University on Track to Meet Sustainability Goals Despite Waste Setback

2 November 2020

The University of Melbourne’s penultimate Sustainability Report revealed the University has failed to meet its waste reduction targets over the last year.

Released on July 23rd, the 2019 Report states the University produced 29 kilograms of waste per person in 2019, far exceeding the Sustainability Plan’s 2020 goal of just 20 kilograms per person.

University of Melbourne Student Union (UMSU) Environment Officers Olivia Sullivan and Sophie Kerrigan critiqued the University for missing its targets for waste and emissions reduction in 2019 and saw these problems as “major barriers to the University reducing its environmental impact”.

Chancellery’s Sustainability Associate Director Clare Walker said the missed targets were mostly due to inaccurate measurement capabilities for monitoring waste, and ongoing difficulties with managing outside waste.

A University study cited in the 2019 Report recommended that institutions consider both the “material flows they influence” and waste “within their direct control”. The Report stated that better management of this waste in the future would help campuses adopt a more “circular economy”.

Walker said, aside from waste, this year’s report showed the University was on track to meet or surpass most of its targets, including net zero emissions by next year.

Sullivan and Kerrigan also raised concerns that the University’s Sustainability Executive has failed to hold a meeting since September 2019.

The Sustainability Executive is an executive body overseeing all sustainability-related activities on campus, including monitoring the Sustainability Plan. Its members include several senior staff from Chancellery and across the University.

Walker said the usual quarterly meetings had been delayed due to other “demands on members” and the COVID-19 Victorian lockdown beginning in March.

Kerrigan and Sullivan told Farrago they “don’t really believe using COVID as an excuse to not hold one this year holds much water given that [meetings] weren’t very regular prior to this situation”.

However, Walker said the Sustainability Executive’s work had continued despite being unable to meet throughout the year. This included managing new teaching and learning initiatives, hosting the University’s annual strategy conference, and preparing the 2019 Report.

She also highlighted the University community’s increased engagement with sustainability issues on campus through initiatives like Sustainable Campus’ Green Impact program, in which staff and student teams run projects to improve sustainability on campus.

Despite the Report citing 400 new student volunteers interested in the University’s sustainability programs, Sullivan and Kerrigan said more student engagement was necessary, especially to equip students for the workforce.

The University should concentrate on “more student engagement through programs and volunteering and incorporating sustainability into undergraduate curriculums”, they said.

Sullivan and Kerrigan said the University often focused on individual impact rather than systemic change, and that students should be concerned about this emphasis.

Set to expire at the end of 2020, the Sustainability Plan outlines the University’s environmental, teaching, research, financial, and social responsibility goals for sustainability.

Walker said Chancellery, Sustainable Campus, and other stakeholders were in the process of updating the Plan ahead of its expected release in March 2021.

Sullivan and Kerrigan assisted with the consultation, and ran a forum in Week 9 to provide a “student perspective” for the updated Plan.

Walker said she particularly hoped to see “a heightened urgency around climate change” in the new Sustainability Plan.

Sullivan and Kerrigan echoed these hopes, saying they would like a greater emphasis on sustainable investment from the University.

They said many of the parameters for investments laid out by the University in the Plan and the 2018 Sustainable Investments Framework were “overly vague and place value on the ‘steps’ towards divestment regardless of whether the end goal is actually ever achieved or not”.

Walker said the future of investments within the updated Plan would ideally include impact investment, which she said is “just as important.

“Next step on, it’s not just about what you don’t invest in, it’s about what you do invest in.”

Amidst the COVID-19 pandemic and after the summer bushfires, Walker said sustainability at the University provided an important source of hope for staff and students, rather than only focusing on “doom and gloom”.

“I think for fundamental change, often we need to go through some sort of profound experience to make those fundamental changes,” she said.

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