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Special Feature: Sustainability Office

By Michelle Angkasa

Tucked away in a quiet hallway in EV1, the Sustainability Office seems like an unassuming room. However, it’s home to a small but mighty team behind the sustainability hub on campus that runs projects and events for the UW community every term. 

So how did our beloved Sustainability Office come to be? What have they been up to? How have they been adjusting to an online term? 

I caught up with Andrea, Jahanvi, and Jordan from the Sustainability Office to chat about projects they have in the works, their favourite part about working at the Office, and their top sustainability tips. 

______________________________________

  • Introductions
  • What does the Sustainability Office do?
  • How has the Office been adjusting to an online term?
  • What kinds of projects has the Office been working on?
  • What’s your favourite part about working at the Office?
  • What’s one sustainability tip you want to share with readers?

Please introduce yourself and what the Sustainability Office does. 

Andrea 

I’m Andrea Bale. I am the Sustainability Engagement Coordinator in the Office. Here in the Sustainability Office, we seek to mobilize information and action on campus sustainability to help advance the objectives in our Environmental Sustainability Strategy, which was released in 2017. As the Engagement Coordinator, my portfolio focuses on the planning and implementation of various outreach and engagement activities for students, staff, and faculty on campus.

Jahanvi 

My name is Jahanvi, I am one of the two co-op students with the Sustainability Office! I just finished my second year in Environment & Business and am enjoying every minute of my role as Sustainability Projects Coordinator. My primary focus is on engagement projects which includes a lot of the features that are on social media, outreach, and online events. The benefit of having such a diverse role is that it also allows me to step into some Operations projects as and when needed. It’s kind of like having a lot of stuff on the go at the same time. 

Jordan 

My name is Jordan, and I am in my third year in mechanical engineering. I’m one of the two co-ops students at the Sustainability Office this fall. It’s really exciting to have two co-ops at  the Office, because it allows the work to be divided based on strengths and areas of interest. Coming from a mechanical engineering background, I have been lending a hand to some of the more technical projects on the operations side of the University.

Andrea

I should also add that we do not do anything alone on campus. Really, we work collaboratively with so many different departments and student groups: Plant Operations from an operational perspective, Faculty sitting on different committees to advance sustainability in academics, and many of student groups and departments from an engagement perspective, so very collaborative efforts. 

What is the Sustainability Office’s origin story? How did this Office come about?

Andrea 

Sustainability had been a part of many different pockets of campus, starting as early as the ‘90s, but wasn’t formally made into a department until 2015. We got our first staff member, Mat Thijssen, who came on board as the Sustainability Coordinator, and who has since been promoted to Sustainability Manager, and now Director of Sustainability. 

I came on board in 2018, as the second staff member. Along the way, we’ve been supported by a co-op student each term. This fall is the first time that we’ve had two co-op students, which we are so excited about!  

I think the Sustainability Office was formalized into a department because the University recognized the importance of continuing to advance sustainability in academics and operations, and to help build that campus culture of sustainability. 

We started in the Faculty of Environment, reporting to the Dean of Environment’s office. But as of October 1 2020, our office has now changed its reporting structure: we will be reporting directly to the President’s office, which I think helps to raise visibility on campus, and situates us a little more centrally. But we’re still physically located in EV1 for now (when on campus activity resumes!). 

What’s the Sustainability Office’s mandate? What’s your elevator pitch?

Andrea

The Sustainability Office is the central hub for information and resources on sustainability on campus. We seek to help provide others with the tools and resources to be able to help leave our campus a more sustainable one in academics, operations, and engagement. 

Jahanvi

I’ll just add that if you’re looking for a specific mandate, a document that really guides the work we do, you can take a look at the Environmental Sustainability Strategy, as Andrea mentioned earlier. Our elevator pitch would be advancing those objectives on campus!

Andrea

Yeah, that’s actually a really good point you make, Jahanvi. I’ll just note that our specific mandate is to advance environmental sustainability on campus. So our portfolio primarily looks at environmental indicators, though I think in a lot of the work we do we acknowledge and recognize all of the interconnectedness of other pillars of sustainability, like the social and economic aspects. There are other units on campus that we work collaboratively with, who are more the experts in those respective areas, like the Equity Office and Campus Wellness, for example.

How have you been adjusting your work to an online setting?

