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Three Zeros InitiativeIt sounds like a new fitness program. And in many ways that’s what Three Zeros is.

Instead of a way to shed unwanted pounds, though, the Three Zeros Initiative is Carolina’s integrated approach to reducing its environmental footprint through three overarching sustainability goals:

  • Net zero water usage means finding new ways to reduce the use of drinking water and expand the use of reclaimed water (treated wastewater for non-drinking purposes);
  • Zero waste to landfills calls for reducing the materials coming onto campus and maximizing efforts to reuse, recycle and compost waste instead of automatically tossing it in the garbage; and
  • Net zero greenhouse gas emissions focuses on minimizing the reliance on hydrocarbons (such as coal, petroleum and natural gas) while switching to renewable energy sources wherever practical.

Each is a laudable goal. Together, they represent a pretty ambitious undertaking, but Chancellor Carol L. Folt believes that Carolina is up to the challenge. In fact, the initiative was her idea.

“Chancellor Folt started the whole thing. As we worked on the campus Sustainability Plan, we met with Chancellor Folt, and she said we have to go big,” said Brad Ives, associate vice chancellor for Campus Enterprises. “Actually, she had already formulated the idea for the University to target these three zeros.”

A key component that Folt emphasized is for Carolina to be a living-learning laboratory, Ives said. Examining sustainability from a cost-saving standpoint as well as a path to new teaching and research opportunities gives Three Zeros the potential for far-reaching impact.

“What things can we do here that use a specific technology or way of working and expand that out – to the rest of the UNC system, to our state, the country and the world? That’s our mission,” he said. “If we can do that while we use our campus as the place to experiment, we’re leveraging the education here to benefit everyone as we benefit ourselves.”

Carolina’s Sustainability Plan ( created a framework for examining sustainability efforts campus-wide and identifying ways to integrate them into teaching, research and engagement activities, as well as campus operations, said Cindy Shea, Sustainability director.

“Hearing from Chancellor Folt early on about her priorities encouraged everyone to be aspirational in what we might accomplish,” she said. “We looked at sustainability from the viewpoint of what an individual can do, what the University teaches, how we can collaborate across disciplines, how we can use the campus to model new approaches to sustainability and the impact we want to have, not only here but around the globe.”

Three Zeros, which launched this fall, provides a way to aggregate many of those efforts, to examine what the University has already accomplished and how to build on that success.

Trimming water use

For years, Carolina has worked to conserve water. Since 2000, total water consumption has dropped by 88 million gallons a year, and drinking water usage has been reduced by 60 percent per square foot, even as the campus has grown by 7.3 million square feet.

Projects to improve stormwater runoff and incorporate reduced-water plumbing fixtures in buildings have made a difference. So has harvesting and reusing rainwater collected in underground cisterns to help flush toilets in new buildings and irrigate many campus landscapes.

All the campus chiller plant cooling towers now operate on reclaimed water from the Orange Water and Sewer Authority, which has reduced potable water use on campus by almost 200 million gallons annually, Ives said. The closed-loop chilled water system cools campus buildings and equipment.

The ultimate goal is to use drinking water only where necessary, and next steps include finding even more uses for reclaimed water and creating innovative ways to further reduce water consumption.

Cutting waste

True zero waste really isn’t feasible, Ives said, but the University is targeting a 95 percent reduction. This includes cutting in half the in-bound waste such as fast-food packaging and the cardboard boxes, Styrofoam and air bubble packaging used in transporting products the campus community needs. The goal is then to recover 90 percent of the remaining half through reuse, recycling or composting.

Ives’ office is working with Procurement Services and Facilities Operations (also part of the Division of Finance and Administration) to explore ways to meet that goal.

The University is already seeing the benefit of food waste reduction and broad-based recycling programs. While the campus population increased from 35,000 to 41,000 in the last 15 years, the per capita waste has decreased by 12 percent. In addition, the food waste from Lenoir and Rams Head Dining Halls is now composted, and long-term goals include expanding food waste composting to other locations.

Sometimes the simple things make a big difference. For example, during the drought in 2007-08, Dining Services stopped using cafeteria trays in order to conserve water, and a side benefit was a reduction in food waste. Without trays, students took only as much food as they could carry, which cut down on leftover food and ultimately helped the University know what dishes students preferred. “We never went back to trays,” Ives said.

Reducing greenhouse gases

In 2007, the University pledged to become greenhouse gas neutral by 2050, and administrators hope to accelerate that time frame – although Ives acknowledged that there are significant challenges in weaning the campus off its hydrocarbon-dependent energy sources.

The Cogeneration Plant on Cameron Avenue, the biggest source of carbon emissions, burns coal and some natural gas to produce electricity and steam, and the Manning Steam Plant burns natural gas. Any electricity not produced on campus comes from the Duke Energy grid, which draws about 25 percent from coal, Ives said.

“We are a steam-driven campus,” he explained, “so we have to continue to provide ways to generate steam. It would cost more than $1 billion to replace that infrastructure.”

In 2010, the University pledged to stop burning coal at the Cogeneration Plant by 2020. Meeting that goal, however, proved more aspirational than practical, Ives said. Energy Services conducted a limited test by co-firing coal with wood pellets, but technical problems, cost and transportation issues made that alternative unworkable.

It takes a lot of energy to heat, cool and power a large research university like Carolina that has nearly 500 buildings, including numerous laboratories and an adjacent medical center. Putting solar panels on every campus rooftop would only supply around 1 percent of the current power demand, Ives explained.

A primary way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions is to use less energy. By improving the campus energy infrastructure and incorporating energy-efficient measures in new and renovated buildings, the University has cut greenhouse gas emissions by 10 percent since 2007 as building space increased by 2.6 million square feet.

Collaborating across campus

The University needs pragmatic, impactful solutions for each of these three areas that together advance the larger initiative, Ives said. “If these things were easy, we would have done them already,” he added.

Beginning with simple measures that everyone can take, such as recycling papers and turning off lights, Three Zeros will branch out to large-scale, collaborative endeavors.

“This is really everyone’s topic,” Shea said, “so we want people to find ways to work together beyond their individual areas or a particular class assignment.”

She encourages people to take the campus sustainability tour and hopes that faculty will incorporate class projects that examine policies and regulations from legal, political and scientific perspectives, or that develop creative financing solutions for new endeavors. Suggestions are welcomed and can be submitted at

Incorporating a variety of viewpoints also is key. That’s one reason Ives wanted to channel the energy and commitment of former student activist Tait Chandler to reach out to students and other stakeholders about Three Zeros.

Chandler, a former member of the Sierra Student Coalition’s Beyond Coal team, now works as a special assistant to Phil Barner, director of Energy Services. Among other things, he helps coordinate the initiative’s advisory board meetings and researches energy-related topics. He also is helping Energy Services explore the feasibility of creating a solar farm with battery storage on campus property.

“Three Zeros is a real campus-changing goal,” Chandler said. “As a student activist, I was accustomed to viewing administrators as the immovable piece, but now I see how complex and time-intensive these initiatives are and that many well-meaning people are working every day to change things for the better.”

The University plans to re-examine the initiative’s goals at five- and 10-year milestones and to add new projects along the way.

The ultimate aim, Shea said, is to ensure that the sustainable choice is the easy choice, not simply the smart choice.

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