Interview by Cailean Coffey, transcribed by Laura O’Connor
While it may not always seem the case, what with Trump and a certain “rocket man” criticising the size of each other’s big red buttons, the environment is by far the most pressing and most important issue of the 21st century. It seems at times that ever since Al Gore released his classic documentary, ‘An Inconvenient Truth’, in 2006, environmental issues have been pushed to the fore of political, private and public life across Ireland and the world. In UCC a group was set up in an effort to tackle the environmental issues across campus. The group, UCC Green Campus, has pushed UCC to be ranked among the Top 10 sustainable universities in the world this year. Byline sat down with Green Campus member Maria Kirrane who, with reusable mug in hand, guided us through the formation and establishment of the group.
BYLINE: How did the programme begin, and how did it become involved in the launching of the Green University Flag?
Maria Kirrane: The programme began when a bunch of students in 2007 decided that they weren’t happy with the work being done by the Environmental Management Committee. The students had come from Green Flag schools, and they asked themselves “Why aren’t we doing this here?” So they got in touch with An Taisce, the environmental group that run the Green Flag programme for Ireland, and An Taisce said that if the relevant parties in UCC were willing to work together and run a pilot on campus, that they would support it. And so, we got the Building and Estates team, some academics – we got the President behind it as well. Then An Taisce came down and went through it with us. It took three years – it was 2010 by the time we got the Green Flag, so it was a bit of a hard slog, but we got there! We were the first University in the world to get a Green flag.
BY: What was it like trying to figure out how the Green Campus would work?
MK: It was great, because people were really open to it. I do think that there’s a culture of leadership in UCC – a culture of leading and starting off these things, a sense of pride if you will! You can definitely use that to your advantage when pitching these things. Going to people and telling them that it works at primary and secondary level, that we have the support of An Taisce, and the knowledge that we would be the first to obtain the Green Flag really got people on board. I think it was really good timing as well, as there were many around the University at the time that knew that something needed to be done, and they were glad that it was the students that were pushing for it to be done. The Green Flag scheme for universities is in 14 countries worldwide now, and we were the first ever!
BY: Were you involved from the very start yourself?
MK: Yes, I was one of the students. I did my undergraduate degree here, as well as my postgraduate degree, so I was around for the three years spent working towards it. I left for a few years doing other work, but now I’m back as Sustainability Officer for the University.
BY: Was there any time in the three years where you thought it wasn’t going to work?
MK: We had great support. But there’s always moments where you wonder “Oh god, what are we doing?!” It was all new, but like I said, we had a lot of people behind us. We had really good support from the Students’ Union back then as well. The SU Deputy President at the time created a mandate that the Deputy President would always sit on the Green Campus committee. There were a lot of people working to place it into the structure of the university, and it all came together really well.
BY: Are you proud of the progress that you’ve made so far? What are the thing that you are most proud of?
MK: Yeah, I’m utterly amazed by it. The thing I’m proudest of is the fact that it has really grown its own legs. From being a student on it, we didn’t really know how far it was going to go. But now, the university has its own Sustainability Officer, which has only been a position since May 2017, and there’s only two universities in Ireland who have that position. We have a Sustainability Strategy as well, which has been signed off at the top levels, and sustainability is a part of the university’s overall strategy as well. Everyone that I talk to, no matter what part of campus or what office it is, know what Green Campus is, and to be honest, it’s a bit of a ‘brand’ around UCC now. It’s recognised, and people trust it – they think “Green Campus, that’s a well-respected thing around UCC” and I’m very proud of that.
BY: What initiatives are you currently running?
MK: The coffee cup ban in the library! [laugh] I work with Buildings and Estates, who work across the different environmental aspects of university life, so there’s an energy manager, and the like. The Energy Manager started this scheme called the “Save or Save” scheme. Thirteen of our buildings in UCC use 87% of the energy, because they’re in constant use, or late night buildings like the library. We’ve done a targeted programme with those buildings; we’ve gone in and tried to see how those buildings work, especially with the library. We got a team together and they took initiatives on board that they knew would work, such as turning off lights in empty rooms. Following on from that, they decided to target library waste as well. I assessed the cleaning contractors and discovered that there were 187 small bins that would be full of coffee cups, half empty, and stuff. These bins couldn’t be recycled, as they were all contaminated with coffee. Alongside this, there’s an international movement towards not using these non-recyclable cups, so we thought that we would lead by example and declare that all coffee was welcome, but it had to be in a reusable cup within the library. The other side of that was going to KSG, the food contractor for UCC and telling them about the initiative, and asking if they would do a discount, in order to try and give people an incentive to change their behaviour. So we used a bit of both a carrot and a stick, so to speak. The library also stock reusable cups as well, but there’s nothing stopping people going to Penneys and buying a cup for €2!
