USC’s next step toward carbon neutrality and zero waste: No plastic bottles

With plans to ban plastic bottles and to implement an electric vehicle fleet, solar power and sustainable infrastructure, USC has set an aggressive timeline to reach carbon neutrality by 2025, zero waste by 2028.

A photo of a water bottle refill station at USC Village.

USC announced it will eliminate single-use plastic beverage bottles from all of its campuses as of July 1 to further the university’s goal to reach zero waste in a university-wide email from USC’s Chief Sustainability Officer Michael “Mick” Dalrymple. This is the latest initiative part of USC’s 2028 Sustainability Framework, Assignment: Earth, which will guide the university’s actions to build a greener and more sustainable campus.

In a video released Monday to kick-off USC’s Earth Week events, USC President Carol Folt said the university hopes to reach zero waste by 2025.

“This was one of the very first sustainability priorities I set during my inauguration,” Folt said in the video. “This is going to take everyone helping.”

The transition away from plastic is expected to prevent nearly 15,000 plastic bottles from reaching landfills each week, according to the university.

USC’s Auxiliary Services, Purchasing and General Counsel is working with Reyes Coca-Cola Bottling to transition all Coca-Cola beverage products to glass bottles or aluminum cans in dining halls, most vending machines, the Coliseum and Galen. Schools and administrative units are encouraged to use the university’s “preferred” suppliers to host events without plastic. Restaurants and retail venues in the USC Village may still sell beverages in plastic bottles and will transition on an individual basis.

There may be price increases in some products because of the transition, said the university.

“We know that plastics are harmful to the environment, to wildlife and to marine life,” Folt said in the statement. “And by switching to eco-friendly beverage containers, we’re making a huge difference in protecting the planet, alongside our corporate partners.”

While USC can’t mandate that all individuals eliminate single-use plastic from their own lives, the university encourages students to use its Sustainability Map to locate hydration stations, use a refillable water bottle, support vendors who don’t sell single-use plastics and properly sort waste on campus.

This year’s Earth Week is overshadowed by the recent trio of Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports — the latest of which was published at the end of March. These in-depth assessments paint a bleak picture of our world’s future if changes are not quickly made to our carbon and fossil fuel production. Oceans will rise and displace thousands of people; we’ll see more intense wildfires, droughts, heatwaves and floods; people will starve and animals and plants will go extinct.

Large organizations like universities are recognizing their role and responsibility when it comes to creating sustainable ecosystems given the substantial endowments, public funding and energy usage they encompass. A 2012 study found that American universities emit around 2% of the nation’s greenhouse gasses — comparable to around a quarter of what the entirety of California emits.

USC’s climate journey gained steam the day Folt was inaugurated. After officially being named president during a zero-waste event in 2019, Folt walked over to Hahn Plaza where Tianna Shaw-Wakeman, now an alumna, was co-hosting a climate strike for the Environmental Student Assembly. Instead of shutting down the strike, Folt — an environmental scientist — joined hundreds of students to speak through a bullhorn about her plans for the university.

Embracing the student-led climate strike set the tone for the last three years of her presidency. Since then, Folt has helped to plan and implement a number of measures to prioritize sustainability at USC.

“USC’s leadership and focus on sustainability, both operationally and in terms of the academics, has taken a complete 180 degree shift from my arrival on campus in the fall of 2016,” said Shaw-Wakeman, who now works as an environmental justice program coordinator for Black Women For Wellness. “When Dr. Folt came, it really was just a complete shift.”

Before she graduated in June 2021, Shaw-Wakeman was also a member of USC’s Presidential Working Group on Sustainable Education, Research and Operations and the co-founder of the DivestSC Committee  — a coalition that sought to reduce USC’s ties to the fossil fuel industry.

In part because of the DivestSC’s efforts, the Investment Committee of the USC Board of Trustees voted in February of this year to halt any new investments in fossil fuels and to liquidate current fossil fuel investments over the next few years.

Abby Lundstrum currently serves on USC’s Advisory Committee on Investment Responsibility and previously was co-chair at DivestSC. Lundstrum explained that while divestment is not straightforward and there are many critics who stand against divesting, it has proven to increase the cost of capital to fossil fuel companies.

