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Nitrogen Footprint Tool: Reducing Nitrogen at the Institutional Level

Published November 6, 2017
Many universities have calculated their carbon footprints to identify where they can make their campuses greener, but that’s not the only source of pollution that big institutions can think about. EPA researcher Jana Compton wants to help them to look at their nitrogen footprints, too. Nitrogen pollution can negatively affect air and water quality, as well as public health.
Dr. Compton and a group of researchers from seven academic institutions used the Nitrogen Footprint ToolExit to calculate the nitrogen footprints of six universities and a marine laboratory to see where they could reduce their outputs. The tool measured how much nitrogen was released as a result of specific activities including utilities (heating and cooling), transportation, food production, food consumption, fertilizer use, management of research animals, and agricultural research. 
A recently published articleExit authored by the researchers looks at the nitrogen footprints of Brown University, Colorado State University, Dickinson College, Eastern Mennonite University, Marine Biological Laboratory, University of New Hampshire, and University of Virginia. 
Researchers calculated how much energy and food students consumed based on data from meal plans and on-campus housing facilities. They used the dining services’ inventories of ingredients purchased and amount of food composted or donated to estimate the impact of their food production. And they gathered data on utilities and transportation from the carbon footprint calculations that the institutions had already established. 
For five of the seven institutions, food production was the dominant source of their nitrogen footprints. Utilities were the primary source for the University of Virginia and agricultural research was the primary source for Colorado State University. These data can help universities understand where they can focus sustainability efforts and can also strengthen strategies for new management practices.
Thirteen additional institutions have begun using the Nitrogen Footprint Tool. The researchers aim to develop footprints for many institutions to encourage widespread management strategies that will create significant reductions in nitrogen being released into the environment. The research recently won the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education’s 2017 Campus Sustainability Research AwardExit.