Andrea

Back in March, we had to pretty quickly pivot some of our already planned activities. For example, we run a Sustainability Certificate training program for employees every term and we still had some sessions slated. We pretty quickly pivoted to Microsoft Teams. However, one of the most valuable aspects of that certificate is the in person sessions and the opportunity to have small group discussions and collaborate with other people across campus, which is pretty difficult to do in a virtual environment. 

We tested out some different engagement platforms like Mentimeter and Kahoot as ways to keep those more fun engagement and group brainstorm elements. That’s certainly still missing a little bit in the current offerings but I think Mentimeter offers a good way to stay engaged. 

As for our in person events that we would usually run throughout the year, like Earth Month, Bike Month, and Zero Waste Week, we’ve tried to share resources and create interactive activities that can be done virtually. We’re definitely relying on social media a lot to get information out there and to keep students feeling connected. 

We’ve tried to design some challenges that will still encourage people to take action at home like our “Show Us Your Sustainability” challenge to reiterate that even though we’re physically apart, we’re still all collectively working towards the same goals. 

Each week we’re focusing on a different theme and encouraging personal action through photo and video submissions to showcase our collective impact.

Jahanvi 

At my previous co-op, I started off in person, but it was quickly shifted to virtual, so I kind of had met everyone before going virtual. Stepping into this role at the Sustainability Office, I was kind of hesitant because I hadn’t met anyone, but my doubts quickly dwindled down. We have regular check-ins where we update everyone with what’s going on, the projects we will be working on, any meetings we will be participating in, that sort of thing, which has been great in helping me feel connected with everyone! 

As we adapt to online programming, we have picked up a few useful tools such as  Mentimeter (which allows for real time questions/answers, polls, brainstorming) & social media. We’ve been using our Instagram account (@uwsustainable) to highlight upcoming events, beneficial resources, featuring people in Sustainability, etc. It’s definitely been the main avenue for communication with students for us. 

What kinds of projects is the Office working on?

Jordan 

Energy Audits 

The premise behind this project is to get solid data for the first time on how all the buildings use energy. A third party company has conducted energy audits and summarized different potential energy conservation measures (ECMs). From this We’ll know what systems we can improve and then take those findings to create implementation plans to upgrade building systems and improve energy efficiency through the ECMs identified. For example, lighting retrofits or HVAC equipment upgrades . 

Telematics (GPS Fleet Tracking)

This telematics project aims to hit some of the objectives in the environmental sustainability strategy on reducing emissions as well as the climate change targets that University has put forth in its strategic plan. 

The idea is similar to energy audits: the goal is to get data to make informed decisions on taking next steps. The data that we want is on vehicle usage by different departments. These telematics devices would be physically installed on the onboard display of the car and be able to measure things like fuel efficiency, mileage, idling time, harsh braking, accelerations, and GPS locations, as they’re moving throughout campus. 

We would take this information after piloting it on 30 vehicles and determine whether there are certain portions of the fleet, for example, in Plant Operations, or Food Services, that would be best suited to transition to electric vehicles. 

Green Labs

We’re working on a Green Office program modified for labs. We create a checklist of items that will make the lab more sustainable. We’re supporting them by providing a toolkit of resources, building a network of other lab users on campus, because we know there are lots of sustainability actions in labs already taking place. 

The idea is to bring a different group of the campus community together to green their workspaces. Labs are facilities that take great amounts of energy, whether in the form of lighting, or space heating or equipment usage. There’s a great opportunity to change the way they behave in those spaces, in terms of waste management and energy conservation, that can really reduce energy use and then reduce both the emissions and cost from the University side. 

Jahanvi 

Zero Waste Week 

We just wrapped up Zero Waste week, which was a huge success. We encouraged everyone to do the Zero Waste Challenge at home, had a Waste Warrior Quiz to test sorting knowledge, and held a Tackling Food Waste Workshop with Maison Verte & UW Food Services! The Sustainability Office definitely pulled off a fun and engaging online event with these workshops and activities. 

Green Residence Ambassadors 

This program serves as an outlet for social engagement for students living on campus. We have weekly virtual discussions where we get together and have discussions based on weekly sustainability themes. 

Sustainable @ Home 

This is sort of similar, but for students not living on campus, so this can be international students, students living at home or off-campus, or upper year students. We have a Slack channel where we post discussion questions about weekly sustainability themes and monthly chai chats to see how participants are faring with their sustainability goals for the term! 

