Undergrads calculate CSU’s 2014 nitrogen footprint

Julia Rentsch

As the largest member of the first cohort of schools taking part in a nationwide project to measure the nitrogen footprints of college campuses, Colorado State University has finalized its data on its nitrogen emissions for 2014.

From left to right: Adelle McDaniel, Alexa Grafton, Julia Sullivan and Jacob Kimiecik stand in front of their nitrogen report poster. (Photo courtesy of Jacob Kimiecik).
From left to right: Adelle McDaniel, Alexa Grafton, Julia Sullivan and Jacob Kimiecik stand in front of their nitrogen report poster. (Photo courtesy of Jacob Kimiecik.)

The project, which was undertaken by the Student Sustainability Center and lead by SSC president Jacob Kimiecik, was presented at the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education’s annual conference and expo Oct. 25-28 in Minneapolis. 


Kimiecik and members of the SSC conglomerated data from various departments on campus into a comprehensive footprint analysis. 

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, nitrous oxide is naturally present in the atmosphere as part of the Earth’s nitrogen cycle, but human activities such as agriculture, fossil fuel combustion, wastewater management and industrial processes are increasing the amount in the atmosphere.

“Now, we have too much of a good thing,” said Dr. Jill Baron, an ecologist and senior research scientist with CSU’s Natural Resource Ecology Lab in the Warner College of Natural Resources who advised the CSU team. She cited eutrophication, marine dead zones, loss of plant biodiversity and health problems for humans as several negative effects of excess nitrogen emission.

The interdisciplinary CSU team included Malissa Balthrop, Alexa Grafton, Lauren Hughes, Ashley Johnston, Carly Maher, Jacqueline Maher, Adelle McDaniel and Julia Sullivan. 

“In January, when we came back for the spring semester, we put together a team of 10 undergraduate students including myself to tackle this, and to me, this is the most interesting thing about this project at CSU,” Kimiecik said. “We’re the only university where undergraduate students did this entirely.”

Sullivan, who worked with McDaniel and Grafton to collect nitrogen emissions data about student transportation to and from campus, said she learned a lot from working on the project.

“(Before) I just didn’t know how broad and far-reaching the impacts (of nitrogen) were,” Sullivan said. 

CSU’s status as a land-grant institution makes calculating its nitrogen footprint of strong interest to researchers due to its large amount of agricultural activity, and particularly that which involves livestock. 

Data on nitrogen emissions from utilities, transportation, food purchasing, fertilizer and research animals were included in the analysis. Animals and livestock are particularly important in the equation, Kimiecik said, because of what they eat. 

“We have stuff like penguins and llamas coming through here because our vet school is so prestigious,” Kimiecik said. “We have to figure out what kind of food they eat and how much of it, because apparently there’s a lot of nitrogen in the food.”


Baron said the animals “eat a lot and poop a lot … there’s no way around this.” 

A breakdown of CSU's 2015 nitrogen footprint by category. Click the picture for a clearer view. (Chart by Julia Rentsch).
A breakdown of CSU’s 2015 nitrogen footprint by category. Click the picture for a clearer view. (Chart by Julia Rentsch).

Another source of excess nitrogen that is difficult to mitigate comes from fertilizers. 

“Our fertilizer use at CSU is extremely unique. We far and away have the largest fertilizer footprint, and that’s mostly because there’s a lot of fertilizer research being done on this campus,” Kimiecik said. “The issue with that is we’re not going to tell researchers to stop doing nitrogen research with their fertilizer.”

Though the project originated at the University of Virginia, the ultimate goal was to inspire institutions around the country to participate.

Operating alongside CSU and UVA in the first cohort of schools were students from Dickinson College, University of New Hampshire, Brown University, Eastern Mennonite University and the Marine Biological Laboratory. 

“Throughout the fiscal year, we collect purchasing records, travel records, all sorts of things, and at the end of the year whatever department is keeping track of that stuff will consolidate it in a spreadsheet, and then yeah, once they do that they send it to us and we enter it as fast as we can,” Kimiecik said.

Though CSU is the largest university to participate, current data show that UVA has the largest nitrogen footprint. Kimiecik said this is most likely because CSU’s number has not yet taken into account the amount of agriculture-related nitrogen that is emitted. 

“For each individual category I’d say (the numbers) are pretty accurate, but as a whole look at the nitrogen footprint for the institution, it doesn’t have all the pieces of the puzzle quite yet. We have like 80 percent of the puzzle,” Kimiecik said. “Where we are lacking at present is agricultural data, and that’s not a matter of us not knowing how to get that in there, it’s just a matter of us not having the time to get the data together and put it in there.”

Now that a process is in place for measuring the university’s nitrogen footprint, mitigation strategies are planned to follow. Additionally, the students are trying to get their report published in an environmental journal, hoping that other institutions get interested in the project.

The group plans to keep refining their calculations, and will soon set up meetings with members of the President’s Sustainability Committee and members of Facilities Management with the aim to incorporate the information into CSU’s Climate Action Plan, which Kimiecik said “doesn’t incorporate nitrogen in any way.”

Because many techniques to reduce carbon emissions also reduce nitrogen emissions, some plans in the works include expanding the amount of local food purchased for the dining halls, encouraging less driving and expanding use of renewable energy on campus. Additionally, they hope to eventually combine the nitrogen footprint tool with the Campus Carbon Calculator, an established tool for measuring an institution’s carbon footprint.

“So if I think they can combine those two which is in the long run the plan, this’ll just explode for college campuses,” Kimiecik said. “There’s hundreds of schools that already use that carbon calculator.”

As a summation of the need for action on nitrogen emissions, Kimiecik cited a quote from Baron.

“Jill, she’s not the one who came up with this quote, but it hit me pretty hard when she told it to me — ‘Nitrogen is the biggest disaster that nobody’s ever heard of.'”

Collegian Reporter Julia Rentsch can be reached at news.collegian.com and on Twitter at @julia_rentsch.