article Fall 2020

Sustainability, STARS, and “Saving the World”

The recently established office of sustainability takes a system approach to studying sustainability in a holistic and transdisciplinary way.

When students return to campus each year, their main priorities often include attending sporting events, catching up with friends, and preparing for another semester of classes. Meanwhile, the Office of Sustainability is working behind the scenes to leverage the effect that these 45,000 incoming students will have on the campus and community. The Office of Sustainability at UW-Madison, formally established in 2012, organizes campus operations related to sustainability and reducing the carbon footprint of our students.

The idea of sustainability is often equated with recycling or climate change. However, sustainability encompasses much more. Specifically, sustainability also addresses social justice and economic vitality and how these concepts interact and intersect.

At UW-Madison, sustainability is the transdisciplinary research into solving critical problems in our community, which are usually related to the environment in some way. This research also focuses on how these problems affect marginalized communities. As Missy Nergard, the first full-time director of the Office of Sustainability put it, “Sustainability works across multiple divisions to bring everyone together for mutual benefits.”

While the culture of sustainability and the respect for our environment is deeply embedded in campus culture, UW-Madison is behind other schools in measuring our sustainability efforts.

In 2006, AASHE (the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education) began developing a campus sustainability rating system, resulting in STARS — the Sustainability Tracking, Assessment, and Rating System. While some campuses have completed this assessment multiple times, UW-Madison completed this process for the first time in 2019.

The Office of Sustainability at UW-Madison measured sustainability on our campus precisely and methodically. The metric is a point system with four different areas: planning and administration, engagement, academics, and operations. The Office of Sustainability met with over 150 data stewards on campus to gather information for the rating. One of their methods required a thorough search of research publications and course catalogs to find specific key words indicating UW-Madison’s commitment to sustainability.

UW-Madison received a Silver rating in their first STARS assessment, which falls in the middle of the award spectrum. The highest rating is platinum, followed by gold, silver, bronze, and reporter. Realistically, our campus likely practices sustainability on a level higher than the rating shows, and it is not uncommon for universities to receive this level rating for their first STARS report. Since it was the first time completing the rating, the Office of Sustainability counted conservatively and ensured the counting process was done correctly. They were extremely transparent with the methodology used to complete the process are continuously refining and evaluating this methodology to improve their data collection.

Our campus looks to other campuses and their ratings for comparison, but “we are competing with ourselves” Nergard says. While the rating is good for three years, the University plans to reassess in two years to demonstrate the progress we have made in measuring sustainability and to keep the idea in the forefront of people’s minds.

“Everything that is needed to save the world is done in this one-mile corridor [of campus]”

– Missy Nergard

While UW-Madison may not have the highest rating (yet), the campus is making strides and setting precedents with regard to sustainability in higher education in other ways. For example, UW-Madison is the top producer of peer reviewed articles regarding climate change and one of the top researchers of climate change in the Midwest. Additionally, the Office of Sustainability is on their way to becoming one of the most professionally well-staffed sustainability departments in the country. UW-Madison is also one of the top poverty research institutes in the nation, which has direct ties to sustainability.

Sustainability is a holistic approach to the way we affect the environment and vice versa; therefore, research on poverty is central to sustainability. In this way, solving environmental justice issues are key to solving climate change. “Everything that is needed to save the world is done in this one-mile corridor [of campus]”, Negrard says.

As for the future of sustainability at UW-Madison, Nergard and her colleagues have sizable goals beyond the STARS rating we receive every few years. Ideally, our campus would become a closed loop system, which reuses the same materials over and over again to create new products. When done correctly, this practice eliminates waste and conserves natural resources.

For example, our own scientists study microplastics in waterways that come off of our clothes. In a closed loop system, “Even our football team will be wearing some kind of amazing textile product that doesn’t contribute to the pollution that we are studying and trying to alleviate”, Nergard says. Looking forward, the Office of Sustainability would like to see our campus identify the problem and be the actors that create the solution.

If you are looking to get involved with the Office of Sustainability and contribute to their unique approach, they have held an intern program since 2012. For ten weeks each summer, 15 interns are paid to learn about the campus, community, and concepts of economic vitality and social justice. The interns act as liaisons and representatives throughout the academic year and interact with student orgs to further sustainability on campus.

As engineering students, we have more to contribute to sustainability than one may think. Look no further than our own campus, to the new Chemistry building that is currently under construction. Since concrete is one of the largest contributors to greenhouse gas emissions, a technique called ‘BubbleDeck’ is being used. Hollow plastic balls are inserted into the structural slab and held in place by steel, eliminating 35% of structural concrete.

In order to commit to a sustainable future, climate scientists and engineers must work together to translate science in meaningful ways. As students, we must actively recognize the ways in which we contribute to sustainability on campus and find creative ways to apply these practices to our future careers.

Check out The SustainUW podcast, produced by Office of Sustainability interns, to hear more from Nergard and sustainability on our campus!

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