On a drizzly Friday last week, Duke set the world record for the largest cardboard box structure. Fort Duke, as it came to be known, was a clever illustration of the large volume of waste Duke students generate and was part of a push to make sustainability efforts on campus more visible. Events like Fort Duke are laudable, and they reflect the importance of giving students opportunities to learn more about social and environmental responsibility. As Duke tries to achieve carbon neutrality by 2024, however, we caution against initiatives that favor publicity over impact.
Duke’s pledge to become carbon neutral by 2024 is a good example of how the University has worked to combine a public relations campaign with projects to achieve lasting sustainability. The two are not mutually exclusive, but we question whether some of the University’s past sustainability projects—such as its recent purchase of two hybrid buses—are the most cost-effective methods for achieving our carbon neutrality goals. Other actions, like installing trash compactors on the Bryan Center plaza, might encourage sustainable behavior on campus, but there are currently not enough of them to make a substantial impact.
Duke should remain committed to real, meaningful action to promote sustainability. To that end, Duke’s administration should communicate more frequently with students about the University’s progress in meeting its carbon neutrality goals. The Climate Action Plan, which was compiled in 2009, addresses Duke’s current carbon footprint. Since then, there have been administrative assurances that Duke is on track to become carbon neutral in 2024, but administrators have not pointed to any numbers to support that claim.
Duke has worked to employ sustainable building practices in its infrastructure projects. We applaud Duke’s progress on this front. Duke has 26 LEED certified buildings and two hybrid buses. The University has also switched the East Campus and West Campus steam plants from coal to cleaner natural gas. It remains unclear, however, how sustainability will feature in the West Union renovations. The West Union construction project represents a rare opportunity to work from a clean slate. Keeping sustainability in mind as the University proceeds with the West Union renovations is crucial. As of 2003, Duke policy requires new projects to be designed with the goal of obtaining LEED certification.
Finally, Duke should better integrate sustainability into campus life. Although they may seem minor, small improvements, such as increasing the quantity and visibility of recycling bins, can make a significant difference in student behavior. Many students still remain unaware of where recycling bins are on campus. Heating units in some dormitory common rooms and apartments remain on even during warm seasons or breaks. Updating the policies regulating their use could cut emissions and energy costs. Providing easy access to alternative transportation methods like biking represents another simple way to help students incorporate sustainable practices into their daily lives. Duke should also work to better integrate discussions about sustainability into the curriculum.
Duke has emphasized individual choices that lead to sustainability. Although these are important, we encourage University officials to keep environmental responsibility in mind as they pursue major projects and update the community on their progress towards their ambitious sustainability goals.