UVA Nitrogen Footprint
A Close Look at a Graduate Student's Efforts to Examine UVA's Ecological Impact
In many environmental science classes offered at the University of Virginia, students frequently discuss their use of the earth’s resources. Students are taught many different approaches to resource management in their everyday lives, such as measuring your ecological footprint (the amount of biologically productive capital required to produce the natural resources you consume). You can also calculate your carbon footprint and determine the amount of fossil fuels that are burned to provide for any person’s particular lifestyle. While these tools are helpful, and easily accessible online, it is difficult to predict the footprint of a single person; so many other factors, that are unaccounted for in these measurements, contribute to the consumption and waste of resources. The broad categories that these tools utilize provide the individual with few options, making particular lifestyle changes to either of these environmental issues difficult. A collective apathy is taken on by those who believe there is nothing they can do to reverse the negative side effects of such indefinite sources of pollution as a result of this. However, other sources of harmful substances humans add to the environment are more readily identifiable – notably among them, nitrogen. Nitrogen is a product of the cycling of nutrients through plants, animals, the atmosphere and geosphere. The simplicity of the nitrogen cycle allows for an easier identification of what obvious steps must be taken by humans to reduce our impact on its revolution.
Allison Leach, a graduate student in the department of environmental science, took the time and effort to figure out what we could do here at UVA specifically to reduce our augmentation to the amount of nitrogen found on earth. Leach developed a calculator that measures the nitrogen footprint of an institution rather than an individual. Beginning her research in 2009, Leach worked with her thesis advisor, Professor James Galloway, to create a template that UVA currently utilizes to measure its nitrogen footprint. Leach and her team worked extensively with the different facilities at UVA to analyze and measure the uses of nitrogen on grounds, and had the approval of the University Board of Visitors to establish a nitrogen footprint reduction goal for UVA. As mentioned earlier, measuring the resources an individual uses per year using a calculator is not a new concept; however, the range that Allison and her fellow environmental scientists developed is new. The differences between calculating the footprint of an individual and the collective footprints of an institution greatly help us determine what problems contribute to the overall issue and what solutions are available to the community. Leach and her colleagues have focused their model on nitrogen use because it is a more specific and simplified issue that every student at UVA can help to improve.
In the institutional model Leach developed, both the production and use of food and utilities at UVA release large amounts of nitrogen. Leach’s template is simple yet sophisticated and clearly explains that UVA uses nitrogen efficiently in its activities related to housing and transport. However, our institution expends high levels of nitrogen for utilities and both food production and consumption. Food production in general releases large amounts of Nitrogen, but this does not mean that these levels are perpetual. There is not much that the student body can do to lessen the use of the utilities at our school without extensive lifestyle changes. But, according to Leach’s research, UVA dining halls can offer different foods in order to reduce UVA’s nitrogen footprint. UVA dining has already implemented programs to improve sustainability, including the current effort to expand food composting at UVA.
In their presentation, Leach, Galloway and others offer ample information regarding the high amounts of nitrogen used to produce meat in comparison to vegetables. We all know that red meat is high in protein, but Leach informs us that it also requires high amounts of nitrogen and therefore is not as sustainable as white meat and vegetables. In order to maintain a healthier lifestyle and lessen our nitrogen footprint at UVA, Leach suggests a few things we can all do on and off campus to reduce our harmful impact on the environment. These include replacing meat proteins with vegetable proteins, composting food waste at dining halls and eating fewer animal products. She is not suggesting any great change to student diets, but only minor alterations that are simple, yet effective.
By asking students to make minor changes to how they consume and dispose of their food on grounds, Leach enables UVA’s community to work towards a common goal of reducing our nitrogen footprint. The UVA Board of Visitors recently approved a goal to reduce UVA’s nitrogen footprint by 25% in 2025 relative to 2009 levels. Leach is beginning to look into opportunities to spread the word about her research and garner further interest in the community. Currently, she’s working with UVA dining and on grounds food locations to raise awareness about our nitrogen footprint and what we can do as a community to help. There has also been interest shown outside the university in several institutions, including Dickinson College and a Marine Biological Laboratory, that are looking to model a form of Leach’s template for their own facilities. With so many different groups willing to become a part of this movement, the nitrogen footprint model that Allison Leach has developed is likely to move forward in a positive and nitrogen neutral direction. [AL1]
Visit (http://online.liebertpub.com/doi/pdfplus/10.1089/SUS.2013.9852) or email Allison Leach at firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.
This article represents the sole opinion of the author, and does not necessarily reflect the policy or position of Change-Magazine.