Feature Story | UVa's Nitrogen Footprint

UVa's Nitrogen Footprint and What You Can Do

by Alley Leach, Ariel Majidi, Jim Galloway, and Andrew Greene

December 6, 2012

The Nitrogen Environmental Footprint Reduction Plan (N-EFRP) is a university-wide campaign to measure and to raise awareness about UVA's nitrogen footprint. Nitrogen pollution can detrimentally impact the environment, contributing to smog, acid rain, biodiversity loss, eutrophication, and more consequences in a cascade of environmental changes. While much awareness and literature exist regarding the carbon cycle, the importance of the nitrogen cycle has not yet received similar attention. UVA faculty, researchers and students are leading the movement to monitor nitrogen pollution on a personal and institutional level through the N-EFRP and the N-PRINT (www.N-Print.org) projects.

Universities have far-reaching impacts through education and research; however, their activities can also negatively impact the environment. To maintain basic operations, universities must provide power to their facilities and food for their students and staff. Food production processes like fertilizer application and waste management greatly affect nitrogen pollution. Many universities also house extensive animal care facilities and maintain substantial landscapes. All of these activities and more can then affect the local, regional, and even global environment - often with detrimental consequences.  A case in point is the nitrogen pollution lost to the environment due to university operations.

A team of researchers at UVA has developed the first institution-level nitrogen footprint model, estimating the current nitrogen footprint projecting to 2025. UVA's nitrogen footprint considers the following categories: food production and consumption, utilities, transportation, research animals, and fertilizer use. The model is also used to test scenarios on the most effective ways to decrease the N footprint.

The total nitrogen footprint of the University in 2010 was 517 MT N (metric tons of nitrogen; Figure 1 above). Utilities usage and food production release the most nitrogen pollution on the university level. Utilities usage, including electricity and heating, contributed the most (45%) to the University footprint. Food production, which occurs off-Grounds, was the second biggest contributor to the footprint at 40%. The remaining sectors (food consumption, on-Grounds fertilizer usage, transportation, and research animals) make up the remaining 15%. Of the food categories, meat production made up the largest portion of the footprint at 22% with dairy and eggs being the next largest contributor at 10%. Personal food choices, therefore, can have a big impact on a nitrogen footprint.

If no actions were taken to decrease N losses to the environment, by 2025 the N footprint would increase by 25% to 648 MT N (Figure 2 below). However, scenario testing with the model shows that by 2025 the N footprint will be decreased by 6%, relative to 2010, due to currently planned activities (e.g., sewage plant upgrades) and an additional 14% by additional N-reduction strategies (e.g., food composting, energy conservation, and purchasing more sustainable food).

UVA has a great opportunity to be a leader in managing nitrogen pollution. Other universities and institutions are already beginning to use the nitrogen footprint model developed at UVA. If you are interested in reducing your personal nitrogen footprint, please visit this website www.n-print.org/change to calculate your N footprint and learn more. If you are interested in reducing UVA's nitrogen footprint, you can make efforts to conserve energy on Grounds, reduce food waste, and choose sustainable food options. You can also get involved with organizations that promote sustainability on grounds, such as the UVA Food Collaborative and Green Dining at UVA. Help UVA become a leader in nitrogen sustainability!



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