U of M advances campus sustainability efforts

University piloting compost program, UMSU pushing for even more

October is sustainability month in Manitoba and the U of M is working to advance its efforts toward a greener campus.

Major projects have been put in place to improve the Fort Garry campus, the most prevalent being the strategy put forward by the U of M’s office of sustainability.

An updated sustainability strategy spanning 2019 to 2023 covers three main areas: research and academics, infrastructure and operations and campus life.

Within each there are separate goals, outlines on how the office plans to achieve them and acknowledgements of the progress the university has already made.

One of the major projects is an on-campus organics collection pilot project. Acting director of the U of M’s office of sustainability Christie Nairn said the project was born from efforts by the Arts Student Body Council.

The student program ended over the summer, but the sustainability office took over and the program has since expanded to include 14 departments and the U of M dining services.

In the nearly three months since the program began, more than 1,000 pounds of compost has been collected.

“We’re still looking to expand it and we’re also integrating our student volunteers into the pickup and the co-ordination of it,” said Nairn.

“So that’s a fun, exciting project for us because I think compost has been done in various different ways throughout the years, so we’re trying out another way and we’re going to be successful because we have a really hard-working team.”

Other projects include a weekly farmers market and an ongoing focus on student outreach and engagement.

The strategy outlines commitments regarding increasing student and staff engagement in research projects, promoting sustainability-related courses across all disciplines and calls for more experiential learning opportunities and utilizing the permaculture garden on the Fort Garry campus.

“Students, I think, sometimes undervalue or don’t appreciate how much say they have in what happens on campus and how much impact they have on the success of programming on campus,” said Nairn.

“For sustainability, I just want students to get involved.

“I want them to not just take the media for what it is [but to] actually research it, be knowledgeable about the subject and come to us with hard questions and challenge us on sustainability.”

The sustainability office’s efforts were recognized by the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE), which moved the U of M from a silver to gold standing on its Sustainability Tracking, Assessment and Rating System (STARS) in 2018.

Every institution has a STARS rating of either silver, gold or platinum based on its performance in different categories of sustainability. Nairn’s goal is for the U of M to achieve the platinum rating.

“People don’t necessarily think of U of M as super sustainable but that’s because it’s a lot of behind the scenes stuff,” said Nairn, noting that the university’s long-term planning and climate change research initiatives were recognized by AASHE.

UMSU president Jakob Sanderson applauded the university’s efforts, but said he would like to see them pushed even further, including establishing clear-cut targets to reduce emissions on campus.

“What I would like to see is more central leadership at not only meeting the standards of other Canadian universities, but really going bolder than other universities in Canada and trying to take more of a leadership role on these types of issues,” he said.

At its last meeting the UMSU board of directors passed a motion declaring a climate emergency and demanding the university follow suit. The motion called on the university to commit to cutting its emissions in half by 2030 and reach carbon neutrality by 2050.

Last year UMSU struck a sustainability working group that, according to Sanderson, has nearly doubled in size since its creation.

Sanderson said that the group’s goal over the course of this year is to develop a sustainability strategic plan for UMSU, including a thorough review of its businesses, operations and events.

“I think that it’s something where if we’re wanting to take a lot more action in terms of lobbying the university to do more on sustainability, then I think that we should be leading by example.”