The Greenprint: There's a bold plan to make your home away from home more sustainable

The University of Waterloo is a big place. All told, the campus community makes up roughly 30,000 students, staff and faculty. If it were a city, the University of Waterloo would be bigger than the capital cities of Yellowknife or Whitehorse.

mat and andrea and alyssaWaterloo’s new strategic plan, Connecting Imagination with Impact, mentions sustainability exactly 20 times. Scores of researchers and students fulfill this promise through rigorous scholarship on our wicked environmental problems. But what about the sustainability challenges facing campus — this small city of ours?

Under normal circumstances campus is a place where we spend countless hours eating, working, and living. We make waste, and use energy, water, and resources. If sustainability truly is a goal of the University of Waterloo, a green campus has to play a part.  

Mat Thijssen and Andrea Bale manage Waterloo’s Sustainability office, and are a big part of making that happen. Their mission is to get buy-in from all departments on campus, and advance real environmental change on behalf of all of us.

“When I joined Waterloo, I was the first person with “sustainability” in my title,” says Thijssen, who was named of Sustainability Coordinator at Waterloo in 2015.

“There had certainly been energy management projects undertaken historically, as well as initiatives to reduce and recycle waste, and implement practical changes, but they weren’t always part of a larger strategy or vision,” says Thijssen, who was named Director of Sustainability last year.

First things first

That strategy took shape following what was essentially a sustainability audit of campus.

“We collected information about where we are – real data like energy and emissions, waste diversion, procurement, water management, and academic programming,” says Thijssen. “At the same time, we developed Waterloo’s first sustainability policy, and used that foundation to help us understand where we wanted and needed to go.”

The only way to get going was together. From Plant Operations, to Food Services, the faculties, Campus Housing, and of course students, it was critical to bring a wide cross-section of the campus to the table to collaborate on setting that vision. Through focus groups, surveys, open houses, and committee and working group meetings, there emerged a growing vision that translated into our first Environmental Sustainability Strategy. And it was clear that it would take a community to make this happen.

Building a team and activating champions across campus

mat and andrea at a boothAndrea Bale was brought on in 2018 as Waterloo’s first Sustainability Engagement Coordinator. Her main job was helping activate our community.

“One of the most important things I have learned over the past three years is to meet people where they are at,” says Bale. “To find common ground, and empower leaders in specific areas with the tools and support they need to take action – there is no one-size-fits-all solution.”

This outreach included maintaining a Green Officer ambassador network where individual champions evaluate current practices and urge members of the department to take a participation pledge. This promise means implementing new practices like composting, energy conservation, sustainable commuting and lower-impact food choices.

“We needed to integrate sustainability as a normal part of office culture,” says Bale.

Sustainability and the Waterloo way

As experiential and life-long learning are core Waterloo principles, they’re also baked into the work done by the Sustainability Office. This includes their Sustainability Certificate for employees, as well as their Green Office, Green Residence, and soon Green Labs programs.

Those programs built frameworks for people across campus to act in their own department, in their dorms, or even at home. 

“We already have so many students and employees that are passionate and driven to contribute to a more sustainable campus – and community,” says Bale. “By creating the outlets to allow that to happen in a collective, impactful way, we’ve already seen great momentum building.”

Looking to build capacity for the future, Bale has also been planting seeds with new stakeholder groups to consider how partnerships and collaboration could benefit one another.

Setting ambitious goals and measuring success

a chart With campus-wide objectives laid out the office released their grand carbon neutrality strategy: Shift: Neutral. That strategy laid out a plan to translate ideas into action. “We have to start the tough work of making it happen,” says Thijssen.

“So far it has been fantastic to see leadership from so many teams like Custodial Services, Housing, Food Services, and Central Stores launch new or strengthen projects to expand organics collection, standardize waste infrastructure, and find ways to reduce waste through the (in normal times) Eco-Container or lug-a-mug programs. And the ambition in our climate action plan is drawing in so many more discussions across campus.” 

So, what is it exactly that we are working toward? Waterloo’s Environmental Sustainability Strategy takes some bold steps, in both the short term and the long term. Working toward carbon neutrality, eliminating and diverting almost all of our waste, empowering sustainable transportation, hitting targets for sustainable food purchasing, and managing our grounds in an ecologically sensitive way – all of it is in there.

Celebrate the wins, then keep going

“There is so much to be done,” says Thijssen who cut his teeth working for Sustainable Waterloo Region. His main project was its TravelWise program which worked directly with organizations in Waterloo Region to give practical advice and support to get people commuting less with cars, and more with everything else.

“One of the challenges is wrapping our heads around the scale of change to make really material progress on important areas like climate change, waste, or sustainable transportation. We are ultimately still early in what will be a long process, but we have certainly managed to elevate sustainability as a key consideration across the campus,” he says.

Bale is just as determined to make this happen in a practical way. She’s using every engagement tool in the toolbox to get people involved in a project — making a more sustainable campus — that we all share.

“A few recent achievements I’m excited about internally are the launch of our monthly Sustainability Office newsletter, the WAT’s Sustainable Podcast, and our online Sustainable Procurement Guide,” says Bale, who herself was a recent student having received her master’s degree in Environmental Studies (MES) in 2016.

“Finally, I’m really proud of our student leaders, including our Green Residence ambassadors for their efforts this term with a clothing drive, virtual Earth Hour event, and organics collection pilot,” she adds. “Our students rock!”