While the switch to online learning has taken time to adjust to, there have been some upsides to working from home. Whittier College is expected to have reduced carbon emissions and overall had a positive environmental impact while the campus has been closed.
As observed in 2009, a study by the National Wildlife Federation shows that moving learning online is actually beneficial for the environment, reducing carbon emissions when in an online setting, rather than going into a classroom for traditional learning. It also stated that, by taking online courses, emissions could be cut to nearly 90 percent. A full-time student going through their regular day emitted roughly 180 pounds of CO2, while students online were only producing about four pounds.
The study notes that tracking the measurement of carbon footprints in the U.S. (at least at the time it was written) was lacking, and how the lack of emphasis on online learning made it hard to study its effectiveness. It does note, however, that universities that did adopt online learning were noticing an improvement in their environment, and that they hoped that more schools would be able to adopt an online learning platform in the future.
Now, nearly a year into the COVID-19 pandemic, colleges everywhere have started to realize more how distanced learning is affecting their college campus, whether that be through their energy consumption, or the amount of CO2 produced. A study by the University of West Georgia showed that, for every 100 students that did not commute to school, CO2 emissions were cut by five to 10 tons. Transportation alone is responsible for about a third of greenhouse gasses in the USA.
This study, conducted in 2011, also noted that, by taking online classes, there was increased accessibility to campus resources, and an added benefit of controlling disease transmission. In 2021, this piece of information is more relevant than ever. In addition to studying from your own home, it helps to save on paper. On average, 60 percent of school waste is paper, and one ton of paper waste is about the equivalent of 16 trees. By submitting everything online, the use of paper has gone down drastically.
“I think that having instructions and other activities being conducted remotely has likely resulted in a reduction in GHG emissions due to fossil fuel consumption. This reduction is directly related to commuters working from home, myself included,” said Chair in Biology and Associate Professor of Environmental Science, Cinzia Fissore. “In terms of waste, that is hard to quantify, as some of the waste — or any other type of consumption — may have simply moved to a different location, specifically our homes. I have not seen studies that looked at quantifying emissions pre- and during stay-at -home restrictions, but it would be interesting to see if there is a difference in emissions and how big it is.”
Environmental Action Advocate for Associated Students of Whittier College and the sitting chair for the Whittier College Environmental Committee Nona Golden responded to the inquiries of Whittier College’s own waste output. While there are yet to be any studies regarding Whittier’s energy and waste consumption since the pandemic has started, Golden provided data that was taken in 2019 regarding the Campus Inn dining, averaging around 43,577.6 pounds of waste per school year — something that has clearly changed, as a majority of students are now schooling from home, and a limited number of students now reside on campus.
While Golden does note that there has been a decrease in greenhouse/gas emissions, these are only temporary. “One of my concerns for the post-pandemic world is that emissions may rapidly increase to higher rates than before, as corporations may try to ‘make up’ for economic losses by ramping up production,” she said.
Professor Fissore has similar sentiments, though is uncertain about the increase when students return back to campus. “Our return to campus in the Fall will likely result in an increase in consumption (water, energy, etc.) as well as waste (water waste, trash, food, etc.) on site, but it is unclear if these amounts will be similar to 2019 values, as a lot depends on [the] number of people on campus and other individual decisions and choices,” Fissore said. “Something to keep in mind is that some of that consumption and waste is simply transferred from home to campus when we reopen — think about food, water, [and] energy.”
That being said, with her role on ASWC and the Environmental Committee, Golden is excited to start a collaboration between the Sustainability Club, Food Recovery Network, and the Environmental Committee. “We’re hoping to work together and establish a good relationship among environmentally-focused groups on campus, since we all have common goals,” she said.
When students are able to return to campus, whenever that may be, their relationship with their school environment will, hopefully, improve as well.
Featured image: Courtesy of Emerson Little/ Quaker Campus.