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Sustainability at Penn State a priority in teaching, research and operations

Sustainability is a big priority at Penn State, and in the forty-five years since the University began observing Earth Day, much progress has been made toward becoming a community that lives, learns, and leads with an eye to the future.
April 27, 2015

Earth Week 2015 (April 20-24) marked Penn State's 45th annual observance of Earth Day, a worldwide celebration of support for the protection of the environment. Today, Penn State as an institution has made sustainability an everyday priority—and its progress over the years has been impressive.

— 400+ faculty engaged in sustainability-related research

Penn State faculty are working to solve critical issues like how to feed a growing population, protect crops with nontoxic solutionsensure biodiversity, and much more. The research conducted by the University's top-notch faculty represents 70 percent of all academic departments.

— 300 sustainability-related courses offered

Whether it's the College of Agricultural Sciences' Sustainable Agricultural Science and Policy; the Smeal College of Business' Socially Responsible, Sustainable, and Ethical Business Practice; or the many hundreds of other courses across the University, students can pursue their interest in sustainability through the lens of their chosen disciplines. 

"Our students are the future generation of leaders, and so it's important for us to help them to both promote sustainability and to become advocates and change agents in their own right."

-- Lori Bechtel-Wherry, chancellor and dean, Penn State Altoona

Some courses even include an engaged scholarship component through the Penn State Sustainability Institute's Sustainable Communities Collaborative, which put students to work on real-world projects in the community. In addition, there are a number of degree programs and minors that can prepare students for relevant careers. 

— 88 percent of students walk, bike or bus -- to, from and on campus at University Park

The University Park campus and the surrounding  State College community are designated Bicycle Friendly communities. To provide further biking convenience, the Office of Physical Plant and Penn State Transportation Services have installed several bicycle repair stations across campus. In addition, the Centre Area Transportation Authority provides bus services across campus and the community.

— 59 student sustainability organizations at University Park

Across Penn State, motivated change agents are building and leading organizations like the Advanced Vehicle Technologies (AVT) team, Eco-Action, Fair Trade Penn State, Net Impact, and many more. These students are helping to make a difference in our world. 

"Sustainability will be an important peg on which we hang the expansion of experiential learning at Penn State, encouraging our students to positively impact the communities they touch."

— Damon Sims, vice president, Student Affairs

— 56 percent of solid waste diverted from landfill

Penn State is committed to closing the loop on its solid waste through a program called möbius. In nearly every building on the University Park campus, there are bins for mixed paper, metal, plastic, glass, and compostable materials. For the möbius program, the University was recently honored with the title of "Best of the Best" by the National Recycling Coalition.

— 18 percent reduction in University Park greenhouse gas emissions since 2005

Since 1997, University-wide, Penn State has added 4.5 million square feet of building space while at the same time reducing its greenhouse gas emissions to below 1997 levels. More than one million square feet of this new space is dedicated to high-technology buildings including the Millennium Science Complex, laboratory space for Chemistry and the Life Sciences, and new business, law, and forestry buildings, all of which achieved LEED (Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design) certification. 

— 15 percent reduction in water use at University Park since 2005

The Living Filter is an innovative wastewater treatment method that has helped reduce the University's water usage. All the wastewater at University Park, after it passes through the wastewater treatment plant, is sprayed onto agricultural fields and forest sites, leaving the natural filter of plants, soils, and rocks to further purify the water before it is again used for drinking.

Looking Ahead

In addition to all of this positive progress, the University still has big goals, including:

  • an 85 percent diversion of solid waste from landfill by 2017 (University Park),
  • a 35 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2020 (University Park),
  • and a 20 percent overall reduction in energy consumption by 2024.

Students, faculty, and staff interested in learning more or participating in sustainability activities can connect with the Sustainability Institute at or via social media: @sustainPSU on Twitter and Instagram.

About the Sustainability Institute

The Sustainability Institute (SI) was created to lead Penn State toward the University's sustainability vision: a comprehensive integration of sustainability into the University's research, teaching, outreach, and operations that prepares students, faculty, and staff to be sustainability leaders in their professional, personal, and civic lives.

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