Institutionalizing a Conservation Culture at RMIT

The Declaration, Volume 1, Number 3 : September – December 1996  [Operations]

How does a university embody good environmental citizenship as an institution, develop environmentally responsible decision-making skills in its faculty, staff and students, and instill an ethic of ecologically sound behavior at the individual level? The Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT) in Melbourne, Australia, has been addressing these very questions over the past two years.

The answer, explains Fred Saunders, RMIT’s Environmental Coordinator, is the integration of operations, academics, and motivational strategies that cross disciplines to meet comprehensive environmental goals. The starting point is a university-wide environmental policy that includes input from all sectors of the university community.

Starting from the top

RMIT has a total of 44,423 students, faculty, and staff spread among the urban Melbourne campus and the rural Bundora campus. The institution states in its mission that it strives to be an “environmentally responsible corporate citizen.” To this end, Vice-Chancellor David Beanland signed the Talloires Declaration in 1995, establishing RMIT as the first university on the continent to endorse the global initiative for environmental literacy and sustainable development. RMIT’s adoption of the Talloires Declaration has provided an important framework for developing and implementing environmental policies, explains Saunders. “The Talloires Declaration also gives our effort a global dimension which is a very important sustainability issue,” he adds.

Support from senior administration is essential, notes Saunders. “Formal approval legitimates action and in most cases also provides a consistency of approach,” he points out. This is vital when environmentally- related activities stem from the students or other non-administrative members of the community, since the activity will eventually need to undergo a formal university process to become an institutionalized policy.

“Membership in ULSF provides a rallying point and indicates to faculty, staff, and students that management is behind their collective efforts,” explains Saunders. “The Vice-Chancellor signed the Talloires Declaration which includes an aim to green the curricula, so the university has made a formal commitment to support and advocate this position.”

A departmental approach

Whether in words or on paper, declarations are only as good as their implementation. In order to raise awareness and make clearer the connection between individual action and overall outcomes, RMIT encourages each university department to design its own Local Environmental Action Plan. This allows departments to implement specifically targeted strategies that reduce waste, conserve energy, and preserve natural resources.

Saunders provides assistance and resources to departments as well as guidelines that emphasize both environmental and financial benefits. These include concrete suggestions such as eliminating fax cover sheets, purchasing refillable pens, distributing plants around the office, and purchasing locally produced products.

Planning at the departmental level has fostered greater participation and created a receptive atmosphere for academic, administrative and physical change. The initiative is now beginning to see success. “The extent of that success will rest on the degree of cooperation and commitment of faculty, staff, and students,” stresses Saunders.

Establishing comprehensive policies

A small group of administrative and academic staff sparked the initiative for a institution-wide environmental policy several years ago. In 1994, the university adopted the RMIT Environmental Policy, which was developed primarily by the administration in consultation with faculty and students. This overarching policy ensures that all of RMIT’s operations are undertaken with consideration for protecting the environment. The policy holds the university responsible for:

  • minimizing consumption of water, energy, paper, and other natural resources
  • recycling and re-using goods and materials
  • disposing wastes as safely and efficiently as possible
  • designing and managing buildings to maximize natural sources of lighting and heating
  • promoting the use of materials for maximum durability and minimum environmental impact
  • preserving the heritage value of buildings
  • planting indigenous species of vegetation
  • developing transportation options to reduce greenhouse emissions

Saunders feels the environmental policy provides a good framework, but he also relies upon the university community for assistance in making necessary revisions. “The policy was framed in conservative form purposely just to get something to work with,” he explains. “We intend to revise it to reflect a sustainable approach rather than purely a resource conservation approach, i.e. include a philosophical base-biodiversity, advocacy, etc.-intent to green the curricula, and a strategy statement.”

Waste reduction and recycling

One example of reform is shifting the policy’s emphasis from recycling to waste reduction. Recently, many university departments have adopted a policy whereby students are charged a fee for printouts from the computer lab. Saunders anticipates this will help alleviate waste and overconsumption.

Although waste reduction is a primary goal, the university still needed to substantiate its recycling program. Earlier this year RMIT adopted a formal recycling policy. The university currently has a 30-35 percent recycling rate and hopes to achieve a 50 percent recycling goal by 1998.

