Framework for Reducing Nitrogen Pollution on College Campuses Receives National Award

The Marine Biological Laboratory (MBL) and six partners have received an award for developing “The Nitrogen Footprint Tool Network,” a program for assessing and reducing the amount of nitrogen pollution produced on college and research campuses. The partners received the  “Campus Sustainability Research” award last month from the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE).

The award recognizes the collaborative effort of the seven academic institutions to measure, compare, and analyze options for reducing their nitrogen footprints. The group published its research results in April 2017 in a special issue of Sustainability: The Journal of Record.

Among the collaborators are principal investigator James Galloway, a MBL Trustee and the Sidman P. Poole Professor of Environmental Sciences at the University of Virginia; and Elizabeth de la Reguera, formerly a research assistant in the MBL Ecosystems Center and now a graduate student at University of Maryland.

Composting of cafeteria food waste can significantly reduce an institution’s nitrogen footprint. Credit: USDA/Wikimedia

Composting of cafeteria food waste can significantly reduce an institution’s nitrogen footprint. Credit: USDA/Wikimedia

The seven institutions in the Sustainability issue, along with 13 others, are members of the Nitrogen Footprint Tool Network, which was coordinated at University of Virginia by lead author Elizabeth Castner, now a graduate student at University of California, Davis.

“Scientists at the MBL Ecosystems Center have been documenting the detrimental impacts of excess nitrogen on coastal ecosystems for many decades,” says Ecosystems Center Director Anne Giblin. ”We have also been studying nitrogen removal strategies and ecosystem restoration techniques that can be used to mitigate some of the harmful impacts of nitrogen on coastal systems. However, this project is the first time we have worked on ways to eliminate the problem at its source, which is by far the most effective and least expensive solution.”

According to the study, nitrogen footprints for the seven institutions ranged from 7.5 metric tons of nitrogen (MT N) at the MBL to 444 MT N at the University of Virginia. The nitrogen footprints correlated strongly with institutional population, but there was a wide range of per capita footprints, from 7 kg nitrogen to 27 kg nitrogen per full-time equivalent person. Factors that contributed to differences in per capita nitrogen footprints included the proportion of an institution’s population living on campus with full or partial meal plans, dietary choices, energy sources and engagement in research that is nitrogen intensive.

Upstream food production was the largest source of nitrogen pollution for five of the institutions, contributing 50 percent of the footprint on average, followed by utilities, which contribute 33 percent on average.

The largest sector of the MBL’s nitrogen footprint is food production, at 55 percent of total. Utilities is the second-largest sector, at 22 percent of total. Scenarios that were analyzed for reducing MBL’s nitrogen footprint included composting 75 percent of food waste, which would reduce the footprint by 0.1 metric tons nitrogen, and adopting energy efficiency strategies.

The institutions reporting in the Sustainability special issue include the MBL, Brown University, Colorado State University, Dickinson College, Eastern Mennonite University, University of New Hampshire, and University of Virginia.

The Nitrogen Footprint Tool Network’s efforts are sponsored by the Environmental Protection Agency’s Sustainable and Healthy Communities Research Program through a cooperative agreement with the University of Virginia. Started in 2014, the network’s agreement runs through 2019.


The Marine Biological Laboratory (MBL) is dedicated to scientific discovery – exploring fundamental biology, understanding marine biodiversity and the environment, and informing the human condition through research and education. Founded in Woods Hole, Massachusetts in 1888, the MBL is a private, nonprofit institution and an affiliate of the University of Chicago.