BY: UCC is ranked as being in the top 10 sustainable universities in the world, but what does this mean exactly?
MK: It’s a global ranking of environmental performance, with roughly fourteen criteria that you report on. Basically, it means that of the universities in this ranking, we’re in the top 10. Not every university is involved in it, but there are a lot of U.K. universities and U.S. universities in it who’ve been at this a lot longer than we have, so it’s brilliant that for us to be in the top 10. It’s a ranking, and because it’s global you’re not necessarily comparing like for like. For something like the Green Flag, you’re measured more qualitatively as well as quantitatively, whereas with the ranking it’s only quantitatively. I would say that it’s a very good communication tool, and a very good thing for us to say that we’re doing really well here. There is a lot of data that you have to put into it and there are a lot of people around campus that feed into it. It includes things like the number of events here that environmentally minded societies run, how many courses we have that have an environmental theme, it looks at how much waste we produce, the amount of energy we use and it measures other aspects like that. It’s a fantastic achievement, and it shows that we’re doing a lot here in UCC. We’ve made massive strides over the last ten years so I don’t think it’s unwarranted that we’re in the top 10.
BY: How involved are UCC in investing in renewable energy sources?
MK: UCC divested from fossil fuels years ago, we’ve no investments in the fossil fuel industry. The finance committee before Christmas made the decision to sign up to the UN Principles For Responsible Investment, which is a global initiative run by the UN which requires that we report quite extensively on our investments. While they would always have been public anyway, this will mean that we’ll be completely transparent on all our investments and we’ll have to work to ensure that our investments are positive across a range of sustainable criteria, so not just environment but social aspects as well. Again we are the only university in Ireland to sign up to that but there are others in the U.K. and the U.S.. We’d actually be one of the few places in Ireland that have signed up come to think of it.
BY: What can students do, apart from using renewable cups, to aid the Green Campus initiative?
MK: Come along to meetings, say hello, get in touch, sign up to our mailing list, if there’s something that you want to do then bring it to a meeting and we’ll see about running a campaign around that. It is about students bringing ideas to us and then the people working within that unit implementing that and seeing what we can do, and that’s what Green Campus is all about. It doesn’t mean that your idea will definitely be taken on or that we’ll run with it but we’ll definitely look at it and see if it’s possible. As a student that’s what I loved about it, you’d go to a meeting and say “I think we should do this” and then they’d always come back and say “We looked into this, we can and we can’t” etc. etc. It’s kind of about being democratic about what campaigns we run and things like that.
BY: What would you like to see UCC do or be in five years’ time in relation to Green Campus?
MK: I would love to see UCC go disposable-free. I would love if there was no plastic bottles, no straws, those kind of things. You see the list of completely unnecessary uses of plastic and I’d love to have none of those on UCC campus. I’d love to be trialling ways of avoiding plastic or incentivising people to use reusable options so then we could go to government and say “This is possible”. If we do it in UCC then why can’t we do it in Cork city and why can’t we do it across the country? Cork City council brought in the reusable cups so, you know, that’s two big elements, UCC and the City Council, and then you’re asking why can’t Cork County do it , you know? I do think we should be influencing policy, we should be making sure that our students who are going into jobs, be it in companies or in government or wherever they go off to work, that when they get there they are saying “You use disposable cups here, why?”
BY: What events has UCC Green Campus got coming up?
MK: We’re doing a big event in March around World Water day. In the ERI there’s a UN centre, it’s called the GEMS water centre, and they basically run a water quality-monitoring system that’s global and it’s directing feeding into one of the sustainable development goals, so it’s a massive thing for UCC to have a centre like that here. So we’re joining up with them and the ERI for Sustainable Water Day and we’re going to having different stands on campus talking about the importance of water, a river walk to introduce people to the biodiversity across the river and we’ll be having some talks with experts in the field. Along with that we’re still working in the buildings and the library to keep improving and keep pushing to get our Green Flag.
If you’d like to get involved with UCC Green Campus, visit their website at greencampus.ucc.ie.