NYU Sustainability: A Q&A with Our Chief Sustainability Officer

Cecil Scheib shares how NYU and its students contribute to a sustainable future

In 2007 NYU promised New York City it would cut carbon emissions by 30 percent in 10 years. The University accomplished this goal in only five. Cecil Scheib, NYU’s assistant vice president for sustainability, says the University saved approximately $30 million on energy during that same time period. Since then, it saves about $15 million annually, mostly due to efficiency improvements to campus buildings. These include switching from oil to gas for heating and cooling. Now NYU Sustainability is pursuing similar improvements across many levels and from many stakeholders, including its students. We asked Scheib how students can contribute to the University’s efforts to be more green.

Cecil Scheib smiling and standing in front of foliage.

What should incoming students know about NYU’s sustainability initiatives?

NYU students are in the front lines of the climate crisis fight. Due to their advocacy, NYU cut its greenhouse gas emissions by 30 percent in just five years. That’s like over 65,000 acres of trees—more than all of Manhattan and Brooklyn combined! We are now on our way to 50 percent by 2025. Most of this gain comes from making our student residences, classrooms, and labs more energy efficient. And it’s not just about taking steps to address climate change. For better or worse, most students spend over 90 percent of their time indoors. NYU’s green building strategy helps improve indoor air circulation. This in turn helps students perform better. So the University’s strategy is a win-win for all.

A row of Citi bikes on a street.

What are some sustainability-focused programs first-year students can get involved with when they arrive on campus?

The first thing students should do when they get to campus is look out for sustainability events during Welcome Week. Every year, we introduce students to our programs and initiatives during fall Welcome Day. We take students on a green tour of campus and orient them on how to travel around the city by bike. Students can also find various communities interested in sustainability and relevant topics during Club Fest.

Those who choose to live on campus should consider applying for the EcoReps program. This program allows students to educate themselves and fellow residents about sustainability at NYU. The very first program the EcoReps run is the Green Room Pledge, where residents can make a commitment to live sustainably in on-campus housing. Throughout the year, the EcoReps spearhead activities like the Zero Waste Challenge, where students put all of their nonrecyclable trash in a plastic bag that they then carry around for an entire week; NYUnplugged, an inter-residence hall energy conservation challenge; and the Green Apple Move Out, a campus-wide spring cleaning during which students donate unwanted items to Goodwill.

A group of students viewing solar panels outside.

Are there any programs in the planning stages?

Students will take the lead in solving local and planetary environmental issues as NYU becomes carbon neutral by 2040. By reducing our energy waste and then buying clean and green power, NYU will show how students and faculty can succeed academically without damaging the health of the people or the world around us. The same principles apply to trash and food. Students have a lot of opportunities to get involved here.

How do trash and food affect sustainability?

Sustainability and energy-saving efforts must focus not merely on dealing with the waste we’ve created but also on reducing the amount we make of it in the first place. For example, instead of addressing how we recycle single-serve water bottles, we need to ask why we are using them to begin with, particularly when there’s good, free drinking water all over campus. Food is another commodity that goes to great waste. In fact, some of the finest minds on the planet in both environmental science and food studies here at NYU say that one of the most impactful things we can do is choose menu options lower on the food chain.

What is the NYU Green Grants program and what types of projects has it made possible?

The Green Grants program is an opportunity for any member of the NYU community to apply for funding up to $20,000 to implement an innovative or entrepreneurial idea that advances sustainability. Some past projects have become successful businesses and stand-alone ventures. For example, RISE found a solution for waste in the food industry by turning spent grains from breweries into nutrient-rich flour. Green Grant projects that are now institutionalized at NYU include the Bike Share program, a free bike rental service, and GoGreen Week, a student-led effort across NYU’s three degree-granting campuses and global locations.