Dara O'Rourke's 11.122 class (Environment and Society) applied the tools of environmental impact research to the MIT campus, with the goal of defining the "environmental footprint" the Institute creates through its normal operations.
Students in the fall course taught by O'Rourke, assistant professor in urban studies and planning, interviewed faculty, students and staff; took surveys; and analyzed MIT data on material flows such as water use, energy use, solid waste in the food service system and transportation. Their research is presented at the course web site at http://footprint.mit.edu.
"I was very impressed with the ability of MIT undergraduates to conduct serious research on different aspects of MIT's environmental impacts," said O'Rourke. The students also took a hard look at current courses offered at MIT that relate to the environment and at the dearth of environmental subject matter covered in the main engineering and science degree programs.
The energy and resource efficiency of dorms, dining halls and Athena clusters were noted, and students also made recommendations for more sustainable practices.
Students inventoried all reusable (washable) dishes and utensils as well as all disposable tableware (plastic to-go boxes, paper cups, plastic bottles, plastic utensils, Styrofoam items) in analyzing dining halls at MIT.
Next House emerged as the "most environmentally friendly dining facility" on campus. It was the only residential venue to participate in composting and to heavily emphasize the use of porcelain dishes and reusable utensils.
Lobdell was a different case, with by far the most traffic of any meal venue. An average of 1,200 people stream through the food court each day--most of those in the course of a single hour.
The emphasis in both Lobdell and Walker on take-out food service generates a significant amount of packaging waste, the student research team noted. The food court establishments on the whole generate significantly more trash per person than the residential dining venues. The average meal at Baker, for instance, produces around half a pound of trash (food and non-food waste), while the average meal at Walker produces 1.25 to 2.1 pounds of garbage.
Acknowledging their peers' need to use electricity to produce papers--"unless you plan on writing all your papers on a typewriter by candlelight"--the student researchers said that cutting back on energy consumption merely by using less electricity was unreasonable. But within dorms, other factors could significantly cut energy use.
One was high-efficiency washing machines, which MIT has already started to use. For someone who does a load of laundry once a week, converting to high-efficiency washers can save 90 kilowatt-hours each week; with about 5,000 students in dorms, the Institute stands to save $45,000 a year, which would cover the cost of replacing all washing machines within five years.
Another is reducing use of personal-size refrigerators in dorms, which require three times as much energy per volume as ordinary full-size models in labs and elsewhere on campus, and four times as much as full-size, high-efficiency refrigerators.
A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on May 7, 2003.