How to Encourage Your University To Be More Sustainable

Having an impact on an institution as large as a university can seem daunting, but Stanford student Regan Lavin shares her tips on how to effectively make a change.

Whether you’re heading off to university for the first time, or returning for another year of studies, the start of the academic year means getting back into a headspace for learning. For many students, universities are picked for course credentials and not for their commitment towards sustainability; however, after a summer of strikes and Greta Thunberg-inspired activism, better understanding the sustainable practices in place at your institution of choice can help to identify what still needs some work. Many universities are beginning to introduce innovative schemes and practices with the intention of tackling large carbon footprints and excessive waste, but if it doesn’t feel like enough, talking about environmental policies with your university can help to push for change.

Find out more about your school’s energy use and environmental policies

Before contacting any administrators, it’s a good idea to read up on what your university is already doing (or not doing) to decrease their impact. An educated argument is always much more effective than an ignorant one. In the UK, the People & Planet University League table has already anaylsed and determined the sustainable ranking for many of the top universities around the country, with the top ranking universities tackling their emissions and waste through recycling book schemes and banning single-use waste. For a deeper dive into the environmental policies already in place, your university’s site should have a page dedicated to their goals and targets regarding carbon, water and waste consumption.

Request actionable changes

Whilst protesting and placards have their place, and can be effective in their own right, being specific about your intentions is much more likely to receive a response. A specific list of actions makes it easier for your university to understand what can and should be done, laying it all out before them to highlight the steps which need to be taken. 

  • Introduce on campus initiatives that encourage students and staff to engage with their environment; beehives on the rooftop, a community garden with fruits and vegetables; tree-planting schemes. Small scale changes that are inexpensive and can be managed by volunteer students are great for convincing those in power that sustainability is achievable and easy.
  • Compost and recycling bins all around campus – Though composting and recycling is great, not having the means to properly dispose of collected waste renders it ineffective. If you’ve got a paper straw but it ends up in landfill, good intentions are wasted. Request for your campus to divide all waste disposal bins into compostable, recycling, and general waste, with clear labelling. 
  • More plant-based food options – As we know, the meat and dairy industries have a huge effect on the environment. Livestock accounts for 40% of greenhouse gas emissions around the world. By reducing your meat intake (especially red meat), you can drastically decrease your carbon footprint. Requesting more vegan and vegetarian food options in the dining hall is a great way for your university to also cut down on its meat consumption and support its plant-based students.
  • High quality meat and fish – Whilst becoming a 100% plant-based institution may be a step too far for your university, it can ensure that any meat or fish served is high quality, organic, locally-sourced, with has high welfare standards. 
  • Green energy alternatives – Switching to a green energy source can help to dramatically reduce your university’s impact on the environment. Sourcing energy from renewable sources such as wind or solar means avoiding fossil fuels and oil usage. If air conditioning is in use throughout your school, investigate Interseasonal Heat Transfer -a new alternative to air conditioning that doesn’t emit carbon into the atmosphere. 
  • More environmentally-focused classes – Finally, how better to help the environment than by creating classes that teach your student body about environmental issues? While courses on sustainability and environmental sciences are being introduced across many universities, introducing modules within broader courses can help to widen the importance placed on sustainable practices. 

Reaching the people in charge

The first step of reaching out to those in charge can be daunting, but armed with statistics and passion, you’re much more likely to catch someone’s attention. Research your school’s faculty to find the best person to reach out to, perhaps start small with the head of your course or department, or, if you’re feeling brave, target those at the top. In your email, remember that everyone is busy and keeping it short and sweet is the best way to get heard; perhaps suggest a meeting to further discuss your ideas and how you can help get things moving; a long list of demands is sure to just be filed away with other student requests. 

Another tried and tested way of getting heard is through the power of the petition. In being able to showcase a body of students who feel as strongly as you do, the demand for the cause increases significantly. Take Greta’s school strikes and how encouraging students across the globe to unite as one voice promotes an urgency that one person can’t. There is a power in social media; post mission statements and share the petition on fresher’s pages, course groups and encourage as many people to get involved and reshare as possible – the more voices, the better. 

Make like Greta and participate in a climate strike. Friday youth strikes have gained significant traction since Greta Thunberg first sat outside the Swedish parliament, asking for the world to start paying attention to the climate crisis. One year on, with the largest climate demonstration organised in over 185 countries worldwide, millions of people – both youths and those in support of them – demanded action. 

It is no secret that having a power in numbers is one of the most effective means of communication. In addition to adding a weight to what you are saying, it also provides the opportunity for creating a community and connecting with those on the same wavelength. University societies aren’t just limited to sports teams and academics; rather they enable like-minded individuals to come together and discuss, debate and act on their passions. In creating a society that focuses on living more sustainably and consciously, the university will already have to take note. Use your group to hold events and talks which can help to spread the message, enquire about beekeeping; on-site gardens and vegetable patches; beach cleans or litter picking. Hold film nights and screenings of the much beloved David Attenborough documentaries (a sure-fire way to gain traction, as who can resist an Attenborough binge). 

While large scale actions such as ditching plastic or going 100% plant-based may seem like a bigger feat, starting small is a manageable way to navigate making a change, alongside your already demanding studies and university life. Begin with that initial conversation, asking for small opportunities to introduce swaps and changes into the everyday running of the university space; perhaps it is as simple as better labelled bins or a discount for students with reusable cups and containers. Practice what you preach and as the demand for such ammenities increases, the people in charge will hopefully begin to listen.

Read Mikaela Loach’s guide on how to live more sustainably as a student.

Discover the most sustainable universities in the UK.

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