Environmental moves create happy campus

By Gord Stewart

Worms are on duty now at the University of Waikato, chomping through food scraps and organic waste from the campus food court.

The industrial-size worm farm, affectionately known as the "Faculty of Worms", can handle four tonnes of organic waste a year.

The decomposed matter is spread on university gardens as rich fertiliser, and taken home by staff for their gardens. It's a perfect way to turn waste into a valuable resource.

This is just one small part of the university's campus sustainability scheme, an initiative that was given a chance through the passion and commitment of Professor David Hamilton and colleagues on the university's environmental policy committee.

I was interested in the university's sustainability efforts and rang Dr Hamilton a while back to see if we could have a chat.

"Would you consider doing an environmental scan of campus operations?" I asked him. "Have a look at options and opportunities for improvement? Search for ways to reduce environmental impact and save the university some money?"

"Let's do it," was his simple reply.

So with funding from the facilities management division and tremendous support from its director and staff, the study was launched. We considered five areas: energy, water, waste, transportation and purchasing. We compared progress and efforts with other universities in New Zealand and we looked to some leading overseas institutions for ideas and inspiration.

What did we learn?

In terms of facility operations and grounds management, the university is right up there. It has put good systems and practices in place and was taking steps to improve where it was warranted.

The interesting part was the attitudes and behaviours of the faculty, staff and students. Take energy use. An energy audit, carried out with 10 student volunteers, had assessed electricity use in unoccupied rooms after working hours.

It documented lights and air-conditioning left on and computers, printers and monitors left running in a random sample of rooms.

Extrapolated across the university, the cost of this wasted electricity was nearly $370,000 a year. Cut this in half and the savings from this alone would be enough to fund an ongoing campus sustainability programme.

A similar audit looking at waste found that 88 per cent of material thrown away as rubbish was recyclable. Reduce this percentage and it's a win for the environment and more money in the university's pocket.

We completed our report and presented the findings and recommendations to the vice-chancellor - and held our breath.

"I intend adopting this report and acting on its recommendations," was his response. Now that was music to our ears.

Rachael Goddard, with more than a decade's experience in the field, became the environmental and sustainability co-ordinator. I caught up with her recently to see how things were going.

In her brief time on the job, they have already done updated audits, surveyed staff and students about sustainability, and prepared a waste minimisation plan.

They have run a "green ideas" competition for students, created "Ratty the Recycler", a student-designed environmental issues "spokesperson" to feature in animated educational videos, and now publish both a monthly Going Green at Waikato newsletter for staff and students and a quarterly Greening Up Campus newsletter for the public.

And they are about to complete a clean-up of Oranga Lake on the campus.

They have removed sediment that has built up over 45 years and will use it as a base for planting a native wetland that will increase biodiversity on the campus and can be used for education.

Community planting days have helped revegetate the lake edge.

I say "they" because, while Ms Goddard has a plan and a passion for the task, she recognises that success comes through teamwork - and takes time.

"The communications department is brilliant, the grounds manager is fantastic, as is the group facilities manager and academic staff with advice.

"The list goes on," she says.

"The secret is to combine our special skills and pursue things in an enjoyable, creative way."

There are lessons here for organisations large and small.

From the family farm, small shop or restaurant to offices, healthcare facilities and large manufacturing plants, sustainable business practices make good sense.

They can save you money, reduce your impact on the environment, enthuse and engage staff, and enhance your image, to name a few key benefits.

If this sounds interesting for your place of work, but you're not sure where to start, check out the Sustainable Business Network's website, www.sustainable.org.nz, for practical tools and resources and a sense of just what's possible.

The next step is to say: "Let's do it."

Gord Stewart is an environmental sustainability consultant. He does project work for government, industry, and non-profit organisations.

- Hamilton News

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