10 takeaways from Penn’s 2017 sustainability report

The grades are in on how the University is stacking up against its Climate Action Plan goals. Here, find some of the highlights.


Penn is no newbie to sustainability.

The University’s efforts to crack down on energy usage began way back in 2007, when President Amy Gutmann signed the “President’s Climate Commitment.” Penn was the first Ivy League institution to sign on, and among the earliest participants in a cohort that would grow to more than 700 North American universities. This commitment was further cemented in her 2007, oft-quoted speech at Commencement.

“Ultimately, our planetary fortunes boil down to our ability to make mutual respect the natural order of our lives,” she said. “We must cultivate respect for the values of science, which are too often distorted. We must demand respect for the dignity of every human being, which is too often denied. And we must learn to respect our earth by undoing the damage we have done to our soil, water, air, and biodiversity.”

That devotion to sustainability became tangible in 2009, when Penn launched its first Climate Action Plan, setting five-year goals. Recently, the Penn Sustainability Office, which manages green outreach and engagement for the University, compiled a progress report on how Penn is progressing toward its Climate Action Plan 2.0 goals.

Below, find some eye-catchers from the 18-page FY17 Sustainability Annual Report

  1. Carbon emissions are down 13 percent; the goal was to bring those down by 18 percent—by 2042. Yes, that’s a great head start on meeting the emissions goal. “It’s a big success,” says Dan Garofalo, director of environmental sustainability at Penn. “Our carbon emissions decreased even more rapidly than we thought, from improving building performance, replacing engineering systems, improving the envelope of buildings, things like that.” The change is largely a result of a regional electricity grid that relies increasingly on renewable power; re-commissioning of buildings like the Palestra; LEED certification standards for new buildings; and an ever-improving outreach program. Better yet: These results are poised to show even more improvement next go-around, given that the University issued improvements to the steam and chilled water systems that caused temporary spikes in energy usage in 2015-16, but stand to lower emissions long-term.
  2. Greenhouse gas emissions are down even as campus grows. Though campus has expanded 800,000 square feet since 2009, most measurable emissions are steady or down. Especially electricity usage.
    Arboretum green roof
  3. Three new carbon inventories were taken in 2016. The Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania (HUP), the Morris Arboretum and the New Bolton Center (NBC) all were measured for how they’re faring in the endeavor for optimal efficiency. The lessons? HUP will work on its electricity usage, NBC—because of its remote Kennett Square location—will promote increased carpooling and improved building stock, while the Arboretum—performing well overall with a LEED Platinum building among its facilities—has worked to improve building efficiency with new LED lights and upgrades to heating and ventilation systems.
  4. The recycling rate is down since 2014—sort of. While the recycling rate technically dropped by 7 percent since 2014 to 20.2 percent, the percentage does not tell the whole story: Because the rate is measured by weight, it might be more useful to look at the 13-percent reduction in the amount of total material removed from campus. In sum: Recycling is down because packaging and shipping materials tend to weigh less than they used to, and the University also has more efforts—like the elimination of cardboard boxes used in the delivery of office supplies—to reduce what’s capable of being recycled in the first place. “The example I give is in 2009, if it was Snapple, it’d be a glass bottle. Snapple is in plastic now,” Garofalo says. “So the things we’re using up at campus weigh a lot less. Maybe we’re throwing away 100 bottles, but it weighs a quarter of what it weighed before.” Landfill waste, it’s worth noting, is down 5 percent since 2014.
  5. Nearly half of employees commute via public transit or car pools. According to the Washington, D.C.-based software company Transit Screen, Penn is the No. 1 transportation-friendly college campus in the country. A higher percentage of employees are taking advantage of commuter benefit programs offered by the University, like Occasional Parking—up in enrollment to 475 employees compared with 180 in 2014—and the CommuterPass. Biking was not measured for this report, but will be in the next, as Penn has only recently been able to track a new Bicycle Commuter Expense Reimbursement Program rolled out in the past year. Walkers, unfortunately, are unable to be measured because they are not part of a formal commuting program.
  6. Lots of academic courses are including sustainability themes. A count shows the Sustainability Course Inventory, measuring newly created sustainability courses as well ones that incorporate elements of the subject, rose from 124 to 298 since 2014. Twelve brand-new courses were made. “That’s an indication faculty are more and more engaged in this issue and changing their courses to include a focus on sustainability,” Garofalo says. “And we know there are more courses available at Penn than we were actually able to find among department listings.” 
  7. Recommissioning of high-energy-use buildings is improving energy-efficiency across campus. The 45 highest-energy-use existing buildings were targeted to be recommissioned first; and as of 2018, they are complete. Penn will now begin recommissioning the first batch of buildings for a second time. The intent is to recommission 20 percent of the buildings with the highest energy use every five years, and the remaining 80 percent every 10 years. To boot, six renovated buildings are meeting their energy reduction goals, as of 2017, with four more under construction. Score.
  8. Student move-outs are reducing waste. Gone are the days of pitching that barely used IKEA furniture. Residential Services now organizes on-campus move-outs so that virtually anything from student dorms can be recycled. Student employees are paid to manage the collection of everything from electronics to broken furniture to donated to partner organizations who can recycle or make use of them. The Salvation Army and Goodwill are among those partners and receive “10s of tons,” of materials, Garofalo says. 
  9. Penn has created greener purchasing habits. Along with eliminating cardboard from package deliveries, the number of desk-side printers has been reduced, with printer toners being recycled by default and recycled copy paper being the default for orders. The result? Offices that opt-in to Penn Purchasing’s Managed Print Services see a 25-percent decline in total printing costs, which, of course, also means lowered electricity use. Two birds with one very green stone.
  10. Penn has upped its sustainability outreach in a big way. The Student Eco-Reps program that works on sustainability projects around campus; Sustainability coordinators from 10 of Penn’s 12 schools; an increase from 12 “Certified Green Offices” on campus to 83—all of these are just some examples of how the University is engaging the Penn community to put sustainability on the radar. 

What you can do to contribute

  • Want to add sustainability into your course load? Peruse the Sustainability Course Inventory, which lists all known courses related to the environment.
  • Remember to empty liquids from bottles when recycling, and scrape out those leftover food chunks from plastic containers. If you’re confused about recycling rules, see Penn Sustainability’s recycling FAQ.
  • In the office: print double-sided and try to use an appropriate font size, keep reusable mugs around for coffee, and take advantage of natural light when and where available. 
  • Enroll in a program. The Green Office Certification is available to any office on campus—just gather signatures from 50 percent of the office to join in on the effort, then secure management approval. Afterward, reach out to sustainability@upenn.edu and start working toward marking off a 25-green-actions checklist. 
  • Though there are a number of transit benefits to enroll in, take a gander at the new Bike Commuter Reimbursement Program. With four Indego Bike Share stations, 6,200 bike parking spots, and 60 bicycle rack locations, it’s an increasingly viable transit options for city-limits commuters.