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From data collection to change: nearly a decade of nitrogen footprint reduction

Since first analyzing the University’s nitrogen output in 2010, the Nitrogen Working Group has strived to reduce its footprint through strategies, projects



Since publishing the Nitrogen Action Plan in April 2019, the Nitrogen Working Group — a committee within the Office of Sustainability — has been working on tracking and reducing the University's nitrogen footprint, as well as making steps to research how individuals and Charlottesville as a whole can make changes with individual and community nitrogen output. 

With the creation of this plan and the additional projects, the nitrogen footprint of the University can be continuously monitored and decreased. Members of the community can learn how their individual choices can affect the institution’s output of nitrogen into the environment and their own. Small individual actions can include reducing the amount of food thrown away and choosing to reduce the amount of protein eaten during a meal.

The Nitrogen Action Plan — available online — is a document that outlines strategies for the University to further reduce its nitrogen impact in order for the University to meet its nitrogen reduction goal. These strategies include minimizing food waste, encouraging more plant-based meal options, decreasing greenhouse gas emissions and energy use and continuing research on how to decrease the nitrogen footprint. 

In 2013, the University became the first institution of higher education to map its own nitrogen footprint. Then-graduate student Allison Leach mapped the University’s nitrogen impact and set estimates for future emission data with the support of Andrew Greene from the University’s Office of the Architect and under the guidance of James Galloway, environmental science professor and researcher. A year after that model was published, the Board of Visitors committed to reducing the University’s nitrogen emissions by 25 percent by 2025. 

Nitrogen is often overlooked in discussions surrounding climate change because it has been talked about fairly recently, Galloway explained.

“People have been talking about increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and impacts of the global climate since the 19th century,” he said. “For nitrogen ... it's not global, except for one instance. It’s local, and it's complicated. But the root cause, the root issue is how much energy we use, the type of energy and how much food we consume, and the type of food.” 

According to Nina Morris, sustainability outreach and engagement manager at U.Va. Sustainability, publication of the plan hopes to educate students and other members of the University community on how nitrogen is affected by institutions and individuals and encourage them to make choices that would reduce loss of nitrogen to the environment. 

“We hope the Nitrogen Action Plan demonstrates to the U.Va. community how U.Va. is addressing its environmental impacts while also informing them on ways in which individual choices can help minimize reactive nitrogen losses to the environment,” Morris said.

Behind this plan is the Nitrogen Working Group, which was formed in 2014 to head projects to track and reduce the nitrogen output of the University. Currently, it is led by Galloway, Libby Dukes — project manager for the Nitrogen Footprint Tool Network — and two student co-chairs, fourth-year College students Sam Mogen and Julia Stanganelli. 

In addition to developing the Nitrogen Action Plan, the group is also involved in tracking the nitrogen footprint of the entire Charlottesville community and collaborating with the company Babylon Micro Farms to study the nitrogen impact of hydroponic food — food grown without soil but with mineral nutrient solutions — by fitting hydroponic lettuce with sensors. These hydroponic plants are a common sight in O’Hill and Newcomb dining halls.   

Focusing on food is necessary for nitrogen reduction, as food is the biggest contributor to the University’s nitrogen impact. Nitrogen as air pollution can be reduced by using energy alternatives and increasing energy efficiency, but reduction of the nitrogen footprint through food management is more challenging. Loss of nitrogen to the environment can happen through fertilizer not taken up by crops, consumer food waste and livestock waste. 

“We all need to eat food,” Galloway said. “With carbon, there are real options for how you get your energy that can decrease how much CO2 is in the atmosphere. For nitrogen, the only real options are people decreasing how much protein they eat.” 

Because of this, the Nitrogen Working Group has been working with U.Va. Dining and with dining facilities within the Health System to implement scenarios that include more plant-forward and vegetarian options, as well as food waste reduction. The group has also been researching the impact food labels in dining halls has on student choice in collaboration with the psychology department. According to Dukes, dining services at the University are supportive of the strategies but cannot put aside student preference. 

“Dining has been really on board with all of our ideas, but also [they say] student choice is the big thing that drives what [they] purchase,” Dukes said. “I think the biggest challenge is education and then educating people in a way that they change their behavior.”

Galloway agrees that education is a challenge for these reduction strategies and not just for undergraduates. Ideally, students in high school and middle school in Albemarle County would learn about nitrogen reduction and footprints during class, Galloway explained. 

Dukes and Galloway are also involved in nitrogen footprint reduction beyond Charlottesville. They set up the Nitrogen Footprint Tool Network in 2014, which comprised of a group of universities committed to tracking their nitrogen footprint and finding strategies to reduce it and received a five year $750,000 grant from the Environmental Protection Agency to support the project. From this network, an integrated carbon-nitrogen footprint calculator called the Sustainability Indicator Management and Analysis Platform was launched integrating Leach’s institutional nitrogen calculator she created when at the University. Dukes is the project manager for the Network. 

“We have about 20 right now that are active participants,” Dukes said. “And what we do is, as a network, we have these schools calculate their nitrogen footprint, and… [come] up with reduction strategies for not only for U.Va. but other institutions on what makes sense to reduce their nitrogen footprint.” 

The next step for the Nitrogen Working Group at the University will be strategizing once again to meet the recent greenhouse-gas neutrality goal the University has set for 2030 in conjunction with the College of William & Mary.

This article has been updated.