Ireland’s colleges pull on the green jumper for EcoCampus scheme

Green Campus programme helps third-level institutions do their bit for the environment

 

Many of us are familiar with the Green Schools flags flying above schools across Ireland. But did you know that third-level colleges are now getting involved in this environmental education programme?

Ireland leads the way in the Green or EcoCampus programme across Europe, according to Daniel Schaffer, the head of the Foundation for Environmental Education, who visited Dublin this month for the scheme’s annual network meeting. Ireland joined the FEE EcoCampus programme in 2007; a decade later 25 campuses have been recognised for their green credentials.

Unlike the Green Schools programme, where schools progress through flags for water, energy, waste, biodiversity, transport and so on, the Green Campus programme allows each university or college to choose its own themes, depending on its local environment.

“Ireland decided on a whole-campus approach, but in other countries specific campuses may enrol rather than the whole university. Whether a campus takes on themes like water, energy or even health depends on local relevance,” Schaffer says.

At the network meeting, speakers from Dublin City University, Maynooth University, Pearse College of Further Education, Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology and the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland shared their progress on environmental-action plans.

Samantha Fahy of DCU says the new programme has the potential to unite students across its three campuses in Glasnevin and at St Patrick’s College and All Hallows in Drumcondra. “We now have 16,000 students and 2,000 staff in a 2.5km radius, so active transport is a key area for us,” she says.

Recent initiatives include free water-bottle filling stations, an intercampus bike scheme and bike-maintenance classes, and an agreement with Dublin Bus to reroute buses from the St Patrick’s campus to the Glasnevin campus.

“Our long-term plan is to have 90 per cent of students and staff taking public transport, and Metro North will help our connectivity greatly. Brian MacCraith, the president of DCU, wants us to become a carbon-neutral campus,” Fahy says.

Outdoor classroom

Other campuses have taken on entirely different themes. At GMIT in Co Mayo the outdoor-education students and staff built an outdoor classroom from living willow. “Students now use it regardless of the weather. And the community uses it at the weekends,” says Andreas Koenig, a fourth-year social studies student.

The Green Campus committee at Maynooth University has focused on improving the energy efficiency of buildings, conserving water and improving waste management.

“We have introduced LED lighting to over 80 per cent of our buildings. We have natural ventilation instead of air conditioning in some buildings and have solar-panel trials for hot water and electricity generation,” says Ciaran Coffey, the university’s energy manager. Compostable cups and reusable water bottles are also common. Science students and the ground staff have planted wild flowers and native trees and put up nesting boxes, bat boxes and bug hotels, to encourage biodiversity.

At Pearse College, in Crumlin in Dublin, the Green Campus programme is well integrated into academic and community life.

“We worked with Dublin City Council and local community groups to revitalise a derelict space to create vibrant community gardens and allotments,” says Jacqueline Nunan, the principal of the college. It now has more than 130 plots, an orchard, a wild-flower garden and a children’s playground. Tools are shared, seeds are swapped and an annual share-and-taste barbecue celebrates the produce grown.

Mental health

The RCSI officially joined the Green Campus programme in 2016, but it was already offering foundation students a nonacademic course on environmental engagement.

Ahmed Zainy, a second-year medical student, is among the students who took it. “We planted native trees in the RCSI Dardistown sports campus. The programme is good for students’ mental health, because you need to see green spaces and get fresh air. You also get to understand the energy and waste-management systems in the buildings. I can bring this knowledge back to my home country of Iraq,” he says.

Dr Michael John O’Mahony, the head of An Taisce’s environmental-education unit, which runs the programme in Ireland, says student engagement is the key for green campuses. “By involving the students you will impact on lifestyle and become a catalyst for change in the wider community,” he says.

Finding ways to engage students more was the theme of a workshop at the network meeting. Building a good committee and giving public acknowledgement to those involved through an award ceremony were suggestions for how to give the programme a higher profile.

“Students don’t want to be lectured about the environment. They have that all day. You have to try to get the message across in a fun way,” says Doreen Bishop, administrator of the Green Campus committee at Maynooth University.

Street cleans

Deirdre O’Carroll, the manager of the Green Campus programme in Ireland, believes that universities can engage more with their communities. “Some universities partake in the All Ireland Pollinator Plan and the National Spring Clean, but there is potential for students to get involved in beach and street cleans and even to link in to the Green Schools programme,” she says.

The annual intervarsity Bioblitz has become one way to draw attention to the initiative at University College Cork, University College Dublin and Maynooth. Gwyneth MacMaster of UCD (which won the Bioblitz in 2016) says the 24-hour species-recording event generates a huge amount of interest on campus. “We recorded 523 species on the UCD campus, and now we have a data set for teaching and research and to use to raise biodiversity awareness,” she says.

The fossil-fuel-divestment campaign, led by Trócaire, has arguably been the most successful initiative for energising students, particularly at Trinity College Dublin, NUI Galway and Queen’s University Belfast. The key question is whether the success of this campaign, which has seen the governing boards of both TCD and NUIG commit to removing fossil-fuel industries from their investment portfolios, will encourage more students to put environmental issues at the heart of campus life.

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