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WashU Grounds Team Practices Sustainability

Written by Communications Associate, Jarea Fang

Groundskeeping is a year-round task. From raking leaves in the fall, watering lawns in the summer, to plowing sidewalks during winter, WashU Grounds Services and service contractor, Focal Pointe Outdoor Solutions, have their hands full. Spring is an especially beautiful time of year around campus. With daffodils, cherry blossoms, and other foliage coming to life once more, it’s difficult not to marvel at our groundskeepers’ hard work.   

Aside from being known as one of the United States’ most beautiful college campuses, WashU takes pride in its sustainability initiatives. In 2020, WashU became a founding member and leader of the Midwest Climate Collaborative, whose mission is to achieve a carbon-neutral, climate-resilient, interconnected Midwest region. In 2022, WashU was recognized nationally for its institution-wide sustainability efforts and maintained its gold STARS certification from the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE).  

“One important motto at Focal Pointe is to reflect the ideals of those we serve, so we always are working to align with WashU’s mission and our campus partners like the Office of Sustainability,” says Cody Azotea, Focal Pointe Manager. “Knowing these goals and visions help us make decisions to reflect them in the campus landscape and our operations.”  

Come along to learn more about WashU Grounds and Focal Pointe’s sustainable endeavors!  

Sustainability & Groundskeeping 

For college students who sleep in during the weekends, off-campus leaf blowers and lawnmowers are the absolute worst. (Fun fact: WashU Grounds avoids doing work in residential areas on weekends.) Not only are these pieces of equipment noisy, they also emit harmful toxic pollutants into the air, including but not limited to carbon monoxide, nitrous oxides, and hydrocarbons. This is because many consumer-grade leaf blowers and lawnmowers are gas-powered and use two-stroke engines, which lack independent lubrication systems and mix fuel with oil. Considering a leaf blower emits nearly 300 times the amount of air pollutants as a Ford pickup truck, it’s worth considering alternative equipment and practices to lessen the environmental damage.  

WashU Grounds is committed to lead by example. This year, they debuted 10 all-electric lawnmowers and are working on adding additional electric equipment like line trimmers, blowers, saws, and more in the future.  

“We have been converting equipment over to electric for a few years now,” says Chris Anderson, Grounds Services Manager. “This was a big step forward in reducing emissions and noise on campus, and we will continue to look for opportunities to convert equipment where possible.”  

Another success story is the approach to pest control, which is an environmentally-conscious approach called Integrated Pest Management (IPM). This method seeks to manage pests by understanding their lifecycle, their interaction with the environment, and the most economical and common-sense means to mitigate damage while creating the least possible hazard to people, property, and the environment. The WashU Grounds team carefully determines threshold limits and the most fitting management techniques, which allows our green spaces to thrive with the occasional herbicide during growing seasons but very little insecticides and fungicide overall.  

The most interesting challenge for groundskeepers everywhere is, perhaps, the inevitable generation of yard waste. In 2018, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimated that the generation of yard trimmings–grass, leaves, and tree and brush trimmings from residential, institutional and commercial sources–in American municipal solid waste was 35.4 million tons, which is 12.1% of all municipal solid waste. 10.5 million tons of those yard trimmings went into landfill, which comprised 7.2% of all municipal solid waste in landfill.  

Missouri, however, is in a unique position compared to the rest of the nation. Courtesy of a 1980s effort to divert organic matter from landfill, yard waste is actually banned from Missouri landfills. Instead, it’s common practice for grass, leaves, branches, and Christmas trees to be recycled or composted.  

In a similar vein, WashU Grounds is starting to “leave the leaves.” By identifying certain areas on campus to remain undisturbed during fall season, wildlife such as butterflies, moths, bees, and beetles get to use the fallen leaves as habitat for surviving winter. Some of these “leave the leaves” areas include Snow Way Hill Prairie, Elizabeth Danforth Butterfly Garden, and the natural area along Wallace drive. Not only does leaving the leaves reduce labor, resources, and emissions related to fall landscape cleanup, but also allows for the leaves to break down into natural mulch, suppressing weeds and adding nutrients to the soil.  Other campus leaves and clippings get mulched in place by mulching blades used by the Grounds team.

During winter, groundskeeping habits are worth reexamining as well. For the past couple years, WashU Grounds has been utilizing more power brushes to clear snow. These remove snow cleaner than shovels and blades, which can then help reduce salt use and subsequent plant damage.  

“There are many variables with snow, so that is not always the case, but in general they have improved efficiency and reduced salt,” says Chris, who is looking forward to incorporating more sustainable groundskeeping practices in the future.  

Staying Grounded 

Since 2020, WashU has been a Level 2 Accredited Arboretum. This year, Danforth Campus should reach 6,000 trees, and the School of Medicine will be close to having 2,500 trees. This is a great milestone for the campus canopy and the WashU community, as well as the greater St. Louis region.  

“The Focal Pointe team is excited to have been a small part in this over the past 5 years,” says Cody, who–along with Chris and many others–has been working on the Washington University Arboretum since the beginning. “You should keep a watch on the diversity of trees on campus, as our tree species count is now up to 329, with 108 of those being native to Missouri. Working with Stan Braude, WashU Arboretum curator, and the Arboretum Committee, we are hoping to source and plant all 153 species of trees native to Missouri on campus.”  

As the weather warms up and the world starts to bloom, we implore you to stay grounded. Take a pause out of your busy day to appreciate the world. Absorb the details with all your senses. Learn more about Missouri, St. Louis, and the plants or wildlife that call our campus home. Educate others around invasive and native species, local activism and celebrations. Make note of how the landscape changes throughout the day and seasons. It is through these observations and connections that you will learn how to care for the land around you, wherever that may be. 

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