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MIT launches campus environmental initiative

While MIT's research and educational agenda of environmental science, technology and policy has a global impact, the Institute needs to pay more attention to keeping green at home.

To that end, the Institute will undertake a major ongoing and evolving environmental initiative. Because this initiative affects every part of the community, faculty, staff and students are encouraged to participate.

"We must act within our own institution in accordance with what we have learned and with what we promote elsewhere," said President Charles M. Vest.

"This initiative will establish long-term, systemic change in many aspects of our operations and lives. It will influence campus planning, establish design and performance guidelines for our facilities, enhance our recycling programs and affect procurement. I believe it will enhance the health and safety of our entire community, improve our efficiency, and in the long run, make us more cost-effective," he said.


In July 1999, Executive Vice President John Curry appointed Jamie Lewis Keith to the new position of managing director for environmental programs and risk management.

"This effort is part of a renewed, more concentrated effort to enhance MIT's environmental stewardship and leadership," Mr. Curry said.

Over the years, MIT has instituted environmentally responsible programs involving lab waste testing and documentation, water runoff treatment, landscaping, machine solvent disposal, transportation alternatives and better fuel sources.

Ms. Keith, who also is senior counsel at MIT, has brought together people from all over campus who have been working independently on environmental efforts. She formed the broad-based Environmental Programs Task Force with 20 representatives of the administration, Facilities, Dining Services, the MIT Press and other departments, as well as students from Share a Vital Earth (SAVE). The group meets biweekly. "In fairly short order, we've achieved results and started a number of initiatives," she said.

Among the more recent environmental initiatives are:

A new push for recycling -- Paper recycling has been expanded from white paper only to mixed paper, newspaper, magazines and cardboard. Commingled-goods bins (for cans, bottles and plastic) and paper recycling bins have been placed next to most indoor public trash bins on campus, and commingled bins have been located next to most outdoor public trash bins as part of an effort to increase recycling on campus. The goal is to boost recycling from 5 percent to more than 30 percent this year. Facilities and Dining Services will also undertake a pilot food-composting project at Walker Memorial this month that may be expanded to other dining centers.

A look at building design -- Ms. Keith and Director of Facilities Vicky Sirianni, together with Leon Glicksman, professor of architecture and mechanical engineering and Associate Professor Leslie Norford of architecture, also formed a green building design task force. Performance guidelines will be developed to encourage consideration of environmental and life-cycle costs as well as other capital costs and other project objectives during the building design process. These guidelines would be given to architects early in a new building's design phase to ensure timely and thoughtful consideration of these issues.

An emphasis on green products -- The Procurement Office plans to offer an affordable recycled paper as the "preferred" paper for MIT purchases within the next few months. This paper also will be used by the Copy Technology Centers. Procurement is working to identify additional environmentally friendly products for future availability.

Resource conservation -- MIT has had a resource conservation program in effect since 1971 and is now in the midst of a campus-wide water conservation project. The project will replace many existing fixtures with low-flow toilets, urinals, sink aerators and shower heads. These measures are expected to save 32 million gallons of water per year in consumption and sewer output. A separate program is under way for laboratories.

Steps toward practical goals -- Faculty, students and the Environmental Programs Office are coordinating efforts to bring research, policy and teaching on responsible environmental practices to practical applications on campus.

Professor of Chemistry Jeffrey Steinfeld leads a freshman seminar on energy conservation. This pilot project assesses existing resource conservation measures on campus and suggests new ones. For the first time, students worked with staff of the Central Utilities Plant and Facilities to tour and inspect the Institute's cogeneration plant and other facilities.

The Institute has not yet equaled what some other universities have accomplished in campus environmental initiatives. However, "MIT can distinguish itself by designing and implementing a comprehensive model environmental management system for colleges and universities that integrates compliance, positive initiatives and education. All these aspects are important parts of responsible environmental behavior," Ms. Keith said.

The Environmental Protection Agency visited MIT in May 1998 as part of its University Initiative, an effort to ensure that colleges and universities are in compliance with environmental regulations.

"The EPA's visit refocused our attention more toward compliance with environmental regulations. However, my vision of developing an integrated approach to the environment at MIT is going to go beyond what is required to achieve compliance," Ms. Keith said.


MIT has been committed to environmental research for decades. Major MIT environmental initiatives include the Council on the Environment, the Center for Environmental Initiatives (CEI) and the Center for Environmental Health Science (CEHS).

The Council on the Environment, chaired by Chancellor Lawrence S. Bacow, is geared toward strengthening multidisciplinary research cooperation on environmental problems; increasing the environmental literacy of students and faculty; disseminating MIT environmental knowledge to decision-makers in government, industry and the public; and securing resources.

The CEI supports research, curriculum development, education and outreach on emerging global environmental and sustainability issues. CEHS is an interdisciplinary research and educational alliance focused on discovering which interactions between humans and environmental chemicals, biological agents or radiation are harmful to health.

Among the environmental research projects throughout the Institute are a study that showed how metal hastens tree damage; water contamination studies at Otis Air Force Base on Cape Cod; testing for metals in plankton and other plants, and pollutants in groundwater; reducing sulfur dioxide emissions; a study to determine why so much energy is wasted by the heating systems in Russian homes; a study of soot particles; an Air Force study designed to make the disposal of airplanes environmentally more responsible; and a study designed to formulate strategies for polluted communities to achieve environmental justice. There are at least 56 MIT laboratories and centers directly engaged in environmental matters.

On campus, MIT invested $40 million in a cogeneration facility, which began operating in 1995. The facility provides energy-efficient heating and cooling on campus.

"To be effective, environmentalism must be based on excellent science, use effective technological tools and be advanced through sound economic and management principles," President Vest said.

Those interested in participating in the Environmental Programs Task Force should contact William Van Schalkwyk, director of environmental compliance, at or x3-4736.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on January 12, 2000.

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