“Divestment can be like a really hot activist activity,” Lundstrum said. “But I wanted to make sure that it was actually making a difference. There’s starting to be evidence that divestment does indeed make a difference in limiting the exploitation of fossil fuels.” She added that Cambridge University did an in-depth study when they were deciding whether or not to divest and found that it was actually effective.

“Executives at fossil fuel companies have actually said on the record that this is making things difficult for them, that their cost of debt is high because of divestment,” Lundstrum said.

While there were a number of organizations, students and faculty fighting for better sustainability practices before Folt took over, Shaw-Wakeman said she thinks you need both a “bottom up” and a “top down” approach for change to happen on a massive scale, especially at institutions like USC. While they had students advocating from the bottom, they needed leadership to help from the top.

“There were embers burning for such a long time but it really needed a bigger spark,” Shaw-Wakeman said. “The passion, the drive, the intellect and the know-how were there. We just didn’t have as much direction as Dr. Folt has given it.”

Shaw-Wakeman said that in her first meetings as part of the Presidential Working Group, Folt told them to “reach for the stars” and recommend things they might not have been able to pass before. Paired with the Office of Sustainability, USC has committed to a number of eco-friendly and sustainable changes.

At the end of 2021, USC announced it is on track to become carbon neutral by 2025 — three years earlier than expected.

“2025 is realistic, but it is ambitious,” Dalrymple said in an interview. He noted much of the legwork to reach that goal has already been planned or put into place. Carbon neutral — which is different from climate neutral net zero — means the university will make substantial cuts to its greenhouse gas emissions and will use carbon removal or carbon offset projects to address the remaining emissions.

USC plans to reach carbon neutral status by improving energy efficiency in campus buildings, installing solar panels on some parking garages and buildings (though the Galen Center already has solar panels), electrifying campus infrastructure and campus vehicles, and developing carbon removal programs.

Going carbon neutral can be challenging because it is difficult to pull carbon out of the air. As a researcher, Lundstrum said her job is to measure carbon in the air. While startups using direct air capture to vacuum carbon from the atmosphere do exist, the technology is not to scale yet.

“We’re just starting to even figure out how companies quantify their carbon footprints,” Lundstrum said. “How do they disclose that to investors and how do investors choose based on carbon based on companies’ disclosed carbon footprints? We’re all learning that together as a community now.”

Though 150,000 energy-saving LED lights were installed across the campus in 2020, Dalrymple explained the university would be examining which buildings needed new lights or energy efficient retrofits next. The retrofits help to turn off lights, heating or AC at night or when no one is in the building. While this all costs money, Dalrymple noted that because of the energy savings these additions provide, the projects pay for themselves within 18 months.

“We have a lot of older, historical buildings, and there’s a lot of opportunity for energy savings there,” Dalrymple said.

Since transportation is one of the largest emitters of fossil fuels worldwide, Dalrymple said the school will also be looking to transition the university’s fleet to electric vehicles. While the goal necessitates planning for charging stations and acquiring certain right permits, Dalrymple says they are working with other organizations to develop a long term plan to tackle this issue from every angle.

The university already offers discounts to employees for bus and rail passes to encourage public transportation. USC will also be adding bicycle and scooter infrastructure to campus as well as looking into utilizing ride shares and bus routes.

“We’re trying to figure out what’s the most effective use of limited dollars to try and help people use alternative modes more and get more people out of cars,” Dalrymple said. “Because ultimately, that’s the best solution. Fewer cars means a lesser need for parking spaces, which is really valuable.”

Now, USC is looking toward zero waste.

Zero waste has been one of Folt’s goals since 2019, but the university still has a long way to go to reach the city of Los Angeles’ goal of 90% waste diversion by 2025. According to the Office of Sustainability’s Final 2020 Plan Progress Report Card, the university only achieved a 33.7% diversion rate that year, less than half of its 75% goal.

However, the zero waste efforts are becoming more visible at campus-wide events. A Recent Graduates & Students Career Fair in April provided students with a “Zero Waste Sort Station” to recycle or compost all materials acquired throughout the day.

In fall 2021, USC installed 98 new gray waste bins on campus with separate compost, landfill and recycle compartments, and the USC Trojans now play at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum in a zero waste facility.

Next: Eliminate plastic bottles.