to ensure the university looks at the full lifecycle of a product prior to making a contractual award.

“This is a very useful tool for us as we make procurement decisions,” said Ms. Ginter. “We can finally see an item’s total impact on society from cradle to grave.”

GW has also committed to increasing food sustainability by working with on-campus vendors to promote green practices and to increase the transparency of the university’s food sources. Other commitments include increasing recycling to 50 percent by 2017, reducing litter on campus and becoming a zero-waste campus in the long term. The university is also pledging to connect the GW community to local natural areas through service projects and field trips and to develop a framework for integrating sustainability trends and issues into evaluation of strategic investment opportunities and risks.

While the Office of Sustainability has spearheaded the effort to create the GW Ecosystems Enhancement Strategy, Ms. Chapple-Brown said numerous offices from across the university have been integral to creating the specific goals and strategies including Transportation & Parking Services, Facilities Services and the Center for Civic Engagement. GW students, faculty and outside experts such as Casey Trees and Potomac Riverkeeper have contributed to the effort.

“The GW Office of Sustainability intends to expand and deepen its stakeholder engagement and to be as transparent as possible on progress and challenges in reaching the sustainability goals,” said Ms. Chapple-Brown.