Students make the university greener

Make Maastricht University a sustainable university: that was the task at the founding of the Green Office.

It marked the start of a unique project: a university department that is run entirely by students, and with unprecedented success. Universities from the Netherlands and abroad are knocking on the door of the ‘Bureau’. On 27 September, the German state of Baden Württemberg will cite the Green Office as an example of ‘best practice’ at a sustainability conference.

‘The commitment is large; it is not just a job.’

There they sat, the students, in a bare office with only a table and a few chairs. And what should they do now? Felix Spira (26), an alumnus of the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences and one of the initiators, spoke fondly about the hesitant beginning in 2010. ‘Now we are the Green Office but what do we really want? Yes, the goal is to make the university sustainable. But what does “sustainability” mean? What is our mandate and what projects should we do?’ Three years later, it can be described as an unprecedented success. Within six months, the ‘Bureau’ produced an action plan: the Climate Action Report. It was the beginning of a long series of completed projects. On the wall hang certificates from the awards they have won in the area of sustainability.

What makes the Green Office so unique is that it is fully set up and run by students. Felix: ‘The students: they are our strength. With a team of about eight permanent employees and about 20 volunteers, we have a lot of lobbying power. There is creativity and the willingness to work in the evening and at the weekend. The commitment is large; it is not just a job.’ It is not unimportant that they received a lot of support from all levels of the university, adds Chantal Römgens (22), a Supply Chain Management student and coordinator of the Green Office. ‘Everyone at UM thinks it is really nice that we have been able to think of and carry out still more new projects.’ The initiative seamlessly aligns with Problem-Based Learning, with which Maastricht University wants to distinguish itself.

Sustainable structure

The Green Office is also special because it has a sustainable structure itself. Just as with a company, there is a longer term vision: make the university sustainable by 2030. The compass that directs them is a Sustainability Roadmap with strategic goals, known as portfolios, on which the office focuses. An assignment in the Community portfolio directs students and staff to make more effective use of sustainability. In the Education portfolio, attention is immediately drawn to the establishment of a Green Office Academy, an educational pilot project consisting of workshops and lectures from experts. One of the innovative creations is the Living Lab. Felix: ‘The basic idea is to forward issues concerning sustainability transitions to students and let them research these issues. We use the knowledge available within the university to create more sustainable solutions.’

The realisation of the objectives is going the best and is most effective within the Operations portfolio. The goal here is mainly to reduce the university’s ecological footprint, so water conservation and waste separation have been introduced things that, according to Chantal, had been done ‘very badly’. There are simple modifications, such as the installation of LED lights and motion detectors. In addition, fair trade snacks and drinks are now offered in vending machines. The ultimate goal is for the university to become self-sufficient in meeting its energy demands in the future.

Fun in action

It is striking that the students from the Green Office consider themselves to be a new movement of sustainable entrepreneurs. Felix: ‘We are not like the activists of the past and like those you still find in Germany: they are against the system but do nothing in the meantime. Our generation is practical and has a lot of fun taking action. We are taking small steps in trying to achieve our goal.’ In addition to being an incubator for ideas, the office also functions as a liaison office. Chantal: ‘We work together with other organisations such as the municipality of Maastricht, which also wants to be climate neutral by 2030. So we are also trying to do our part to contribute outside the university.’In the meantime, the Green Office concept is being rolled out across other universities in the Netherlands and abroad. This happens via Rootability, a social enterprise founded by Felix and others that helps universities implement student projects involving sustainability. Rootability focuses on the Netherlands, Great Britain and the Scandinavian countries. Felix: ‘For the University ofAmsterdam we have developed a concept and we give sustainability workshops to students and staff.’ An important advantage is that the Green Office is not expensive and can draw up plans very quickly. ‘For €150,000 we can set up an office with eight students and 20 to 30 volunteers. This is nothing compared to how much a staff member costs. Students also have a lot more working power.’

Think tank

Rootability and the Green Office are slowly conquering Europe. That brings with it a new role: coaching and supporting other university offices. Felix and Chantal both hope that these successes will lead to a real think tank for sustainability. Chantal: ‘It would be great if in 2030 there would be interdisciplinary bachelor’s programmes in sustainability everywhere. The Green Office will then be situated on a great location with all sorts of research possibilities so that we can help to carry out all sorts of projects.’ Felix adds: ‘By then there will be around 30 Green Offices spread around Europe that organise conferences and summer schools. We can exchange knowledge via Skype sessions and we can receive GO-teams at the headquarters in Maastricht to work on projects together. There are so many opportunities and possibilities in the field of sustainability.’

By Hans van Vinkeveen

Source: UM Magazine, 26 September 2013

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