Andrea 

Shift: Neutral 

Earlier this year, we released Shift: Neutral, which is the campus’ first Climate Action Plan to get us to carbon neutrality by 2050. With COVID-19, our official launch event had to be postponed. But the time is finally here, so we’re really excited. 

We encourage everyone to join us on Tuesday, November 10, at 1:30 pm for a virtual town hall where we will formally release the plan (RSVP link here!). It’s an opportunity to learn more about it. We’re definitely going to be focusing a lot on an open question period with some key campus experts. We really just want to build some excitement and momentum for implementing the plan moving forward. 

The 2020 Eco Summit 

We are planning for our 2020 Eco Summit event, which is our annual sustainability wrap up event. It’s where we’ll launch our 2020 report, share some campus highlights over the last year, present our Green Office awards, and feature some case studies from students, staff and faculty. 

It will look different of course than last year because we’re having to do everything virtually, but I think we’ve put together a really fun program and I’m excited for people to join us. 

Staff Sustainability Certificate & The Green Office Program 

We are continuing to run our Sustainability Certificate for staff. To date, since we released it in early 2018, we’ve had nearly 400 staff complete the Certificate, which is exciting. 

We are also continuing with our Green Office Program. We currently have about 55 departments that are participating. That number has grown a lot, even in just the last year. Through that program, we provide resources and support for ambassadors across campus that are helping to champion sustainability in their departments. 

What’s your favourite part about working at the Sustainability Office? 

Jahanvi

For me, it’s getting a chance to interact with fellow students and staff/faculty. The more I engage with UW stakeholders, the more excited I get about there being a genuine interest in advancing sustainability on-campus and in the community. This has been a really great motivator for me in this role and as someone who wants to build a career in this sector.

I’ve also recently discovered that social media has a lot of power, especially when you know, everyone’s at home, and you might be more on your screen than you anticipate. I love using that power for good to share valuable resources, while making it fun and really getting people to act on them and implement sustainable behaviour changes in their lives. 

Jordan

My favorite part of working at the Sustainability Office is the breadth of projects that I can touch on. I think that the word “sustainability” gets thrown around a lot, so it’s hard to sort of visualize and conceptualize what this might tie into in physical work. What I’ve started to learn is that it can really hit on different categories and require a pretty broad range of skills. For example, the energy work is all about transitioning to campus infrastructure into a more sustainable ecosystem. 

Andrea 

I think my favorite part of working in the Office is the number of people that I get to interact with from both the student and staff side of things. It’s really exciting: I love getting to hear from others who are already doing really great work to advance sustainability, and being able to connect them with additional resources or just making connections with different groups on campus. 

Watching it sort of take off from there, using that platform to elevate others, is what I really enjoy doing. In some of the different activities I run like the Sustainability Certificate, it’s watching those light bulb moments of “Oh, that’s so simple! I don’t know why I never thought of that.” Being able to nudge that incremental progress is really fun. 

What is one sustainability tip you want to share with readers?

Jahanvi 

I think big actions are important, but so are small ones. Those small lifestyle changes, no matter how small, add up. This can be as simple as switching off the lights when you exit a room, bringing a reusable bag, or eliminating plastic cutlery by bringing your own. Don’t lose hope and continue making sustainable choices, no matter how small!  

Jordan 

In this day and age where the pandemic has pushed us to live back at home, there’s a lot of social activism and a lot of media that’s being amplified by news channels and people spending more time on social media. It’s easy to be overwhelmed. 

I would suggest focusing on two or three things you’re most passionate about and then catering your actions to those areas, because no one can work on everything. Having certain topics where you can really build progress on can definitely be both impactful and rewarding for yourself. That can be changing daily habits, like Jahanvi mentioned, or through voting, changing the way you eat, or the things you purchase. 

And finally, if you want to hear more from the student side, Impact Alliance is a platform that brings a student lens to the SDGs. We have lots of projects planned for this term and the next!

Andrea 

I think being at home and really having to just slow down provides us with such a good opportunity right now to reconnect with nature and with our natural environment. I think folks would be surprised just how much that can provide benefits for us in terms of wellness and mental health, as well as social resilience and social well being. My advice would just be to slow down, spend a little bit more time in nature, and reflect inwards on what’s important to you and what your values are. I think that will inherently help us live more sustainably, with lots of benefits to yourself, too. 

For more tips and information, check out the Office’s Sustainability Guide

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