What is the SP Challenge?

The Sustainable Pittsburgh Challenge enables organizations to compete in a friendly, yearlong challenge program against peer organizations.  Any organization pursuing sustainability goals will find a customizable roadmap in the SP Challenge Master Playbook, which breaks sustainability into its smallest actionable parts, or Actions, which are separated into their respective Sustainability Focus Areas. Complete Actions to earn points and move up in the leaderboards! 

The SP Challenge gives businesses, non-profits, municipalities, and colleges/universities the opportunity to include sustainability-based activities in an approachable competition that provides tools, information, and guidance necessary to reduce costs, improve performance, and increase long-term sustainability.

The SP Challenge steps beyond national trendsetters in enabling participants to actively track and receive credit for their verified actions in a secure environment. Because the Challenge involves the verification of potentially sensitive information, all data used in the competition remains confidential and secure. Only broad characterizations of competition performance (in the form of competition points) and aggregated savings across all participants are public.


About the Seven Sustainability Focus Areas 
or, What is sustainability, anyway?

The SP Challenge breaks sustainability down into actionable parts so that participants are encouraged to make progress where they can over time. Actions may be as simple as having plants in your workplace (improving air quality and employee morale) or as complex as installing renewable energy on-site (reducing pollution and increasing energy independence). We believe that every action makes a difference. Through the seven Focus Areas, we demonstrate our commitment to the 3 Es of sustainability: Environment, Equity, and the Economy. Below, you will find a description of each Focus Area, their importance to our region, and the ways in which they are interrelated.

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Understanding that lasting change in any organization requires wide participation, we have created the Engagement Focus Area to help participants strategically engage with their employees and their community to build appreciation for sustainability from the ground up. Through this set of Actions, you will begin to foster employee buy-in and leadership for larger organizational changes. Engagement Actions include holding workshops, forming a Sustainability Team, and hosting educational group activities like gardening, field trips, or film screenings. The Engagement Actions go hand-in-hand with each of the other Focus Areas to help you facilitate change.

Engaging with individuals from the platform you may have as a business owner, manager, or leader will help build the coalition for action on local initiatives (Ex: City of Pittsburgh’s Climate Action Plan; Millvale EcoDistrict) to achieve the ambitious UN Sustainable Development Goals.

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Social Equity

This Focus Area provides a step-by-step roadmap for creating an inclusive and equitable work environment. Social Equity Actions ask you to assess your organization’s approach to diversity and inclusion and then implement strategies for continuous improvement. This includes ensuring that you are recruiting from the full breadth of diversity in our region, providing inclusive benefits, and guaranteeing equitable salaries.

The Social Equity Actions asks you to reflect on your organization’s inclusion practices. Who feels included or excluded? Why? “75 percent of white residents say they feel very welcome in southwestern Pennsylvania, compared to 36 percent of minorities. And 79 percent of whites feel the region embraces racial and ethnic minorities but only 41 percent of minorities agree.”

An engaged employee is one who is heard. To be heard, organizations must foster an inclusive environment. The Social Equity Focus Area can help your organization tackle the tough questions to create a framework for active, meaningful inclusion. Understanding and reflecting on the privileges you may hold, purposefully listening, and checking your defenses can go a long way to implementing these actions successfully.

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The Energy Actions begin by asking organizations to start tracking their current baseline. In order to set goals, we have to know what the present picture looks like. This is true for all seven of the Sustainability Focus Areas. For the SP Challenge, we ask participants to use Energy Star Portfolio Manager, a free tool by the EPA, which allows organizations to input meter data for energy, water, and materials for one or more buildings. Find out more about how we use Portfolio Manager here. We also include tenant-specific actions for those who may not have direct access to their utility information.

Up to 50% of our regional electricity comes from coal, depending on which area your organization is located, causing combined CO2 emissions from southwest Pennsylvania, Ohio, and West Virginia to be about 25% higher than the national average. The way we produce and consume energy has effects on air and water quality for generations to come.

Through participants’ concerted efforts, advocacy, and collaboration, we can begin to collectively move the needle on our regional energy mix to long-term sustainable options. At the end of the competition, aggregate data shows what combined efforts can do.

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The Pittsburgh region is surrounded by an abundance of water, a resource growing increasingly scarce in other parts of the United States. However, the region’s aging water infrastructure has raised deep concerns about water quality, both for recreational purposes and for daily consumption. Rainfall is expected to increase in frequency and intensity with a changing climate, leading to higher risk of flooding, landslides, and Combined Sewer Overflows (CSOs). A combined sewer is designed to carry both rainwater and household sewage, which discharge into the river when they are beyond capacity. In Allegheny County, even light rainfall –as little as 1/10th of an inch of rain—can trigger a CSO, pouring pollutants into the three rivers. This is due to the buildings, pavements, and other impervious surfaces of our built environment which prevent water from being absorbed into the earth.

