What Does Sustainability Mean on Campus?


In order to have a sustainable future the University of Waterloo must make several changes to its infrastructure, academic programs and its policies. The central theme towards creating a sustainable campus is a policy commitment to doing so, which states what the goals are and methods to obtain these goals. The changes that must be made to UW and its current policies have unique characteristics which are as follows.

One cornerstone to sustainability on campus is adoption of full-cost accounting, which takes into account the entire lifecycle of an activity or commodity. Full cost accounting would change current landscaping, purchasing, and parking, and will be discussed in further detail below. Another key to sustainability is to integrate environmental knowledge into each discipline in the school. One of the most important concepts is that of an environmental audit. These tools analyze all resource systems throughout the campus and can be used to identify and assess problems, as well as to create strategies and targets to mitigate the identified problems. Another concept is that of an environmental assessment (EA). An EA should be conducted, and passed, before any project that involves new infrastructure, or changes to existing infrastructure is approved. These changes if carefully followed will create a sustainable campus.

Characteristics of Changes and how the Campus will Change as a Result

Full cost accounting takes into account the production and its problems of a commodity, the actual useful life to the consumer of the commodity, and the disposal of the commodity. The price of the commodity is then adjusted to meet the cost of the remediation of the problems caused by the full life of the commodity. Implementing this policy at the University should cause several changes such as:

Another important concept in creating a sustainable campus is to integrate basic environmental knowledge in each discipline so that all students have a grasp of the idea of sustainability, and how they can help to create a sustainable society. A course like ERS 218 would be an ideal mandatory course because it has a personal audit, and deals with sustainable resource systems and the waste stream. Students also get a chance to do an environmental audit of a part of campus. Currently some disciplines focus on building more and more modern commodities but do not look at the environmental consequences of such ideas. Another important step in integrating environmental knowledge is to create an environment center for students, faculty and staff, where various environmental problems can be outlined and people can get information on how they can make a difference.

Environmental audits look at the entire resource systems of an area. The area can be something as small as an office or as large as the campus. Environmental audits of each building should be undertaken with a commitment to make improvements based on the audit results. This will mean changes to more energy efficient lighting and electrical systems, low water flow appliances, more composting, improved recycling, a reduction in toxics going "down the drain," a movement towards using less paper and more electronic mail and information, and improved weather-stripping and insulation of the campus buildings. There should be a stated time and date to achieve the goals of the audit and there should be target dates to assure that these goals are on schedule for completion.

An important approach to sustainability is to conduct an environmental assessment (EA) before an undergoing an undertaking that may have environmental consequences. An EA is an important process because it looks at many different systems that may be affected, including socio-economic systems. Integrated planning that includes environmental, social, and economic systems is important to sustainability. A proper EA will examine the need for the undertaking and will look at different ways of accomplishing the purpose of the undertaking. EA's allow for public input early, and often, and let all groups, including vulnerable groups, have input into the project. If a proposal does not pass an EA it must go back to the planning stages until a suitable proposal is constructed. EA's will be a crucial part of maintaining a sustainable campus because they will create an integrated planning process and should eliminate all undertakings with adverse environmental side effects from occurring. For example, the ideal location of the ring road in terms of minimizing environmental damage to laurel creek would have been to leave a large buffer zone between the road and the creek. There is no such zone in some areas and as a result the ring road has added to the problems in Laurel Creek. Another problem is large parking lots to accommodate the vehicles at UW. It is suggested that changing the parking lots to gravel would help to recharge the groundwater in the region as well as lessen the runoff into the Laurel Creek watershed. Clearly there is a need for EA in the plan for a sustainable campus at UW.

When will we be Sustainable?

It is hard to pinpoint the exact time the campus will, or can, become sustainable. The first step is to make sustainability a high priority. Until it is made a high priority there are limits to how sustainable the campus can indeed become. Currently the university is committed to reducing its waste by fifty percent by the year 2000. This is certainly a start. Perhaps the best place to start is by conducting environmental audits.

These audits can highlight immediate problems with resource systems. Based on the results of these audits schedules can be drawn up with targets and goals for improvements to these systems. When there is a noticeable improvement it can be said that UW is on the way to sustainability. However this is not enough.

Changing policy to implement full cost accounting is a major step for an institution because it means that costs will rise and this is economically undesirable. Full cost accounting can come in steps, perhaps starting with landscaping, and eventually moving to parking and purchasing. Until there is a commitment to realizing and meeting the full costs of its undertakings, the campus cannot be sustainable.

One step in this direction is to integrate environmental education into every discipline. This would mean that every student has an idea of their ecological footprint and how much work can be done to make their lives and their campus sustainable. Perhaps this can lead to empowerment and lobbying to incorporate full cost accounting and environmental assessments as part of the university policy.

The University of Waterloo is considered to be a leading and an innovative institution. One of the indicators of sustainability is when the efforts of the institution are acknowledged and other similar institutions around the world start to follow in UW's footsteps.

Last updated April 14, 1997, by ibp