George Mason earns solid gold in sustainability


For its commitment to campus sustainability, George Mason University has earned a Gold rating in the STARS (Sustainability Tracking, Assessment and Rating System) Assessment. STARS is a self-reporting framework for colleges and universities to measure their sustainability performance and is offered by the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE). George Mason has received four consecutive STARS Gold ratings and was the first Virginia university to earn that rating in 2014.  

Yellow flower
George Mason earned a Gold rating in the STARS assessment for the fourth consecutive time, Photo by Evan Cantwell/Office of University Branding

STARS was administered by staff from University Sustainability and University Business Consulting. This year, George Mason demonstrated improvements in several performance categories, earning a total of 73.66 points. The university’s score increased 13% since the last assessment in 2021. The threshold for earning a Gold rating is 65 points, and George Mason is only 11.34 points away from earning the highest honor, STARS Platinum. Rankings are valid for three years.

Amber Saxton, program manager in University Sustainability, co-led the university-wide assessment with Minh Le, senior consultant in University Business Consulting.

“STARS recognizes what we are doing well, puts our sustainability planning and execution in context with peers nationwide, and helps us create a roadmap for continued improvement,” Saxton said. “Mason’s Gold rating reflects a comprehensive effort from stakeholders across the university, from research to operations.”
Renovated men's soccer locker room
Sustainable purchasing is part of George Mason's STARS Gold rating. Locker room renovations for the men's soccer team included sustainable upgrades like lockers made from recycled content and responsibly sourced materials and energy-efficient lights. This project was supported by the Patriot Green Fund. Photo by Shelby Burgess/Office of University Branding

Consistent success in campus sustainability

George Mason has consistently earned high scores in the STARS categories for sustainable transportation programs, stormwater management, and academics and research. George Mason also scored highly in the innovation category for its on-campus gardens, food bank (the Student Support and Advocacy Center's Patriot Pantry), and sustainability project grant funds (Facilities’ Patriot Green Fund and the Institute for a Sustainable Earth’s new Mason as a Living Lab fund).

People work together in the greenhouse on campus
The on-campus gardens help Mason score consistently high in the innovation category on STARS. Photo by Evan Cantwell/Office of University Branding

High marks in these categories reflect the commitment of stakeholders across the university.

“Mason departments and colleges have prioritized sustainability as a strategic part of their performance criteria and benchmarks for progress,” said Greg Farley, director of University Sustainability. “Mason has set a goal to be the highest-scoring AASHE STARS school in Virginia by 2030, so University Sustainability and its partners will need to keep pushing forward.”

Measuring the culture of sustainability

This year, George Mason earned new points in the sustainability literacy and culture category for launching a survey to measure students' sustainability literacy, culture, and behavior. Recent graduate Nikita Lad, PhD Environmental Science and Policy ’24, and K.L. Akerlof, associate professor of science communication, administered the survey to a representative sample of undergraduates in fall 2022 and spring 2023.

“The survey measured what factors affect students' sustainability behaviors and whether their knowledge and behaviors changed through formal or informal programming during their college careers,” said Lad.

The theoretically informed survey model found that time spent on campus and informal program participation influenced students’ nature connectedness and norms, which in turn affected sustainability behaviors. Lad shared the research study through a webinar with other members of AASHE and hopes to collaborate with other universities on future iterations of the survey.

Smartphone takes a photo of a plant on campus for Bioblitz
Through Bioblitz, the Mason Nation crowdsources the identification of species across campus. Photo by Cristian Torres/Office of University Branding

Bioblitz made an impact

George Mason earned new points in biodiversity this year thanks to Bioblitz, a crowdsourced assessment of plant and animal species on campus. Through an app, the Mason Nation helped identify and monitor endangered and vulnerable species around the university. In spring 2024, more than 500 biodiversity observations were entered into the Bioblitz app by 107 observers, documenting 273 species. 

Bigbelly waste stations being installed on campus
Bigbelly solar waste stations were recently installed across George Mason's campuses. Photo by Facilities

Moving toward zero waste

New efforts to improve waste diversion boosted George Mason’s score in that category. Facilities Management, University Sustainability, Auxiliary Services and Operations, and other campus partners worked to expand composting, reduce single-use plastics, and promote the use of certified compostable and aluminum products.

George Mason is expected to improve further in this category in the future, with the installation of new Bigbelly solar waste stations across its campuses, the development and implementation of new design standards for “zero waste” bins, the addition of glass recycling, and the future launch of a reusable food container pilot and paper towel composting.

Mason earned one of the highest STARS ratings among Virginia universities. As of April 2024, the University of Virginia earned 74.85 points, George Mason University earned 73.66 points, and Virginia Commonwealth University earned 66.4 points. Participating institutions can earn points toward a STARS Bronze, Silver, Gold, or Platinum Rating, or earn the STARS Reporter designation.