Bristol: a leading University for sustainability



Online Features Editor Ollie Smith interviews the University's Sustainability Department to find out about the work they do and what we can do to help

For Epigram’s green issue I had the pleasure of interviewing the university’s sustainability department to find out more about what they do and how students can become more involved in sustainability. Upon arrival I received a warm welcome from members of the team who were more than enthusiastic about discussing their work. Before long we had set up in a large office and I began to group interview James Ryle (Transport Manager), Maev Moran (Communications & Campaigns Assistant), Rose Rooney (Waste and Circular Economy Manager), Chris Jones (Energy Manager), and John Brenton (Analysis Manager).

I began the interview by asking which achievements they were most proud of in the last year; naturally as each person focused on different areas they had different responses. One given achievement was the waste recycling rate which went up last year and is now higher than the Bristol city average. 82% of all waste is reused, recycled or composted with only 1% going to landfill. They were particularly happy with the new bus service which carried over 722,000 passengers last year and was described as a ‘big improvement‘.

all the university’s bought energy comes from renewable UK wind farms

From an energy and utility standpoint their achievements are numerous: in the 2017 annual report it was revealed that carbon emissions have fallen by 35% since 2005/06 which is impressive considering the university has grown by a third in that time; water consumption also fell by 28% from 2007/08. Ironically, the university’s research into climate change means it requires high performance computers and equipment that require large amounts of power. They stressed that it is impossible to be the absolute best in terms of sustainability due to STEM subjects that use the most energy. The fact that they do so well without infringing the university’s well-rounded subject selection is an achievement in itself

I next asked if they do anything radically different to other universities. They talk a lot to other universities like UWE and Bath so there is a certain level of shared strategy. One thing they do slightly differently though is that they take on the challenge of energy by looking at the whole university as a ‘project’ rather than looking at buildings individually.

Bristol has the highest proportion of heritage and listed building in the sector and combined with the large number of research labs this makes a total strategy more effective. Research requires so much energy that I was told 40% of energy goes to just 5% of the university’s total square metre area. What impressed me the most, however, was that all the university’s bought energy comes from renewable UK wind farms.

Photo by Peter Aschoff / Unsplash

Bristol is also unique in its student focused Bristol Futures and the fact that the Green Impact Award scheme, now in its tenth year, began here and is co-run by the students union allowing students to be involved as auditors; it is now an international scheme adopted by hospitals, dentists and GP surgeries.

I asked a little more about their plans to manage carbon emissions; one of their seven key pledges is to be carbon neutral by 2030. This is being helped by the fact that internationally electricity is de-carbonising at a fast rate as energy becomes greener.

In terms of ethics of procurement in everything the university buys they make sure they have a clear understanding of the supply chain and the ethics of things like clothing, electrical items, IT equipment and food and catering. Suppliers are asked strict questions by the university. From a transport perspective they are decreasing their footprint with only 17% of students bringing cars to the university last year compared with 27% in 2008. As a quick plug they tell me that the student travel survey will soon go out and it is important for them that as many of us as possible fill it in over the upcoming weeks.

They also encourage students to look outside the university and get involved in the city

Leading on from this survey I next asked them how students could be more involved in sustainability. Maev tells me that her role as Communications & Campaigns Assistant was created for this purpose. She explains that given the student cohort changes every three to four years it is important to be as engaging as possible within a short time frame and much of this involves events and ‘engaging students on the ground’ to empower them and not ‘finger wagging’ with statistics.

They like to get involved with the sustainability societies and student activities such as the SU's Zero Waste Week. They also run training as part of Sustainability Plus to provide carbon audit training and educate on things like the mechanics of how buildings operate and opportunities to reduce energy use as well as life skills going forward. Students can become more involved as auditors with the before mentioned Green Impact and Sustainable Labs.

They also sponsor student projects and allow data they’ve collected to be used for projects and are often invited to give lectures as part of engineering and computer science courses. They also encourage students to look outside the university and get involved in the city, whether it is voluntary litter picking or other opportunities to get involved in the community.

In the past the department have run open units as part of courses to educate students and they give a lecture annually so I asked how else students could educate themselves. There is now a wealth of online training with a sustainability focus.
I next moved to asking about their plans for the future. They are particularly excited about the new campus at Temple which they want to be an exemplar sustainable campus that is car free and potentially zero carbon. All new buildings are ingrained in the carbon neutral concept they have set out.

From a communications perspective, with the student population growing they hope to set more ambitious targets and involve more people. They’re also keen to talk about the Big Give which last year had its best year yet, raising over £200,000 for charity and shifting 114 tonnes of student waste. I’m also told that in the medium future IoT technology (Internet of Things) is exciting as it allows technology to be interlinked and interact, hopefully transforming the way buildings operate.

Bristol has had a professional sustainability strategy for much longer than other universities and has been regarded as leading edge during many conferences

Given the vast range of areas they cover I asked how well funded the department is and how committed the university was to sustainability. They told me they are very well supported financially and that managerial staff at the university are particularly knowledgeable and have embraced sustainability. Students in particular push them to do things and they welcome the involvement.

Given the importance of sustainability I was also keen to ask them if there was anything in particular they wanted students to know. As well as following them on Facebook and Twitter or reading their newsletter they are keen for students to let them know their ideas and hold the university to account. They encourage us to use fewer plastics, get involved with societies that promote sustainability or doing something as simple as going for a bike ride or walk and appreciate what we have here in this ‘great city’.

This year in my history course one unit covered environmental history. A few years ago the department mapped the curriculum to see where in different subjects they could implement sustainable areas. They see the university as a ‘living lab’ that encourages people to get involved. Bristol has had a professional sustainability strategy for much longer than other universities and has been regarded as leading edge during many conferences.

As the team rightly pointed out to me, sustainability is an incredibly broad term and it would be impossible to cover everything they do in one interview. They stressed however that they still have so much to do. They will continue to set higher targets to achieve their goals and hold themselves to account. They stressed that the financial challenges change every year and improvements in technology constantly change the dynamic. We’ve seen this in recent years with the rise of LED lights and decline of gas (and print newspapers).

It was a pleasure to meet the team and it was clear they give total commitment to pursuing every area and strategy that will make our university more sustainable. I hope in reading this students will not only come to a greater appreciation of what they do but also realise there is so much more we can do for our sustainable future.

Featured image: Unsplash/Anna Jiménez Calaf

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Ollie Smith

Features Editor 2018-19 I Online Features Editor 2017-18 I Host and Founder of The Epigram Show on Wednesdays at 10am on BURST Radio