The Sierra Club, North America’s oldest and most influential environmental organization, has given UC Santa Cruz one of its highest rankings ever in an annual list of "the nation’s most planet-minded universities."

In its highly anticipated "Cool Schools" issue, Sierra, the Sierra Club’s glossy magazine, ranked UCSC number seven this year in its list of nearly 120 sustainability-minded colleges and universities, while calling special attention to "the Banana Slugs' fight against trash" including "the eschewing (of) dining trays and bottled water. That's one reason its waste-diversion rate soars at 84 percent."

Sierra gave UCSC an overall sustainability score of  74.3 points. In comparison, the number one ranked school this year, the University of Washington, came in at 81.2 points.

This marks an increase over 2010, when UCSC tied with Middlebury College for the number 11 slot.  In 2009, UCSC broke into the top 10 for the first time, placing at number seven. In other words, the campus has tied with its own personal best.

The increased ranking comes at an appropriate time for the campus, where the staff, students and faculty turned the campus an even deeper shade of green by launching a series of ambitious projects: a delegation that was sent to Taiwan to advise students, faculty and staff about sustainable practices on campus; a new Carbon Fund to assist with on and off-campus carbon-reduction projects; and a series of award-winning retrofits to campus buildings, including energy-saving lighting at the Science & Engineering Library.

Just making it onto the top 10 list at all shows an unusual degree of commitment, said Avital Binshtock, Sierra’s lifestyle editor. “The pattern for schools [in the top 10] is an across-the-board commitment to sustainability in every realm. It must be integrated into the school’s culture.”

A number of factors led to the ranking increase over last year, Binshtock said. One of them was UCSC’s “perfect 10” performance in the purchasing category, which includes the use of recyclable paper, energy-saving electronic equipment, and a bare minimum of packaging waste. She also pointed out that Sierra slightly tweaked the formula this year to reflect current energy priorities including energy sourcing. UCSC also scored high in waste diversion, green-minded administrative practices and the incorporation of sustainable thinking into its curriculum.

Binshtock also observed a new trend among the "greenest" schools in America: "Schools are setting specific goals for themselves, whether it is going carbon-neutral by a certain date, or reducing a certain percentage of their energy by a specific timeline."

UCSC is among those schools with a specific deadline. Its sustainability plan calls for greenhouse emissions to fall below 1990 levels in the year 2020.

Binshtock  also noticed a larger percentage of universities with immersive outdoor learning programs built into their curriculum, from camping trips to farming classes and biodiversity sessions held in forests. She called this the "experiential imperative," getting students out of the lecture halls and, literally, out in the field.

UCSC was one of four University of California schools featured in the top 10 "Cool Schools" list. The others were UC San Diego, which ranked at number three, UC Irvine, at number six, and UC Davis, which came in at number eight.

Sierra has been listing and rating “green” universities in its annual "Cool Schools" issue for the past five years by sending out highly detailed sustainability surveys to universities and ranking the results.However, the magazine initially ranked entire school systems instead of individual campuses; in 2007, the University of California system – as a whole—was given a number four ranking on the list.