Ethan Landrum, Sophomore Environmental Engineering Major

The buzzword “sustainable” has been used to describe a host of practices, from your roommate’s weird composting attempts to a Fortune 500 company’s pledge to “go green.” The word tends to have different meanings when applied to individual efforts rather than when describing an entire organization. For instance, whether or not I recycle and whether UF recycles are two very different concepts. However, to coalesce individual efforts into a combined impact, in any situation, not necessarily for sustainability alone, requires powerful, concentrated questions.

Photography by Stepfanie Lam
Photography by Stepfanie Lam

That being said, we propose one (hopefully) powerful question: will UF ever be 100% sustainable?

Addressing this question is not easy. The determinants — for our answer at least — are probably pretty vague, and all-encompassing. We think the issue should be split into the four major areas of electricity, food, waste, and transportation. These issues are also the four main focal points for the UF Office of Sustainability’s mission statement. These areas comprise not every aspect of sustainability, but are its four largest and most easily adaptable components.

The last time UF completed a campus-wide energy audit, and published it publically, was the 2004-2005 academic year. It is likely that our collective behaviors have changed since then, but we’ll assume that the audit is still relevant. According to the report, the main campus used over 470,000 MegaWatt-hours of energy from coal-based power. That’s enough energy to charge your iPhone5 134 million times. The most amount of electricity (85%) was spent powering and lighting buildings and labs, arguably very necessary uses.

Assuming that we won’t be reducing our energy uses in any way, which would actually be much more feasible, UF would have to install enough solar photovoltaic cells (of maximum industry efficiency) to cover close to 60% of UF’s campus, and they would have to receive direct sunlight all day long. That seems unlikely to occur in the near future, but is possible if Gainesville’s power source changes from coal to solar energy.

For our food to be sustainable, every student and faculty member would have to adopt a largely plant-based diet, tapping only local food sources within 100 miles. Most of the energy that is consumed in food production comes from growing, housing, feeding, and transporting the billions of livestock that Americans eat every year (9 billion chickens and nearly 50 million cows ). For UF to become more sustainable, Chic-fil-a and Chomp-It would no longer be popular eateries on campus.

In addition to our consumption, or input – energy, food, or otherwise – we need to consider our exhaustion, or output: what we throw “away.” The University of Florida has a goal of being Zero Waste by 2015. Yet 2015 is a mere 3 months away, and UF still only recycles 40% of waste (by mass) annually. The largest portion of this mass is yard waste, which is converted to mulch by a third-party industry. Again, assuming that we don’t reduce our input in any way, our output is likely too large and complex to become sustainable.

Transportation is the issue that we can be the most optimistic about. The Regional Transit System’s immense success in the 10 years since its revamping gives us hope, and cycling and ride-sharing are becoming more inherently normal among students. Moreover, according to the energy audit in 2004, only 10% of the carbon emissions from the campus came from commuters and transportation.

All of these issues would be greatly simplified if we made reduction our main priority. The popular phrase “reduce, reuse, recycle,” is more often than not turned into just “recycle.” Remember, all issues of sustainability are solved at the source!