Is Vanderbilt Staying True to its Environmental Commitments?

Hi everyone! I hope you had a great Thanksgiving holiday and tried some of the tips outlined in my previous post to have a more sustainable celebration.

As you’ve seen, in my blog I’ve tried to provide some of my own interpretations of research, anecdotes and news stories of relevance to the environmental justice movement. Today I want to explore some local initiatives here at Vanderbilt University and around Nashville. As an official, beautiful national arboretum, ideally our campus would be one of the greenest in the country. I will explore the efforts that Vanderbilt is putting forth to protect its environment and inhabitants (students, faculty and staff). Lastly, together we will decide whether or not the university is creating a healthy environment for all. Today we’ll examine some of the standout initiatives on campus, but you can read the full list of VU Sustainability links and partners here.

First, as a university, Vanderbilt has agreed to stand committed to reducing our carbon footprint and remaining conscious of the needs of the environment. In VU’s Environmental Commitment Statement, we state: Vanderbilt University is a local and global community leader committed to environmental stewardship, protecting natural resources, and enhancing quality of life while maintaining academic, medical, social, and economic productivity. (Read the rest of Vandy’s Environmental Commitment Statement here.) Let’s examine if the school is holding up its end of the bargain in the three areas stated in the commitment…

Protecting Natural Resources

Dirt's good for you

Dirt’s good for you


In the bathrooms of some of the libraries and academic buildings on campus, you will no longer find that traditional pink soap dispensed from the wall. Instead, they’ve been replaced by bottles of chunky brown goop called EcoSuds! EcoSuds is an environmentally friendly soap bottled right here at Vanderbilt. We have a biodiesel fuel production system in the heart of campus, and one of its by-products is glycerin, the main ingredient in soap. Despite its muddy appearance, EcoSuds soap is very moisturizing, kills bacteria without lots of chemical additives, and smells terrific. It also works well as a shower gel, dish soap, carwash, blood stain remover, or laundry soap. The EcoSuds and biodiesel fuel programs are run by the young student organization Alternative Energy Club.


Water Conservation

Some useful tips on how to conserve water on campus and more importantly why. Particularly alarming is the inseparable connection between water resources and climate change.

Electric vehicles

Electric vehicles

Electric vehicles

Vanderbilt is quickly becoming more accommodating to electric vehicles in hopes that specially marked parking spaces and convenient fill stations will encourage more people to trade in their gas guzzlers for cars that reduce our carbon footprint. A solar-powered electric vehicle (EV) charging station was recently put up at the corner of 21st Avenue South and Broadway. The Smart Modal Area Recharge Terminal, or SMART station, can charge up to 10 vehicles and joins five other stations around the university campus and medical center, bringing the total number of EV charging bays at Vanderbilt to 19. There are about 10 spots outside the library reserved for electric cars. Currently I’ve never seen a car parked in those spots, but hopefully in the next few years we’ll be ready for the technology of the future.

Environmental Stewardship

I really appreciated this post from SustainVU, the campus-wide umbrella institution dedicated to spreading awareness about environmental consciousness. Similar to my last vlog post, it discusses the best way to reduce our carbon footprint: reduce waste and “stave off holiday excess.” We buy things we don’t need and make food we don’t eat. “Add in all the energy use from extra travel and hospitality, and the last six weeks of the year can have quite an impact on our natural resources,” the post states. As we wrap up 2012, SustainVU provides a simple but profound reminder that the heart of environmental degradation and injustice is ultimately human greed. The insatiable desire for MORE, ironically, seems to rear its ugly head the most during the holiday season when we should be the most content with what we have.

This page describes some of the green buildings on campus, built purposefully to be environmentally conscious and aesthetically pleasing. I was quite surprised to discover that Chef James Bistro is LEED-certified.

Enhancing Quality of Life

Vanderbilt Environment Health and Safety

The creation of VEHS fulfilled the last portion of the commitment, to enhance quality of life…while maintaining medical productivity. VEHS provides “safety services and information to support the teaching, research, and patient care missions for Vanderbilt University and Vanderbilt University Medical Center.” VEHS initiatives include hospital and clinic safety, occupational safety and training, environmental waste management, fire safety and emergency management, biosafety, radiation safety, and sustainability and environmental management. All necessary parts of maintaining a healthy environment for staff and patients in the medical center and our med students.

Vanderbilt Institute for Energy & Environment

The VIEE addresses the environmental concerns of the university and educates the student body through many different disciplines: the social and behavioral sciences, physical sciences, engineering, law and policy. Its broad scope makes the VIEE a promising breeding ground for new ideas and solutions. “The future health and well-being of humanity hinge in large part on smart production and use of energy, water, and related resources, as these are central determinants of climate change, habitable space, and human and ecological health.”

Similarly, I was pleasantly surprised to discover the existence of the Vanderbilt Climate Change Research Network. We have a group of some of the best and brightest minds in the environmental movement joining forces to openly discuss and begin solving climate change. One of the members of the CCRN is a former professor, Dr. Bandy, who initially spurred my interest in environmental justice and encouraged me to write a published article on the effects of pesticides on migrant workers. “Climate change is widely regarded as one of the most difficult problems facing modern society. Developing legal, economic, and social responses requires interdisciplinary research that is theoretically sophisticated and policy-relevant.

All this good stuff aside, in terms of raising quality of life, I would like to do more research on what’s happening to our wonderful dining workers. Their working conditions have been stirring a lot of controversy lately—apparently the pay is terrible, job security very low, and Vanderbilt isn’t doing anything to rectify the situation. Again I don’t have many details yet but will update the blog as I collect information.  If Vandy Dining turns out to be a cruel and unjust industry, here are some healthy, local and organic alternatives to campus dining!

The final verdict…Better than expected

Overall I was surprised to see just how many environmental initiatives are available on this campus: committees, councils, climate change experts, student-led conservation efforts. Everyone can participate in lowering our Commodore Carbon Footprint, and the resources are certainly available for the Vanderbilt community to educate itself. I hope the university continues becoming even more eco-friendly, from arranging guest lecturers to publishing new research on climate change solutions to ensuring a safe and healthy environment for at Vanderbilt. There’s a ton of opportunity for solid change at this school, if we’re all willing to work together and make these initiatives successful.

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