Reflecting On UC Davis Sustainability Initiatives Through the Years

The University of California, Davis celebrated its first centennial in 2008, marking 100 years since the University’s official founding in 1908. To honor this milestone, the UC Davis Office of Sustainability was established in 2008 to lead the University in achieving a Sustainable 2nd Century. Equipped with the skills and resources from a century's worth of research and development, the University’s Office of Sustainability guides UC Davis in achieving significant landmarks and important milestones in sustainability, waste reduction, and waste diversion throughout the next 100 years of the University’s existence.

As a pioneer university in agriculture and farming, UC Davis has become a model for its sustainability initiatives, especially regarding sustainable agriculture practices. The UC Davis campus measures its sustainability progress according to the “four ‘E’s” of environment, economics, equity, and education. In line with this, UC Davis has policy goals in the areas of building design, energy and greenhouse gases, waste management, purchasing, and foodservice.

Composter for shoppable link Photo by meineresterampe from Pixabay UC Davis isn’t just known for sustainable agriculture. In 2007, Aggie Stadium became the first college stadium in the country to set a zero-waste goal. In 2009-2010, the UC Davis campus managed to divert 67% of waste from the landfill through recycling, composting, and reusable alternatives. As of 2009, all university catering events provide compostable or recyclable packaging, and in 2010, compost bins were made available to students at the Memorial Union. Also as of 2010, the UC Davis campus boasts the world’s first LEED Platinum brewery, winery, food processing pilot plant, and milk processing plant.

The Sustainable 2nd Century website also reports that University of California President Janet Napolitano announced the Carbon Neutrality Initiative in 2013, which “commits UC to emitting net zero greenhouse gases from its buildings and vehicle fleet by 2025, something no other major university system has done.” Furthermore, during the 2015-2016 year UC Davis reduced, reused, recycled, and composted approximately 15,500 tons of material.

Another sustainability landmark was achieved in 2014 when UC Davis partnered with Sacramento-based CleanWorld to establish a Renewable Energy Anaerobic Digester (READ), also known as a biodigester, which “converts food and yard waste into clean energy that feeds into the campus electrical grid.” What makes the biodigester especially interesting is its ability to break down matter and other materials that wouldn’t naturally biodegrade on their own. As Co-President of the Zero Waste and Sustainability Club, I was lucky enough to take a tour of the biodigester facility with club members in November 2019, located a few miles west of campus on the site of the old UC Davis landfill.

Unfortunately, none of the UC campuses met the goal set by the University of California to have all 10 campuses reach zero waste by 2020. UC Davis came very close with one of the highest rates of waste diversion alongside UC Irvine, but this was still not satisfactory to meet the zero-waste goal of 90% waste diversion from the landfill.

people holding up signs in protest Photo by Hello I'm Nik from Unsplash What’s next? The University is still committed to achieving zero waste. UC Davis, along with the UC system as a whole, are revising their sustainability goals into more realistically attainable initiatives. According to a report by the California Aggie, these campus zero waste goals will be set annually to make it easier to track progress and hold the campus accountable. The University of California Office of the President outlines these revised policy goals, listed below for reference:

  • Campuses will achieve zero waste (defined as 90% diversion from landfills).
  • Campuses will reduce per capita municipal solid waste generation to 25% below the fiscal year 2015-16 levels by 2025 and 50% below the fiscal year 2015-16 levels by 2030.
  • The University is committed to the reduction and elimination of single-use plastic items such as bags, foodware accessories, and beverage bottles.
  • By 2020, the University will prohibit the sale, procurement, and distribution of packaging foam.

The UC Davis community still has a long way to achieve the zero waste goals outlined above. Clearly, the journey is neither easy nor straightforward, but the beauty of this community is in coming together to persevere. The importance of policy in driving these sustainability and zero waste goals forward is vital, especially when dealing with an institution as large and powerful as the University of California. Thankfully, as members of this community, we all have an important voice in calling attention to these policy needs, championing sustainable change, and celebrating the small victories for our planet.