31 January 2019
UM Sustainability Challenge

Green Impact: driving change one lightbulb at a time

UM’s commitment to the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals and its aim to be a sustainable university by 2030 is taking shape. Green shoots are visible everywhere - metaphorically that is; winter continues as scheduled…

Big impact already

155 employees and students across 15 active teams are already participating; together they have implemented 274 concrete actions that have made their workplace more positive and sustainable. The competing teams’ actions are guided by a toolkit, an online platform with an overview of the actions and instructions as well as up-to-date comparative scores. Student auditors award points depending on the difficulty and impact of the actions implemented. Other student volunteers, called GIPAs (Green Impact Project Assistants), make up part of the staff teams and support them.

The actions range from the theoretical, like calculating the ecological footprint of each team member, to the practical such as organising vegan lunches or even political action like lobbying for working from home. Teams also have to think up and implement original actions. The winner won’t be declared before May, so employees can still join or start teams until March. Students can also still join and support Green Impact, as GIPAs and/or as Student Auditors.

SSC leads the field

While everyone is motivated by a desire to make a positive impact and boost sustainability, the experience is mostly about having fun and meeting people. Birgitte Hendrickx is a member of the Student Services Centre Management Board (SSC) and also head of the SSC sustainability team, which currently leads the rankings. She started building a team by asking around, first in her corridor, then her building, then the whole department. Since SSC was already preoccupied with sustainability, she didn’t find it hard to recruit people. Consisting of 19 members, they are the biggest so far.

“We have four locations across UM and we implement the actions in all of them, so people really get the sense that it makes a difference.” She describes the logistic as the main challenge, i.e. getting everyone together to discuss ideas and make plans. “We have a standing meeting just before lunch every two weeks and send out the minutes to those who couldn’t make it. It’s not easy to organise but if you really want to, you can make it work.”

"People really get the sense that it makes a difference.” - The SSC team is implementing one of their original ideas.

sustainable coffee cup

A sustainably caffeinated workplace

The SSC team have changed thousands of lightbulbs, switched to cycling or walking commutes and handed out hundreds of reusable mugs among staff and students. “It has made a big difference! The coffee bar downstairs told us that they have a lot less waste now. They even want to work with us to become more sustainable.” Creatively improving their workplace has obvious secondary benefits, Hendrickx says. “It puts a spring in people’s step, it energises us. In my role here, I have to make sure everyone is healthy and happy – and this ticks all the boxes.”

Just as importantly, the campaign brings people together. “You notice how much people enjoy the interaction. Some of them have never chatted before because they don’t work together. Now they discuss ideas and get to know each other.” Hendrickx is toying with ideas that could be rolled out UM-wide. Students talking about the university heating too much in winter has inspired SSC’s upcoming Week of the Warm Sweater, which will be rolled out across most university buildings.

Still everything to play for

Of course, it’s all about taking part and making a difference, not about winning, “although I have sent Vice President Nick Bos a screenshot of the ranking when we overtook the Executive Board’s team,” laughs Hendrickx. Many actions in the early stages are quite basic, like using tap water instead of bottled or packing your own lunch in boxes. “I think you can still join the competition and rise up the table quite quickly,” she says encouragingly, but ads sotto voce: “I don’t think anyone has a chance of beating us though.”

Green Impact, which has been introduced during the Opening of the Academic Year, is only one of a series of initiatives set out in UM’s sustainability strategy and belongs to the operational pillar. This year’s focus is operations – research and education are to follow. A taskforce consisting of academics, students and staff was set up this academic year to coordinate UM’s sustainability efforts.

For any questions or to find out more about the programme, you can contact sustainability[at]maastrichtuniversity[dot]nl.

By: Florian Raith