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USC earns silver for being green on national sustainability report card

The university underwent a rigorous evaluation by STARS, the nation’s sustainability rating system for colleges and universities, with the results highlighting successes in community partnerships and biodiversity.

Solar panels atop Galen Center at USC
Solar panels atop Galen Center are a big step in USC’s move toward sustainability. (USC Photo/Gus Ruelas)

USC earned a silver star on its first sustainability report card after a yearlong assessment of the university’s environmental footprint in water and energy consumption, supply chain and procurement practices, and vehicle trips.

This was the first time the university participated in a sustainability review using STARS, the Sustainability Tracking, Assessment & Rating System. STARS measures and encourages sustainability in higher education by taking an inventory of a university’s environmental actions. More than a thousand higher ed institutions use the STARS system, and more than half of those have earned a rating. About a quarter have received a silver star.

“A silver rating is higher than we were initially expecting and reflects the hard work that many members of our community have put in over the last few years,” said Mick Dalrymple, USC’s chief sustainability officer. “It also reflects the tireless efforts of our many campus partners who provided the necessary data for our STARS assessment.”

STARS provides a framework for colleges and universities to compare their sustainability efforts and track their improvements. The program is run by the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE), an industry organization that sets benchmarks for sustainability efforts by colleges and universities.

To earn a rating, institutions report their own data, which is verified and examined by an AASHE STARS committee. After the review, the final report and the data supplied by the institution are made publicly available.

In conducting its first STARS review, USC joins sustainability leaders like Arizona State University, Columbia University, Cornell University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Princeton University, Stanford University and the University of California system — all of which conduct STARS assessments regularly.

Gathering USC’s sustainability data proves a universitywide effort

This first STARS report covers the university’s practices from 2015 through 2020 and comes after a nearly yearlong, painstaking data collection and reporting effort. The Office of Sustainability measured, counted and compiled data relevant to academics, engagement, operations, planning/administration and innovation.

More than a thousand data points were collected across the university with support from stakeholders including Athletics, Facilities Planning & Management, Hospitality, the Presidential Working Group on Sustainability, University Relations and the USC Research Council. In all, over a hundred divisions and departments pitched in.

“Participating in STARS is an essential ingredient in USC becoming a champion of sustainability,” said Dan Mazmanian, chair of the Presidential Working Group on Sustainable Education, Research and Operations. “Through STARS, we will be judged by our successes and shortcomings, creativity and transparency, all of which are key in our modeling for the future entrepreneurs, business, nonprofit, artistic and governing leaders who are the pride of our university.”

Celebrating the university’s sustainability heavy hitters

The STARS assessment allows the university to highlight three of its most notable accomplishments. For USC, those included:

  • A successful zero waste program at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, which achieved zero waste status in 2017 with 90% or more of its waste diverted from landfills.
  • The USC Center for Sustainability Solutions’ research, which advises policies and solutions to Southern California’s most pressing environmental problems. The center aims to reduce carbon dioxide reductions and improve climate adaptation at USC by switching to renewable energy sources — for example, the solar panels that crown the Galen Center. It also looks for opportunities to reduce pollution and waste in transportation and water.
  • The Urban Trees Initiative — a university expert and student partnership with the city of Los Angeles — was noted for its potential to improve health and quality of life for many high-poverty neighborhoods that have few trees. The scientists and L.A. officials behind the initiative hope to grow an urban forest to provide shade, which has been shown to reduce health risks associated with air pollution and heat, as well as benefits for overall well-being — including a reduction in teen aggression, according to a USC study.

USC’s STARS assessment highlights top performers

USC scored all available points in community partnerships that the university is building to support long-term sustainability efforts that benefit underrepresented groups and vulnerable populations. The university’s public policy advocacy also received the highest possible score after showing top administrative endorsement of proactive sustainability campaigns and legislation.

Thanks partly to carefully tracked purchasing of ethically produced and sustainable products, USC Hospitality helped the university score twice the average percentage of available points for food and beverages.

USC also handily beat the average for points in biodiversity, a score boosted by the work of the USC Wrigley Institute for Environmental Studies at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences. The institute’s home base is Catalina Island, where USC researchers have tested new sustainability ideas, including for aquaponics — sustainable fish and hydroponic plant farming — and the potential for growing kelp for biofuel. USC biologists also monitor and study island and marine life to gauge the biological and ecological health of the Southern California coast.

Sustainability report card reveals opportunities for improvement at USC

Relatively low scores in three areas give the Office of Sustainability clear targets for improvement.

Sustainable procurement — which includes a preference for recycled and bio-based content, carbon neutral products and an intent to support disadvantaged businesses, among other criteria — is an area for USC to build upon. Because of a lack of data from the years prior to 2019, USC couldn’t demonstrate an improvement in waste diversion over time.

USC also will need to upgrade its policies to become competitive in sustainable building design and construction. The university is already working on this, as the Dr. Allan and Charlotte Ginsburg Human-Centered Computation Hall is designed to earn an elite LEED certification for green construction and design when it opens in 2023 to USC Viterbi School of Engineering students and faculty.

The full findings from the STARS report — and the data that USC submitted — are now publicly available on the AASHE website.

USC sustainability report card: A starting point on the way to 2028

The STARS assessment is a key checkpoint on the way to USC’s 2028 Sustainability Plan, which will be released next year. Its goals will include an expansion of sustainability curriculum and research, the elimination of single-use nonessential plastics, zero waste and greater engagement of the university community in sustainable practices.

Furthermore, this initial assessment creates a benchmark for USC to measure all future progress against. The USC Office of Sustainability will use the report to share feedback with university partners and its departments to make USC a greener university with a smaller environmental footprint.

“This is a starting point,” Dalrymple said. “We are in the process of setting much more lofty goals for achieving sustainability across our institution and will continue to work towards new and innovative ways to achieve those goals.”

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