When I moved into my dorm this past August, I remember seeing a collection of “Green Living” stickers plastered on my neighbor’s door. I thought they had probably done the PennGreen orientation program or were part of a special club. But these stickers are peppered around campus. They read “Green Living Certified” and can be seen on dorm walls, mini fridges, and office windows. They include a ranking—Bronze, Silver, or Gold—and, as I later found out, are an initiative by Penn Sustainability to encourage students to reflect on their environmental impact.
I spoke with members of Penn Sustainability to learn more about these peculiar stickers. Heidi Wunder, Assistant Director for Communications at Penn’s Facilities and Real Estate Services, told me that the program is now in its sixth year. The Green Living Certification Program was born out of an earlier initiative, Green Office, which allowed whole departments to get green certified. When students took notice, they requested a similar system for certifying individual living habits. Now, students, faculty, and staff can obtain their green living certification through a quiz on the Penn Sustainability website.
Open to both on and off–campus residents, the survey begins with a set of prerequisites. These include turning lights off upon leaving a room, reporting leaky faucets, using energy–efficient bulbs, recycling, and being willing to encourage others to follow sustainable habits. Once those prerequisites have been met, the questions move on to specifics on purchasing, energy usage, waste production, transportation, and involvement with sustainability groups at Penn.
Each question has a weight to it. Answering “yes” to adopting a vegan diet, for example, yields four points. For comparison, using reusable shopping bags for groceries yields only one. Depending on the final number of points, the survey places respondents into the Bronze, Silver, or Gold categories. It takes 25 points to get to Bronze, 40 for Silver, and 55 for Gold. Following the survey, respondents who meet one of the certification levels are mailed a sticker, and automatically entered into a raffle—weighted based on certification level—to win certain prizes.
Sustainability Intern Patrick Teese (C '20) describes the Green Living Certification as “a way to get students thinking about the individual impact of their environmental decisions and to encourage new habits and routines and to introduce these new potential ideas to students.” The Penn Sustainability website also includes a manual that outlines environmentally friendly habits and suggestions for changes to make in everyday life.
Elizabeth Main, one of the sustainability coordinators at Penn Sustainability, details the dynamic nature of the survey. With changes in technology, for example, the survey has to be updated to reflect the newest, most sustainable practices at any given time. For example, Main said that the survey recently had to be updated to include LED lamps as an alternative to traditional bulbs other than CFL bulbs.
Furthermore, as new initiatives appear on campus, the survey can change to reflect that. For example, Main notes that now the Sustainability office no longer encourages students to simply buy used clothing, but to support the on–campus thrift store, Penn Closet, while doing so. Moreover, in explaining the recent expansion of the survey to include off–campus housing, Main says: “Even if [students] reducing energy in their off–campus apartment doesn’t directly affect Penn’s carbon footprint, it’s still good to instill these behaviors of energy conservation.” Once this addition was made, the quiz was changed to include steps that couldn't be taken on campus, like collaborating with landlords to implement weatherization or choosing energy efficient appliances.
One of the main goals of the Sustainability office is to reduce the overall campus carbon footprint. While Main concedes that “the majority of our campus carbon footprint is from energy and electricity,” she and Wunder both cite waste minimization as a top–priority concern. Unlike energy usage and electricity on campus overall, waste is a tangible problem for students to tackle. Main says that students can certainly play a part in reducing energy usage, “but I think waste is really where we see the biggest opportunity for impact from students.”
Main emphasizes that it's important for Penn community members to understand what can and cannot be recycled, better comprehend the deleterious culture of single–use disposables, and realize that reduction in the first place is “much, much better than recycling.”
Patrick praises the commitment of Penn Sustainability and applauds their efforts to convince the administration, faculty, staff, and students to adopt more “environmentally friendly alternatives to everything that they do." That being said, the Sustainability office cannot force other sections of the University to adopt habits against their will. All strides taken must be feasible for each departments’ respective resources and compatible with their priorities.
Within its scope, the Sustainability office plays a large role in developing the Climate and Sustainability Action Plan, and encourages students to read it. Patrick says that “students sharing suggestions for what Penn Sustainability could advocate for is really helpful. The Sustainability office tries to push for greener goals and ideas, and does a good job at making those aims heard.”
Having taken the certification quiz myself, I can attest that it’s quite eye–opening to the broad range of personal changes that we can make as students to reduce our personal and collective carbon footprint. Take the survey and learn how our way of living affects the Earth. If nothing else, the survey comes with a cool sticker.