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University Fuels Sustainability With Cafeterias Left Over Cooking Oil

By Ryan Smith
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For the past decade, Emory University’s 2005 Strategic Plan has implemented a healthy, safe and environmentally sustainable campus that 'enhances individual health and community well-being and educates the leaders of a sustainable future.' While the road to sustainable leadership has been a long one, Emory made a profound change, earning its place as eighth “Greenest University” in the country according to BestColleges.com. But, how did they do it?

Starting with the student's commute, Emory instated a shuttle option, run on a biofuel blend made from used cooking oil from the campus cafeteria, an initiative that prevented 1 million car trips from occurring last year alone.


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Envision a healthy, safe and environmentally sustainable campus that enhances individual health and community well-being and educates the leaders of a sustainable future. That is the vision created by Emory University’s 2005 Strategic Plan, which the school has been working to implement over the past decade. I don’t think anyone would say Emory has fully realized its vision; it is a long journey, and there are miles to go. Still, the transformation of the campus has been profound, leading recently to the naming of Emory as the eighth “Greenest University” in the country by BestColleges.com.

One of the greatest sustainability challenges at Emory is car traffic, with negative environmental, social and public health impacts. In 2005, the only mass transit options to campus were limited MARTA bus routes. Today, those are augmented by a robust university shuttle bus system that runs on a biofuel blend made from used cooking oil from campus cafeterias. What once had been handled as a waste is now a fuel source used to run a private transit system that eliminated more than a million car trips last year. Whether walking, biking, carpooling or taking transit, currently, more than 50 percent of Emory’s students, faculty and staff commute to campus without getting in a car alone.

A similar closed loop from waste to resource is Emory’s transition from sending tons of food waste and animal bedding to landfills a decade ago; now, the university composts that organic material. That compost is put to use on campus landscaping and educational food gardens. Zero-landfill-waste academic buildings and events are increasing on campus, and construction waste recycling has topped 95 percent for recent building projects. The vision of a healthy and sustainable campus also includes the goal to procure 75 percent local or sustainable food. It has led to an overhaul of Emory’s dining program to offer more foods that are regionally grown, humanely raised, organic and fair trade-certified.

One of the most dramatic transformations at Emory is the new WaterHub — an on-site water recycling system that uses ecological systems to reclaim wastewater for heating, cooling and toilet-flushing. The first system of its kind installed in the U.S., it supplies nearly 40 percent of campus water needs. It hits the trifecta of social, environmental and economic sustainability by relieving an overburdened municipal system that has a history of sewer overflows, saves Emory money over time, reduces campus use of potable water by up to 400,000 gallons per day, and provides a living laboratory for research and teaching that merges academics with campus operations.

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