University of Virginia: On Earth Day, Sustainability Is Promoted In Many Corners On Grounds

Savannah Schuermann ensures the trash from University of Virginia alumni reunions stays out of landfills.

Dr. Matthew Meyer helped swap carbon-heavy anesthesia gases for more Earth-friendly ones.

Track and field athlete Sadey Rodriguez uses social media to encourage other UVA athletes to make greener choices.

Sustainability takes many paths at the University of Virginia, and it has many faces – from faculty to staff to students.

Today, to mark the 52nd Annual Earth Day, we checked in with three Hoos who are taking specific actions to make the University and the community a greener place.

Savannah Schuermann
Savannah Schuermann, senior associate director of alumni events at the UVA Alumni Association, runs “zero-waste” events. By that, she means 90% or more of the trash from gatherings like Reunions Weekend is recycled or composted instead of being hauled to a landfill.

Schuermann and her team certified the Alumni Association as a Green Workplace in 2020, making “zero waste” a baseline for events at Alumni Hall.

Portrait of Savannah Schuermann
Savannah Schuermann runs “zero-waste” events, which means that a 90% or more of the produced waste is diverted from the landfill. (Contributed photo)

“Our events team and marketing team have worked together to reduce superfluous paper or plastic handouts at events,” Schuermann said. “Instead of printing thousands of glossy events guides for our large alumni events, we use a mobile app to make access to information waste-free.”

She said items distributed to alumni are useful and high-quality, therefore less likely to be discarded later. And she works closely with UVA staff to develop the annual summer reunion programs.

“We first did this in 2019, saving thousands of pounds of waste from the landfill, and plan to do it again this summer for our first in-person reunions program since 2019,” Schuermann said. “This was, and is, a heavily coordinated effort between our team, the UVA Facilities Management team, UVA Office for Sustainability and our caterers. It is not a one-person job, by any means.”

The Reunions Weekend experience includes catered class dinners on the Lawn, with up to 600 guests per event.

“A large catered event has the potential to create a lot of waste – from disposable plates, utensils and barware to leftover food, and everything in between. Ensuring that we generate as little waste as possible requires clear and consistent communication between all of our partners,” Schuermann said.

While this is only the second year of the zero-waste effort for the annual Reunions program, Schuermann said that as the guests better understand it and the student workers remain flexible, the event will improve each year.

Matthew J. Meyer
Dr. Matthew J. Meyer, a critical care anesthesiologist and an assistant professor of anesthesiology, as well as co-chair of UVA Health Sustainability Committee, has been instrumental in changing out anesthetic gases at the Medical Center.

“Anesthetic gases contribute a surprisingly large amount to a health system’s carbon footprint – up to 50% of total operating room emissions,” Meyer said. “Desflurane is the worst offender of the anesthesia gases, and in the past few years the UVA Department of Anesthesiology has eliminated almost all desflurane usage.

Portrait of Matthew J. Meyer
Dr. Matthew J. Meyer has been instrumental in changing out anesthetic gases at the Medical Center. (Contributed photo)

“While we are proud of the work we have done, there is still opportunity to further reduce anesthetic gas emissions through attention to fresh gas flows and anesthesia gas selection.”

Meyer said there are “unquestionably” other chemicals in the Medical Center that have an outsized impact on the health system’s carbon footprint.

“If anyone knows of such a chemical, and there is an effective substitute that would be less harmful to climate health, please email us at UVAhealthsustainability@virginia.edu and we would love to help you make the switch,” Meyer said.

Sustainability fits well into the ethos of the Medical Center, and Meyer said his colleagues have been “overwhelmingly positive” in response to his efficiency and sustainability efforts.

To Meyer, environmental health and patient health are inextricably linked.

“A healthy and safe environment is essential for a healthy patient,” Meyers said. “Pollution is harmful to global population health. The goal of the health care system is to make patients healthier. If our clinical choices are resulting in excess consumption and unnecessary pollution, then we are unintentionally harming the health of our patients.”

Sadey Rodriguez
Sadey Rodriguez, a “green athletics intern” in UVA’s Office for Sustainability, is using social media to mobilize the student-athlete community.

“We want to promote intersectional awareness regarding sustainability topics that impact student-athletes and the diverse communities we come from,” said Rodriguez, a discus thrower on the track and field team.

Her posts cover a wide variety of topics, including recipes for plant-based dishes, appeals for food pantry donations and promoting vegetarian potluck meals.

Portrait of Sadey Rodriguez
Sadey Rodriguez is using social media to mobilize a community of green athletes. (Photo by Matt Riley, UVA Athletics)

Rodriguez, a fourth-year environmental science major, has about 225 student-athlete followers to her Instagram account, which she said represents about a third of the student-athlete population on Grounds. She said she can see involving intramural athletes in the future. She said that while athletes are her primary market, there are also about 50 non-athletes who follow the account

“The Instagram page has helped us to gain more members, and for student-athletes to have basic resources on sustainability topics we don’t normally explore in the classroom or on the field, such as plant-based eating, environmental justice or sustainable menstrual health,” she said. “We hope to let people know that student-athletes are aligned with the University sustainability goals, and we are looking to do our part when it comes to meeting them.”

Rodriguez became the green athletics intern in fall of 2019, and initially was focused on waste diversion at athletics events. Then COVID-19 hit, and sporting events were shut down. With guidance from the Office for Sustainability and the Athletics Department’s academic staff, Rodriguez moved sustainability activities onto Instagram.

“This is when Instagram started to become a tool to get sustainability opportunities and education out to more student-athletes,” she said. “In this process, I learned that most people care about sustainability, but they need some help finding their personal ‘why.’ Building a sustainability brand based off your community’s interests is so important.”

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