Boris Tsang / Sun Photography Editor

Students relax in the clearing by Sage Hall after class in October.

November 23, 2020

Cornell Doubles-Down Commitment to Sustainability Measures Despite Pandemic

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While the COVID-19 pandemic has upended life as normal and led to an “incalculable” loss of life, some argue that there is a larger threat looming: climate change. 

The virus’ ability to spread through air borne transmission, along with some transmission via contaminated surfaces, has necessitated social distancing measures that often run opposed to sustainable practices — like using single-use plastics for dining and minimizing the use of public transportation and carpooling. 

“These are the necessary trade-offs for human health,” said Sarah Brylinsky, who works in the Campus Sustainability Office, which implements Cornell’s Climate Action Plan — a set of strategies to move Cornell to its climate goals of reaching carbon neutrality by 2035. 

She said she sees the current pandemic as a time where innovation for sustainability can thrive and make Cornell a model for other universities.

This semester, the usage of plastic in dining halls has significantly increased as dining staff have been doling out individually wrapped utensils, sides and drinks. The increase in single-use plastic on campus marks a shift away from recent trends that saw a reduction in single-use plastics, as several countries started phasing them out because they contribute to global warming and the destruction of the ozone layer.

In an effort to increase the recycling of these single-use plastics, campus staff have placed small waste bins next to larger recycling bins in all offices, placing an emphasis on the need to recycle.

Cornell has also continued its usage of solar farms and hydro plants. On March 7, for the first time in over a 100 years, campus’ entire energy supply was covered by renewable energy sources. The ability for renewable energy sources to cover the entire campus’s energy needs was primarily the result of campus cutting down operations after closing campus. 

Overall, around 30 percent of the campus’s energy in March was supplied by renewable energy sources, including the campus’s rooftop solar panels, solar farms and the hydroelectric plant.

Cornell’s effort to power its campus utilizing only renewable energy sources is aided by its hydroelectric dam, located in Fall Creek. (Ben Parker / Sun Assistant Photography Editor)

The University has also received $7.2 million for Earth Source Heat, a unique system that could supply heat to campus without fossil fuels. Earth Source Heat uses geothermal energy to heat buildings on campus, decreasing Cornell’s carbon footprint and improving its  use of renewable energy sources. 

On top of that, the Sustainable Cornell Council is also partnering with more than 20 other campuses to build up renewable energy sources to improve sustainability initiatives in New York, aiming to “bring Cornell’s total renewable electricity use to 100 percent.”

The office is now focusing on Cornell’s sustainable product purchasing and the allocation of necessary resources to decrease waste levels, replacing items like lab and school supplies that are full of plastics and nonrenewable waste with suppliers that are more energy efficient and environmentally friendly. 

Through the complications of the pandemic, the sustainability office has remained committed to the Climate Action Plan, which aims for Cornell to reach carbon neutrality by 2035. 

Brylinsky also hopes to create a campus where sustainability is a part of everyday life. 

“This is the first year that we know 100 percent of all students at Cornell will graduate with sustainability as a required learning outcome for their college or path of study — a huge leap forward to ensuring all Cornellians are prepared to face the challenges of a changing climate and other sustainability issues,” Brylinsky wrote in an email to The Sun. 

This year’s incoming first-years were also the first cohort to complete a mandatory sustainability and climate change literacy module online, which included videos followed by a short written response.

“[I am] confident that Cornellians … are destined to help us create a future in which our choices as a society are overall better across each of sustainability’s areas of focus — including learning from the current global challenges to help inform a new future,” Brylinsky said. “What would a ‘disposable’ but more sustainable alternative to plastic wrap look like? How could we make it affordable? Safe? Easy to use?”