With the launch of Fast Forward: MIT’s Climate Action Plan for the Decade, the Institute committed to decarbonize campus operations by 2050 — an effort that touches on every corner of MIT, from building energy use to procurement and waste. At the operational level, the plan called for establishing a set of quantitative climate impact goals in the areas of food, water, and waste to inform the campus decarbonization roadmap. After an 18-month process that engaged staff, faculty, and researchers, the goals — as well as high-level strategies to reach them — were finalized in spring 2023.
The goal development process was managed by a team representing the areas of campus food, water, and waste, respectively, and includes Director of Campus Dining Mark Hayes and Senior Sustainability Project Manager Susy Jones (food), Director of Utilities Janine Helwig (water), Assistant Director of Campus Services Marty O’Brien, and Assistant Director of Sustainability Brain Goldberg (waste) to co-lead the efforts. The group worked together to set goals that leverage ongoing campus sustainability efforts. “It was important for us to collaborate in order to identify the strategies and goals,” explains Goldberg. “It allowed us to set goals that not only align, but build off of one another, enabling us to work more strategically.”
In setting the goals, each team relied on data, community insight, and best practices. The co-leads are sharing their process to help others at the Institute understand the roles they can play in supporting these objectives.
Sustainable food systems
The primary food impact goal aims for a 25 percent overall reduction in the greenhouse gas footprint of food purchases starting with academic year 2021-22 as a baseline, acknowledging that beef purchases make up a significant share of those emissions. Additionally, the co-leads established a goal to recover all edible food waste in dining hall and retail operations where feasible, as that reduces MIT’s waste impact and acknowledges that redistributing surplus food to feed people is critically important.
The work to develop the food goal was uniquely challenging, as MIT works with nine different vendors — including main vendor Bon Appetit — to provide food on campus, with many vendors having their own sustainability targets. The goal-setting process began by understanding vendor strategies and leveraging their climate commitments. “A lot of this work is not about reinventing the wheel, but about gathering data,” says Hayes. “We are trying to connect the dots of what is currently happening on campus and to better understand food consumption and waste, ensuring that we area reaching these targets.”
In identifying ways to reach and exceed these targets, Jones conducted listening sessions around campus, balancing input with industry trends, best-available science, and institutional insight from Hayes. “Before we set these goals and possible strategies, we wanted to get a grounding from the community and understand what would work on our campus,” says Jones, who recently began a joint role that bridges the Office of Sustainability and MIT Dining in part to support the goal work.
By establishing the 25 percent reduction in the greenhouse gas footprint of food purchases across MIT residential dining menus, Jones and Hayes saw goal-setting as an opportunity to add more sustainable, local, and culturally diverse foods to the menu. “If beef is the most carbon-intensive food on the menu, this enables us to explore and expand so many recipes and menus from around the globe that incorporate alternatives,” Jones says.
Strategies to reach the climate food goals focus on local suppliers, more plant-forward meals, food recovery, and food security. In 2019, MIT was a co-recipient of the New England Food Vision Prize provided by the Kendall Foundation to increase the amount of local food served on campus in partnership with CommonWealth Kitchen in Dorchester. While implementation of that program was put on pause due to the pandemic, work resumed this year. Currently, the prize is funding a collaborative effort to introduce falafel-like, locally manufactured fritters made from Maine-grown yellow field peas to dining halls at MIT and other university campuses, exemplifying the efforts to meet the climate impact goal, serve as a model for others, and provide demonstrable ways of strengthening the regional food system.
“This sort of innovation is where we’re a leader,” says Hayes. “In addition to the Kendall Prize, we are looking to focus on food justice, growing our BIPOC [Black, Indigenous, and people of color] vendors, and exploring ideas such as local hydroponic and container vegetable growing companies, and how to scale these types of products into institutional settings.”
Reduce and reuse for campus water
The 2030 water impact goal aims to achieve a 10 percent reduction in water use compared to the 2019 baseline and to update the water reduction goal to align with the new metering program and proposed campus decarbonization plans as they evolve.
When people think of campus water use, they may think of sprinklers, lab sinks, or personal use like drinking water and showers. And while those uses make up around 60 percent of campus water use, the Central Utilities Plant (CUP) accounts for the remaining 40 percent. “The CUP generates electricity and delivers heating and cooling to the campus through steam and chilled water — all using what amounts to a large percentage of water use on campus,” says Helwig. As such, the water goal focuses as much on reuse as reduction, with one approach being to expand water capture from campus cooling towers for reuse in CUP operations. “People often think of water use and energy separately, but they often go hand-in-hand,” Helwig explains.
Data also play a central part in the water impact goal — that’s why a new metering program is called for in the implementation strategy. “We have access to a lot of data at MIT, but in reviewing the water data to inform the goal, we learned that it wasn’t quite where we needed it,” explains Helwig. “By ensuring we have the right meter and submeters set up, we can better set boundaries to understand where there is the potential to reduce water use.” Irrigation on campus is one such target with plans to soon release new campuswide landscaping standards that minimize water use.
Reducing campus waste
The waste impact goal aims to reduce campus trash by 30 percent compared to 2019 baseline totals. Additionally, the goal outlines efforts to improve the accuracy of indicators tracking campus waste; reduce the percentage of food scraps in trash and percent of recycling in trash in select locations; reduce the percentage of trash and recycling comprised of single use items; and increase the percentage of residence halls and other campus spaces where food is consumed at scale, implementing an MIT food scrap collection program.
In setting the waste goals, Goldberg and O’Brien studied available campus waste data from past waste audits, pilot programs, and MIT’s waste haulers. They factored in state and city policies that regulate things like the type and amount of waste large institutions can transport. “Looking at all the data it became clear that a 30 percent trash reduction goal will make a tremendous impact on campus and help us drive toward the goal of completely designing out waste from campus,” Goldberg says. The strategies to reach the goals include reducing the amount of materials that come into campus, increasing recycling rates, and expanding food waste collection on campus.
While reducing the waste created from material sources is outlined in the goals, food waste is a special focus on campus because it comprises approximately 40 percent of campus trash, it can be easily collected separately from trash and recycled locally, and decomposing food waste is one of the largest sources of greenhouse gas emissions found in landfills. “There is a lot of greenhouse gas emissions that result from production, distribution, transportation, packaging, processing, and disposal of food,” explains Goldberg. “When food travels to campus, is removed from campus as waste, and then breaks down in a landfill, there are emissions every step of the way.”
To reduce food waste, Goldberg and O’Brien outlined strategies that include working with campus suppliers to identify ordering volumes and practices to limit waste. Once materials are on campus, another strategy kicks in, with a new third stream of waste collection that joins recycling and trash — food waste. By collecting the food waste separately — in bins that are currently rolling out across campus — the waste can be reprocessed into fertilizer, compost, and/or energy without the off-product of greenhouse gases. The waste impact goal also relies on behavioral changes to reduce waste, with education materials part of the process to reduce waste and decontaminate reprocessing streams.
As work toward the goals advances, community members can monitor progress in the Sustainability DataPool Material Matters and Campus Water Use dashboards, or explore the Impact Goals in depth.
“From food to water to waste, everyone on campus interacts with these systems and can grapple with their impact either from a material they need to dispose of, to water they’re using in a lab, or leftover food from an event,” says Goldberg. “By setting these goals we as an institution can lead the way and help our campus community understand how they can play a role, plug in, and make an impact.” More