University releases mixed results in sustainability report

A green recycling sign, USC logo, water droplet, V for Victory hand sign, leaves and a plug on top of a yellow background.
(Kristine Nguyen | Daily Trojan)

Following President Carol Folt’s large push for sustainability, including USC’s announcement of divestment from fossil fuels and the hiring of a chief sustainability officer, the University published its sustainability report last month, detailing the goals they set for completion by 2020. 

According to the report published last month, USC has met about 86% of the goals they set for the 2015-2020 time period, including decreasing greenhouse gas emissions per square foot by 35%, compared to their original goal of 20%. The University also achieved 41.4% of food purchasing from sustainable sources compared to their goal of 20%. Environmental studies assistant professor Victoria Petryshyn, who discusses solutions to environmental degradation in her classes, said the goals are sufficient, but could always be higher. 

“If you compared our sustainability practices to other peer institutions, it was kind of a joke, and then with some of the surveys that came out, we realized that sustainability is really very, very important to the student population here,” she said. “I would say the majority of students would like USC to do more.” 

While the report was published by the USC Office of Sustainability, the University, through the creation of USC Operations for sustainability activities for campus operations, created the plans included in the report in 2015, before the office existed. In 2018, key faculty members interested in helping the environment, including Dan Mazmanian, professor at the Sol Price School of Public Policy and chair of the Presidential Sustainability Working Group on Sustainable Education and Research, came together to create the plans in the Academic Senate Sustainability Committee to recommend sustainability goals extending until 2030. 

According to Mazmanian, the creation of the plans was a “huge challenge.” 

“USC was at zero in 2014 in thinking about these issues,” Mazmanian said. “It took the stepping out of operations to say, we can make a difference.”

Petryshyn said Folt is a key reason USC has “upped its sustainability game.”

“For a long time, USC basically paid lip service to sustainability,” Petryshyn said. “We had one sustainability employee, but it seemed like it was mostly for optics more than anything else.”

When Folt assumed her position at USC in 2019, she founded the Presidential Sustainability Working Group. According to the group’s website, Folt created the group as a step toward “reimagin[ing] sustainability as one of the four main pillars of USC’s priorities.”

“We didn’t have a chief sustainability officer,” Mazmanian said. “We didn’t have the kind of leadership that President Folt is now exhibiting in this area, so it was a first step for USC into a very, very important world.”

The coronavirus pandemic also interfered with the University’s progress in 2020. Petryshyn said that it was challenging to continue prioritizing sustainability when the pandemic was a “bigger, more immediate problem,” and the University’s focus shifted to addressing that rather than improving sustainability practices.

“Things that end up being very important for sustainability like reducing single use plastics, [are] directly at odds with best health practices,” she said. “But at the same time, … [Los Angeles] in general missed a few opportunities during COVID, when people were staying at home to maybe install more bike lanes, make things more pedestrian-friendly, plant more trees, things like that.” 

Chief Sustainability Officer Mick Dalrymple said the coronavirus pandemic also changed the general public’s mindset about pressing world issues. 

“[The pandemic] has caused us to be very agile, so you need to make a plan, but you’ve got to realize that that plan could morph slightly or can morph tremendously in a day or in a week,” Dalrymple said. “[The coronavirus] has taught us how to be able to do that, to make a plan, but also, be able to respond to rapidly changing circumstances.” 

In some ways, the coronavirus prompted some of the green changes implemented around campus, Ellen Dux, Office of Sustainability Associate Director, said.

“We hauled out around 1,700 fixtures… and replaced them with touchless fixtures,”  Dux said. “That was very much driven by COVID, and [it was] the reason we were able to prioritize it again through the budgeting cycle. They also happened to be vastly more water efficient.”

Dux said students “pushed [their concerns] to a level” that sparked some of the sustainability initiatives the office is undertaking, including the office’s current plans to place compost bins at various locations around campus. There are currently about 24 bins in the USC Village, but Dux said that this venture was inspired by students. 

“We know that students are the reason we’re all here,” she said. “[Students] are core to the mission of what the University is educating. Turning out incredible global citizens is the work of the University.”

In 2020, the Office of Sustainability sent out a survey to students, faculty, staff and alumni, encouraging them to provide feedback as to what goals the office should set for 2028. 

In the survey, 52% of respondents indicated they did not know how to get involved with sustainability efforts on campus. Petryshyn said the Environmental Student Assembly and local chapters of the Sunrise Movement, a youth-run political organization that focuses on stopping climate change, are important organizations that students can join to get involved in sustainability locally. However, she said it is not entirely students’ jobs to seek this out for themselves. 

“That’s part of USC’s job, too, is to make those things more visible,” she said. 

Dux said that the team is focused on increasing acknowledgment of on-campus sustainability efforts. 

“We’ve spent the summer figuring out where students are congregating on social media,” Dux said, “The more we have students helping us to get the word out about these kinds of things, in my opinion, is one of the most critical ways that students can kind of get involved in this sort of work.”

Looking forward, the Office of Sustainability plans to release goals for 2028 by next January. 

“[The goals] will be ambitious and we will build in transparency… so that everybody knows where we’re at in the process,” Dalrymple said. “We all know the climate crisis and what needs to be done there and so we’re just going to push for as much as we can do as fast as we can go and get everybody to rally around it and make it happen.”

Correction: A previous version of this article misstated that a group of faculty members created USC’s sustainability plans in 2015, rather than the USC Operations for sustainability activities for campus operations. The article also didn’t include the name of the group of faculty members, who are members of the Academic Senate Sustainability Committee, who came together in 2018 to recommend sustainability goals extending until 2030. The Daily Trojan regrets this error.