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  • Writer's pictureTom Petersen

Colleges & Universities Environmental Issues

Updated: Sep 3, 2023

When you think of a place with significant environmental issues, a university with its gorgeous tree-lined walkways is not the first thing that comes to mind. However, colleges and universities deal with numerous environmental issues similar to those in industry. These issues are complicated by the fact that colleges and universities have many separate buildings and a transient population of students.

Power/Steam Plants: The heating and cooling requirements of colleges and universities are extensive. Many colleges address the heating aspect through operating a steam plant which creates a number of environmental issues. Thes issues include: an air permit for combustion of whatever fuel is used to generate the steam (coal, natural gas, fuel oil, etc.); storage tank requirements; spill prevention and control; and the need to handle any waste generated in the process.

Storage Tanks/Oil: Colleges and universities may need to comply with the federal Spill Prevention Control and Countermeasures (SPCC) requirements if they store large volumes of fuel oil for generating steam and/or power. This results in the need to keep close track of a large number of small storage tanks for generators, transformers, hydraulic oil for elevators as well as kitchen grease. Due to the constant construction at colleges and universities, these plans must frequently be updated to stay current. Also, colleges and universities have underground storage tanks which are increasingly regulated as time goes by.

Construction: Colleges and universities are constantly in a state of flux. It is rare to step onto a campus where there isn’t a construction project going on somewhere. Each of these projects brings with it a realm of potential issues. Keep an eye on The EES Bulletins for more details on these items shortly.

  • Asbestos

  • Lead Paint

  • Stormwater management

  • Indoor Air Quality

Waste: Colleges and universities generate just about every type of waste, particularly those colleges that offer a wide variety of science degrees. Most people coming to a college campus are familiar with typical non-hazardous waste and recycling (food trash, paper, bottles, etc,). However, wastes generated in a laboratory setting are not so simple to manage: non-hazardous, hazardous, infectious, & radioactive. These types of wastes have very specific handling, labeling and disposal requirements that often fall to the students to manage. Given the high demands for their time by coursework and research it is important to make it as easy as possible for students to properly manage the waste they generate. Below are some examples of approaches you could take:

  • Provide frequent training so that students new to the laboratory setting quickly learn the requirements.

  • Make it easy for a lab to know who to contact if they have questions (signs, internet, etc).

  • Periodically stop by laboratories to see if there are questions and track how things are being managed.

  • Encourage each laboratory to have a waste person who spends some extra time understanding the waste requirements and helping others in the laboratory.

  • Ensure laboratories are stocked with the necessary labels and containers so it is easy to dispose of the materials.

  • Compile a list of chemicals used at your college and provide details for how to handle each one. These can be posted on the internet as well as in the laboratories. This way, students can start with what they know, the name of the waste, and easily figure out what must be done with it.

Pollution Prevention Opportunities: Because colleges and universities do have some level of influence on their students and alumni, having and publicizing pollution prevention programs can have an impact beyond the university itself. A number of universities have come up with interesting programs. Below are some of the ideas used in recent years:

Constructing “green” buildings


Increase renewable energy usage

  • Using renewable energy (wind, etc)

  • Switch to electric or biodiesel for campus vehicles


  • Track and report campus recycling

  • Recycle more than the typical paper, #1&2 plastics and aluminum. Things like cell phones, batteries, fluorescent bulbs, ink jet cartridges, etc.

Contact Tom Petersen for details on EES’ capabilities in assisting colleges and universities, or visit our University Environment web page.

Number 39 part 2



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