A giant leap for sustainability

October 6, 2006

Every little helps when it comes to going green, says Harriet Swain.

Turning off lights and photocopiers as well as recycling are small steps that make a big difference - so be positive and make an effort

Green? You're positively verdurous. You work from home, recycle your lecture notes and you always switch lights off. But, important as all this is, you also need to be switching others on to the importance of environmental issues, starting with students.

Iain Patton, director of the Environmental Association for Universities and Colleges (EAUC), says: "You have to ask yourselves if you are giving students the skills, understanding and values that will stand them in good stead in their vocational and private lives in the future."

He says environmental issues should be reflected in teaching and research as well as in how universities manage themselves - so not only should there be energy-efficient buildings on campus, universities should also be thinking about the environment in terms of how and what they teach.

Patton says that while it is easy for us all to recycle more, "we are going to have to look a bit deeper and ask what a university is for and what is the potential of a university to deliver a more sustainable future".

Stephen Sterling is Schumacher reader in education for sustainability at the Centre for Sustainable Futures at Plymouth University and teaches courses on sustainable education at Schumacher College, an independent college specialising in ecological issues. He says you should try to involve students as much as possible in decisions about the campus and encourage them to make suggestions for improvement. Students can play an important role in debate and research, including how the university uses resources and relates to its local community, Sterling suggests. This can be linked into the curriculum and research. "If universities oriented some of their research efforts towards local or regional sustainability issues, it would make a huge difference."

He says you should try to bring sustainability issues to the fore when students are looking for research topics. He adds that it might be possible to organise longitudinal studies using different cohorts of students researching a sustainability topic over years.

Brian Chalkley, director of the Geography, Earth and Environmental Sciences Subject Centre, also at Plymouth, says you should also raise the subject with your students in tutorials as part of their personal development, discussing to what extent their lifestyles engage with sustainability concerns. "It is one thing to learn about sustainability, another to live it," he says.

He advises lobbying to have learning and teaching policies changed in your faculty so that students are expected to graduate with an awareness of sustainability. If your university doesn't have a sustainability policy, he says you should lobby for one.

Patton says that as students are increasingly treated as consumers, they have more influence in demanding that their university support free and ethical global trade, recycle more and work closely with the local community.

"If academics and businesspeople are canny, they should recognise the mutually beneficial agenda of bringing student unions into this," he says. "Often vice-chancellors and management are much more receptive to student union demands about procurement decisions."

But you need to think carefully about how you do it. Keith Pitcher, environmental manager at Leeds University, which won an EAUC Green Gown award last year for waste management, says it is a good idea to refer to energy saving as "carbon management". "People then make the link and understand why they are doing it," he says. "It's not just about saving money."

He says you also need to make it clear that small changes make a difference. At Leeds, getting rid of staff bins increased the amount of waste recycled by nearly half. Switching off computers at the end of the day can save thousands of pounds a year, as can switching off photocopiers and printers, and using low-energy lightbulbs. "Start with small things and build up," he suggests.

Peter James, co-director of Higher Education Environmental Performance Improvement, which runs the Green Gown awards, says you should try to work not only with students and university managers but also with cleaners, who can play an essential part in making sure lights and equipment are switched off and that rubbish is recycled.

"People can do things as individuals in the areas they operate in, in terms of directly reducing their environmental impact but they can also make a difference as a group within an institution," he says.

Chalkley says you might want to consider carbon offset schemes - every time you travel, you acknowledge the amount of carbon you have used by paying towards replenishing carbon stocks (such as schemes that help increase soil fertility and rehabilitate degraded land in countries such as Africa, thus increasing crop yields and lowering atmospheric carbon dioxide).

Peter Hopkinson, director of the Ecoversity project at Bradford University, says much can be achieved through raising awareness. Bradford has asked senior managers to consider what they can do to contribute to a better environment, from using videoconferencing rather than air travel to avoiding using the car one day a week. Their pledges are monitored. One university has an "environmental message of the day" as a screensaver.

Another has taken pictures of rugby players dressed as pantomime dames for a campaign against dropping litter.

Finally, don't give in to feelings that regularly turning off the printer is unlikely to prevent global catastrophe. "Don't think there is nothing you can do," Chalkley says. "One has to be careful to avoid fatalism."

Further information

The Environmental Association for Universities and Colleges: www.eauc.org.uk

Higher Education Environmental Performance Improvement: www.heepi.org.uk

Leeds University tips on green computing: http://.leeds.ac.uk/iss/news/newsletter/connec35/waste.ht...


Get students on board

Think local in both teaching and research

Work on how you get the green message across

Remember that small changes make a difference

Switch off the lights

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