The American Society of Civil Engineers gives nationwide drinking water infrastructure a grade of D, with wastewater infrastructure faring slightly better at D+.  It is estimated that drinking water infrastructure alone will require an investment of $1 trillion over the next 25 years.  The Water Actions in the SP Challenge provide a guide for taking one step at a time toward better water, including installing green infrastructure to reduce stormwater runoff, conducting water tests, and installing water-conserving fixtures in your building.

Participants can measure water usage and reductions through Energy Star Portfolio Manager to earn points and see those water infrastructure changes pay off. Learn more about how we use Portfolio Manager here.

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Materials Management

Materials Management is being discussed much more recently thanks to China’s National Sword policy, wherein the Chinese government has decided to set a limit on the contamination level of the recycling that they receive, and from whom. Thanks to these market changes, some Pittsburgh neighborhoods are no longer accepting glass in residential recycling bins, requiring residents to find other ways to manage potentially recyclable materials. This adds to the already poor quality of waste management and might lead to a greater number of illegal dump sites, an issue that already plagues the region.

Materials Management also encompasses product sourcing and final disposal of things from office furniture to food scraps. “Only 3 percent of food is composted in the US and as a result, uneaten food is the single biggest component of municipal solid waste.” Whatever can be reduced and recycled saves materials, energy, water, and worker-hours. Materials Management Actions address each of these issues so that participants can practice waste reduction, audit their waste, and advocate for improved waste management policies at both the organizational level and the regional level.

Participants can measure their waste output and reductions through Energy Star Portfolio Manager to earn points and see the difference that behavior-changing campaigns can make. Learn more about how we use Portfolio Manager here.

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Transportation within the city of Pittsburgh is fairly accessible compared to the more suburban and rural areas that make up the 10-county region or Power of 32 region. Pittsburgh has a Walkscore of 62, making it fairly walkable for short commutes and errands. It also has an improving public transit system, including service from suburban areas. Despite that, single-occupancy vehicle transportation remains the primary commute option for many, contributing to increased traffic delays, worsening air pollution, and higher CO2 emissions.

Transportation represents both an air quality and social equity issue. Cars are a convenient option for those who can afford it, but many lower-income residents rely on public transportation, which can mean hours-long commutes for some, depending on affordable housing options and job opportunities. Prioritizing and incentivizing public transportation leads to expanded service and benefits to all. Pennsylvania has better transit options than some areas of the country, but still received a D in transit on its Infrastructure Report Card due to limited capacity and a lack of funding to address it.

Actions in the Transportation Focus Area provide opportunity to learn how employees commute and help them find ways to do so more sustainably through carpooling, bussing, biking, or other mode. CommuteInfo is a useful resource for starting your alternative commute. There are also Transportation Actions to engage in advocacy for improved bus, bike, and electric car infrastructure, along with internal policy changes that could encourage more employees to make use of public transit.

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Air Quality

A long history of industry and manufacturing has led to polluted air and related health issues, such as higher rates of asthma in the region. Despite some policy efforts and technological advancement to improve air quality, Pittsburgh-area residents still suffer some of the worst air quality in the country, due, in part, to a continued reliance on coal as an energy source. Southwest Pennsylvania’s air quality has been improving over time, but still falls short of EPA standards. The Air Quality Actions in the SP Challenge exist to help organizations do their part, not just to reduce harmful emissions, but to contribute positively to excellent air quality days. Air quality actions range from having plants in your office to retrofitting vehicles to reduce particle pollution.

Air Quality is also tied to Social Equity through Environmental Justice. Historically, lower-income and minority neighborhoods have been the de facto sites for nearby power plants, landfills, and factories, as NIMBYism took root in wealthier, more politically powerful areas. This has led to more severe health issues and medical debt, putting poorer communities at a further disadvantage. See the top polluting industrial facilities in Allegheny County here


The Sustainable Pittsburgh Challenge was formerly The Green Workplace Challenge

After four years of eye-popping impacts from more than 250 businesses and organizations competing in the Green Workplace Challenge, Sustainable Pittsburgh changed the name of the competition to better honor the extraordinary work of participants. In 2018, we welcomed participants for the first time to the newly named Sustainable Pittsburgh Challenge! 

The change results from the recognitition that many of the actions in this competition go well beyond the realm of “green.” The number of submissions of social equity and workplace diversity actions now rival those related to waste and recycling! Of course, the multitude of green actions remains available to participants in the Master Playbook. The Sustainable Pittsburgh Challenge (SP Challenge) encourages participants to take their efforts further, with the inclusion of a full spectrum of sustainable business practices encompassing the 3 Es: Environment, Equity, and Economy. We eliminated the term, “workplace” from the name of the program in recognition of the broad reach many participating organizations have beyond their immediate workplace.  For example, municipalities and nonprofit organizations often impact both the workplace and their community through policy and action.

All organizations of all sizes are urged to participate: businesses, municipalities, nonprofits, K-12 schools, colleges, and universities. With no fee to sign up, being part of the SP Challenge sets your organization on the path to savings, engaged employees, positive impacts, recognition, and fun.  Learn more and register your organization here: spchallenge.org/register.  It’s time to Compete, Save, and Win!

Check out the 2018 Sustainable Pittsburgh Challenge press release.

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