August 3, 2006

UW’s environmental strategy goes from grass roots to daily integration

  • The University of Washington’s approach to environmental stewardship and sustainability involves all of its campuses and support functions.
    University of Washington

    There is a city within a city just north of the Lake Washington Ship Canal, with 294 buildings and daily traffic of 50,000 students, visitors, staff and faculty — the University of Washington campus.

    Being a city within a city has advantages and disadvantages for environmental stewardship. The size and complexity of activities on the campus means spanning huge varieties of needs and competing demands while launching comprehensive conservation efforts.

    Aggressive pursuit of conservation means that each employee, each leader, student and visitor feels a sense of participation in the effort for an environmentally sustained university city.

    The university’s successful conservation efforts have prompted numerous awards. Little wonder that the city of Seattle and utilities have partnered with the university and the partnerships continue to produce impressive advances in sustainability.

    Support from the top

    A critical part of sustainability at the UW is active support by the highest leadership. President Mark Emmert established a campus-wide policy called Environmental Stewardship, declaring the university’s commitment across teaching, research and service missions. Central to the policy is establishment of the permanent Environmental Stewardship Advisory Committee.

    The UW is developing an environmental management system — a tool for creating the necessary infrastructure to raise its standards far beyond simple environmental compliance. It is a tool used to identify targets, and based on those targets, establish a check-and-balance system.

    One thing that sets the UW apart, aside from its overall academic and research prominence, is its environmental leadership. The Pacific Northwest, an area with a strong tradition of conservation, provides the ideal setting for those efforts. The regional culture of conservation and that of the UW are intertwined.

    Wide scope

    One of the unique characteristics of the UW’s approach to environmental management is its scope. It encompasses the entire UW, all its campuses and related supporting functions such as purchasing and real estate. From the beginning, the UW embraced not only environmental stewardship but sustainability as well. The UW calls its approach the Environmental Stewardship and Sustainability System.

    The UW’s commitment to sustainability and environmental stewardship coalesces through the Environmental Stewardship Advisory Committee, which advises the provost and executive vice president. Department representatives, faculty and students work at various levels of the university to help identify the environmental aspects of our work and to integrate environmental stewardship and sustainability into dat-to-day activities, operations and maintenance.

    The university’s Policy on Environmental Stewardship was formally adopted on Aug. 10, 2004, under the leadership of Emmert. This was the culmination of a multiyear campus effort that had started with a grassroots movement of staff, faculty and students, first coordinated by the Program on the Environment. This led to the creation of a task force on environmental stewardship, and the formation of the Sustainable UW Alliance, an umbrella group for campus interests that wish to see sustainability institutionalized at the university.

    Charged with making environmental stewardship and sustainability a reality on campus, the members of the committee were appointed to represent a broad array of environmental stewardship interests and expertise among faculty, students and staff from the three campuses.

    The committee includes members from student organizations such as the Sustainable UW Alliance and the Graduate and Professional Student Senate, the student government for the nearly 10,000 graduate and professional students at the university. The committee has several objectives, including identifying effective stewardship and sustainability efforts at the UW. These unveiled efforts are an important part of the fabric of the university’s activities, which tend to be highly decentralized with strong grassroots components. The efforts involve a strong mix of central planning and local initiatives, including environmental faculty/student programs and strong staff commitment to integrate stewardship and sustainability policies into the day-to-day operations. Some examples of these efforts include:

    • The University of Washington Earth Initiative, a transformational initiative that encourages innovative partnerships to address environmental and natural resource challenges. By focusing on problem-specific environmental issues in the Pacific Northwest and beyond, this initiative brings together faculty, students and community partners to create collaborative research, teaching and scholarship. Its steering committee provides the initiative with a balanced, trans-disciplinary management structure that represents the interests and values of the broader environmental research, education and policy community at the UW.

    • The Program on the Environment promotes interdisciplinary environmental education. This program is not a traditional academic department and does not have a faculty of its own. Instead, it plays a networking role, bringing together faculty and students from across the UW to augment existing programs and offer integrated, interdisciplinary programs that cross traditional disciplinary boundaries. The program is overseen by a steering committee of faculty, staff and students representing a wide range of departments, colleges and service units from all three campuses.

    • Facilities Services Sustainability. In spite of steady growth in the campus population and number of buildings, the UW continues to reduce electrical and water consumption through focused conservation measures. Over the last 10 years, the main campus has avoided over $42 million in utility costs through conservation. The UW’s comprehensive approach to environmental sustainability includes but is not limited to utility, building, landscape and transportation management, as well as waste reduction and recycling.

    • The Environmental Health and Safety department takes a comprehensive approach to environmental management programs by going beyond compliance and ensuring that the environmental, health and safety standards are met or exceeded.

    • The Capital Projects Office embraces sustainable development through LEED implementation to support the goals of the campus master plan. LEED standards are used as guides for new and existing buildings. The office offers staff and clients training on sustainable construction. There are over 50 LEED-accredited professionals on staff.

    Other actions in support of sustainability include management of the closed Montlake Landfill by the Montlake Landfill Oversight Committee. The management system includes a clear policy, implementation and training, procedures, and management review to ensure no environmental impacts occur.

    The UW’s commitment to environmental stewardship and sustainability ensures a legacy for the future and protects the healthy and safe learning and working environments valued by members of the university community. There is broad support for these goals and actions among members of the university, who expect their university to exercise leadership in this arena.

    By exercising effective management over its activities, the UW will continue its environmental stewardship practices to sustain its resources and to seek unique and innovative approaches to achieving these important objectives.

    AJ Van Wallendael is the UW’s environmental stewardship coordinator.

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