It’s never been more important to make effective environmental changes. Is UCL rising to the challenge?
In a recently published ThoughtWorks survey, the need to reduce plastic packaging and use recyclable materials came out on top, over price, as the most important driver of British consumer behaviour in the next ten years. With tackling climate change on people’s minds, there is a feeling of increasing responsibility to make changes ourselves, rather than just leaving it to big businesses and governments. As an institution of education, UCL must also make efforts to educate and encourage its students to take a more pro-active role in environmental management.
UCL is currently placed 26th in the People and Planet University League rankings, with an 100% rating in environmental policy and sustainability staff, as well as accreditation in its adherence to internationally recognised standards for sustainability management. Although its reputation is commendable, students may have a different impression regarding UCL’s environmental work and its impact.
Almost half of UCL’s funding comes from tuition fees, and it is only right that we, as fee-paying students, know how UCL manages its finances. Some of this money is invested in markets as part of a long-term funding strategy, but not necessarily in sustainable and renewable energy resources. As a result, UCL Fossil Free, a student led society, have been campaigning for UCL to divest from fossil fuels since 2013. Only in October 2017 did UCL start to take ethical considerations on board when making investment decisions, with the appointment of an ethical investment manager, CCLA, for its £160m endowment funds. However, we still do not know whether the university has fully divested from fossil fuels.
Trust is further diluted with the choice of Sodexo to provide soft services including cleaning and waste management. Despite Sodexo’s appointment of a sustainability and waste manager to take charge of reducing the impact of its operations, UCL is losing direct oversight of a part of its estate’s environmental impact. Sodexo’s credentials on ethical issues have previously been heavily questioned, following chaos in Sodexo-managed prisons and the implication of their catering services in the horsemeat scandal a few years ago. Faith in Sodexo’s ability to help make UCL a greener place is, therefore, clouded with doubt. The way UCL management has dealt with both the divestment and sub-contracting out of services to Sodexo places a great amount of scepticism over whether money is still the main driver behind its decisions – even if it can still manage its money and services in a more environmentally friendly way.
In contrast to the rest of UCL’s management team and non-academic departments, Green UCL is solely focused on sustainability and environmental wellbeing. Set up in 2011, it has conducted numerous campaigns over the years; some of the most recent includes Ditch the Disposable, which aims to promote the reduction of waste and reusing of coffee cups by charging for the use of disposable cups across all cafés at UCL. Reduce the Juice has also been established as a competition between UCL’s Halls of Residencies to reduce their energy and water usage. Green UCL hope that by adding 15p to the cost of using a disposable cup, this will lead to at least 30% of all café customers using reusable cups. In the old discount scheme, where lower prices were offered if a reusable cup was used, only 5% of people used their own cups.
However, the deterrent factor has one major snag – the SU will not present the change as a charge, lessening its strong message and quite possibly leading to little more impact in comparison to the old scheme. A target of a reusable cup usage rate of just 30% is also not that inspiring, as it leaves a vast number of disposables still in use. This will not change attitudes and behaviours to the extent of making a sizeable and noticeable difference in the grand scheme of things.
Similar accusations can be charged at the Reduce the Juice scheme. While some students at halls were active in promoting the campaign last year, engaging in the distribution of leaflets and other promotional activities, it went over the heads of many busy students. If it’s aimed at changing the attitudes of people in the long-run, then the cash prize of £250 for the winner is not the right mechanism to do so. As nice as it is to fund a halls party, this unsustainable, short- term solution only encourages people to save resources for the wrong reason. What’s more is that it only happens during the Spring Term – a lack of consistent incentive may only serve to discourage a continuation of whatever energy saving techniques people put into place during that period.
Fundamentally, the impact of such a scheme is severely minimised when the windows in some accommodation, like Max Rayne, are still single glazed. Heating systems are also inefficient, leading to further unnecessary energy usage – surely this should be addressed first. Both aforementioned schemes are essentially about changing attitudes but produce no mass change in behaviour. Only the most engaged seem to participate, negating the potential for green thinking to be transferred into daily life at university.
Being a relatively new scheme, Green UCL’s engagement with the student population is still creditable. A team of staff and student ‘Green Champions’ help reduce UCL’s environmental impact and promote related issues. With growing interest in the topic, this network could be crucial to promoting any future schemes that Green UCL is engaging in and its attempts to get more people on board. In a signal of growing responsiveness from Green UCL, Ditch the Disposable was partially set up in response to enquiries from waste-conscious students and staff who are becoming increasingly exposed to media coverage of the topic. Hopefully, with extensive promotion and the support of the team’s Green Champions, the scheme can engage more people in the issues and debates surrounding waste and the environment.
UCL Changemakers also offers a pathway for students to launch initiatives promoting protection of the environment, hopefully diffusing such ideas around campus. We must not forget that societies also have the potential to play a key part in greening UCL: the UCL Green Economy Society and UCL Climate Action Society (UCL CAS) both engage in environmental issues, and provide support for Green UCL’s schemes. These societies provide a key way for students to engage with environmental management, and this is further being enhanced with direct engagement between societies and university departments. One example includes the Sustainability Steering Group, a new partnership between Green UCL, UCL CAS and any student that is interested in sustainability issues. It looks like Green UCL is taking strides to engage students in areas where the university once failed, which can only result in positive knock-on effects.
The university’s standing in environmental management can only be enhanced if it engages with a greater number of its staff and student body, benefitting both UCL’s publicity and the environment. With initiatives such as those promoted by Green UCL, the university is increasingly becoming more sensitive and open to the concerns some students have for the environment. In turn, by engaging with more initiatives, students will hopefully become increasingly aware of their own environmental responsibilities.
This article was originally published in Issue 721 of Pi Magazine.