Virginia Harris, Office for Sustainability Student Employee

In 2013, the University of Virginia (UVA) became the first institution to set an official Nitrogen reduction goal: reduce the university’s reactive nitrogen losses by 25% below 2010 levels by 2025. 

Continuing on its path to assess and reduce the harmful impacts of reactive nitrogen, UVA became the first university in the world to release a Nitrogen Action Plan to meet this groundbreaking nitrogen reduction goal. By creating this first-ever Nitrogen Action Plan, UVA sets a transparent road map to meet its goal.

Thanks to the pioneering research from Jim Galloway and the Nitrogen Working Group, UVA is home to leading-edge nitrogen research that looks at impacts, causes and reduction strategies for reactive nitrogen. While most nitrogen in the atmosphere exists as inert gas, reactive nitrogen is found in many forms that contribute to environmental and human health issues, including algae blooms, ozone depletion, forest dieback, and respiratory illness. Reactive nitrogen is a common byproduct of three important processes: energy combustion, food production, and wastewater treatment. In order to reduce nitrogen at the local level, UVA began tracking its footprint in 2010 using a model developed by former student Allison Leach and developed the action plan to identify reduction strategies across the three sectors.

In 2016, six years into the reduction process, UVA’s nitrogen footprint had a 17% reduction below 2010 levels, primarily driven by food, wastewater, and energy use reductions. While these changes were all in the right direction, future challenges of increases to UVA’s population and square footage growth require UVA to identify innovative strategies to meet the goal.

To meet these challenges, the UVA Nitrogen Working Group (especially Izzy Castner and students Libby Dukes, Rachel McGill and Alicia Zheng), under the Committee on Sustainability, worked with UVA’s Dining Services and Facilities Management to develop new nitrogen reduction initiatives, which would then be included in UVA’s Nitrogen Action Plan. The plan, published in May 2019, outlines more aggressive changes in the food and energy sectors, which strategies such as replacing gasoline fleet vehicles for electric, encouraging plant-forward dining options in dining halls and reducing food waste will reduce UVA’s nitrogen footprint, demonstrating how institutions can take a leadership role in mitigating nitrogen’s impact on the planet.

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