The Declaration, Volume 4, Number 2 : May 2001 [Research]
By Thomas Balf and Ralph Stuart
Higher education is at a crossroads with regard to its environmental performance. On the regulatory front, the Environmental Protection Agency is putting significant compliance pressure on colleges and universities. At the same time, interest is rapidly increasing in many quarters in developing environmentally sustainable communities, and higher education is seen as a potentially important leader in this movement. Sustainability advocates look to higher education both as a test bed for many of their ideas and as the social institution most likely to incorporate their values in its activities. These considerations have resulted in a “campus greening” movement which seeks to use higher education campuses to investigate the potential of green building initiatives, enhanced recycling programs, energy conservation technologies, as well as the integration of sustainability considerations into the fabric of community experience.
We believe that the confluence of these trends provides special opportunities for creative thinking. As higher education works to find the resources necessary to improve their compliance management systems to meet governmental expectations, there is a unique opportunity to leverage these resources and compliance efforts to go “beyond compliance” and achieve superior environmental performance. We define superior environmental performance inclusively to include the areas of regulatory compliance, campus greening (i.e. minimization of environmental impacts), and educating for sustainability. However, we recognize that this creative thinking must occur in the highly decentralized and complex institutional setting that characterizes American academia. We believe that unless the creativity of those working towards improving environmental performance in higher education is framed in the context of management tools, these ideas will lose their power to create long-term change.
In this article, we describe some of the practical lessons we have learned about Environmental Management Systems (EMS) thinking and how we might use it to help achieve this potential. These lessons have developed through the work of the Campus Consortium for Environmental Excellence (C2E2). Originally organized around regulatory compliance concerns, the C2E2 has broadened its interests to include activities that support the continued improvement of environmental performance in the broadest sense in higher education. The Consortium’s goals are primarily achieved through environmental professional networking, information exchange, and the development of professional resources and tools and testing of innovative regulatory models. One of these resources is the EMS Self-Assessment Checklist for Colleges and Universities. This Checklist will be used as the framework for our discussion.
Unlocking the Potential
Through our work at the C2E2 (see www.c2e2.org for a list of members), we know that there is little linkage between the three component pieces of superior environmental performance: regulatory compliance, campus greening and educating for sustainability. Yet, we also know that the components for such excellence often exist. They exist in the form of underlying values. They exist in the form of the expertise of faculty and professional staff. They exist within specific programs, policies and procedures. Missing is a common tool that allows the variety of people interested in the issue to unlock the many doors in higher education that affect environmental performance. Our experience suggests that the generally agreed upon elements of an effective EMS, loosely modeled on the ISO 14001 standard, can be one such key.
A system is anything that takes its strength and form from the ongoing interaction of its parts. In other words, we believe every college and university has a system for managing its environmental compliance and impacts at some level. However, the problem at small and large institutions alike is that most institutions have many disparate systems that affect the environment. These systems need to work together to be effective, but they often do not.
An effective environmental management system (one that is designed to manage all environmental issues – not just compliance) proceeds according to the following three principles, which are illustrated in Figures 1, 2 and 3.
1. An effective management system has an underlying form that contains the essential elements of a “Plan, Do, Check, Act” loop, which creates a cycle of continual improvement. (Figure 1)
2. The elements of an effective management system connect in a pyramidal fashion, so that an explicit policy sets a clear institutional goal, and information and guidance needed to support the achievement of that policy are explicitly described. (Figure 2)
3. Consistent use of this management system form and function allows for more effective integration of systems within departments, between decentralized schools or campus-wide as illustrated in the EMS “Bucky Ball.” (Figure 3)
This model has informed the activities of the C2E2, including the development of Environmental Management Plans for managing laboratory wastes within the context of an EPA Project XL1 and an EMS Self-Assessment Checklist designed for use by any institution of higher learning.
A Tool That Helps: The C2E2 EMS Self-Assessment Checklist
In September 2000, the Campus Consortium for Environmental Excellence released version 1.0 of its Environmental Management System Self-Assessment Checklist for Colleges and Universities. The document was developed by college and university EH&S professionals to help them assess the management strength of their compliance programs. However, we believe that it is equally informative when applied to other environmental programs in higher education. The entire document is downloadable from our web site at www.c2e2.org.
The checklist was developed primarily for use by college or university Environmental, Health and Safety professionals to improve their understanding of the elements of an EMS. However, we have found that the process of conducting this rapid “gap analysis” is of significant value in raising awareness of the management challenges associated with other environmental issues. Because the tools permit the recognition of effective programs campus-wide, it is effective in unlocking a variety of improvement opportunities.
Most campuses have many compliance practices in place, as well as other programs that work to minimize environmental impacts. In designing the checklist, we assumed that help is needed in organizing and integrating such programs for review by upper administration and regulators. By examining how closely existing practices correspond to the standard elements of an EMS, the strengths and weaknesses of the program can be discerned.
How It Works
In all, there are 33 questions in the Checklist which are broken down in the “Plan, Do, Check, Act” cycle as follows:
Policy – 7 questions
The assessment takes a few hours to complete. Each question corresponds to a key element of an effective EMS. To facilitate answering the questions, there is a table beneath each question with four columns of examples. The column scores (0 -3) generally obeys the following pattern:
In other words, a score of 3 represents an ideal end point. An example of the scoring for a Planning Section question is illustrated in Table 1 on the next page.
More than 750 copies of the Self-Assessment have been distributed at conferences, workshops, and downloaded from the web. In our conversation with colleges and universities, we have found that many mid to larger institutions are using this or a similar EMS “Gap Analysis” tool to evaluate their program management. The feedback about the utility of the tool has been largely favorable, although feedback has also pointed to the need for a variety tools for going beyond the assessment phase and designing and implementing better EMSs at colleges and universities based on best practices. The following points represent some of the primary lessons learned.
In assessing the strengths and weaknesses of an institution’s approach to improving environmental performance, many colleges and universities have found that the C2E2 EMS Self-Assessment Checklist offers a process for honestly appraising current conditions and for building a sustainable system for improving environmental performance on campus. Based on the initial feedback, the C2E2 is focusing its next steps on developing best practice examples and evaluating appropriate Environmental Performance Indicators for higher education.
Thomas Balf is Director of the Campus Consortium for Environmental Excellence: c/o Nexus Environmental Partners, One Financial Center, Boston, MA 02111; tel: 617-951-1181; email: email@example.com.
Ralph Stuart is Environmental Safety Program Manager, University of Vermont, and President of the C2E2: Environmental Safety Facility, University of Vermont, P.O. Box 50570, Burlington, VT 05405; tel: 802-656-5403; email: firstname.lastname@example.org.