To improve rates, Saunders is working to increase participation. Recycling and trash containers have been relocated to strategic areas which has been effective in increasing collection volumes. With input from faculty and students, Saunders plans to improve and increase the distribution of educational material as well. In addition, he hopes eventually to eliminate all desk-side wastebaskets and replace them with recycling bins.

Currently, RMIT accepts mixed paper, aluminum, #1 and #2 plastics, colored and clear glass, and corrugated cardboard in its recycling program. RMIT also collaborates on recycling with the community and an outreach program is being developed to solicit cardboard from external sources, such as the surrounding food outlets that students and staff patronize.

Litter control

In cooperation with Melbourne Water, a state government agency, Saunders responded to an initiative set by the City of Melbourne to eliminate wastes flowing into waterways through the creation of a Litter Control and Reduction Strategy. The document states that “litter is the most visible sign of environmental pollution.” In order to overcome this problem, Saunders stresses it is more effective to develop a campaign that emphasizes reasons not to litter rather than simply instituting an anti-litter campaign.

Research from other universities in the region has found that people are less likely to litter if they have pride in their environment, have access to waste disposal facilities, create a non-litter culture, understand implications of their actions, and minimize disposable packaging. RMIT has responded by relocating cigarette butt containers and recycling bins, improving signage, and placing traps in storm drains.


An Energy Management and Conservation Policy was also instituted in 1996. This policy commits RMIT to develop strategies for reducing energy consumption. In addition to long-term financial and environmental incentives, Saunders feels that proper energy management is essential for developing a holistic approach for improving the campus environment. Efficient management of facilities and transport vehicles is vital for the achievement of RMIT’s overall objectives, he points out.

Energy used on campus is generated locally (about 40 miles from campus) using electricity, gas, and oil as its primary source. The electricity is generated from brown coal, a relatively inefficient fuel source. To evaluate changes in its energy consumption, the Energy Management and Conservation Strategy evaluates alternative sources of energy and contains suggestions and motivational techniques to reduce overall energy usage. Techniques include:

  • placing signs next to light switches, highlighting the environmental and financial benefits of energy reductions
  • soliciting input from Environmental Advo cates to assess the effectiveness of commun ication strategies for faculty, administrators, students, and staff
    developing a measuring system to compare energy investments on per capita and per building usage
  • allocating five percent of the current energy budget for specific energy-saving projects

RMIT is also evaluating the feasibility of installing solar-powered lighting fixtures in some outdoor locations.

Ongoing challenges

Despite many achievements, RMIT still faces obstacles to changing attitudes and behavior. “The university is traditionally a “working man’s college” notes Saunders, and thus carries a “technocentric and vocational culture” which often conflicts with an environmental ethic.”

Coordinating implementation of the policies across several physical locations and among 82 departments also presents challenges.

“The fragmentation and scale of the university can be an impediment,” says Saunders. “The Melbourne campus has little open space and many commuting students which contributes to apathy and low participation in campus environmental initiatives. In contrast, the Bundora campus has more open natural space but suffers from the converse problem of the lack of a critical mass of students to make change,” he explains.

Saunders also identifies indifference from some areas of the university and the need for new programs to be self-funding as further hurdles to overcome.

Bridging constituencies

To address these concerns, Saunders works closely the student organization Ecology Action Group (EAG) to assert both political and peer pressure for institution-wide environmental reform. EAG is also vital in disseminating relevant information through an active cross-campus network.

The student council is also a critical constituency. A third-year student from the university’s Socio-Environmental Assessment and Policy program (SEAP) serves as the Environmental Officer reporting to the Student Union Council (SUC). According to Saunders, this has been critical for keeping students involved in campus environmental issues. SUC recently altered its constitution to provide funding for the position. “This move will greatly enhance the energy and commitment for the environment on campus,” he says.

In addition, Saunders collaborates with the Environmental Management Advisory Committee (EMAC), a formal group comprised of administrative, faculty, and student representatives established to evaluate and coordinate RMIT’s environmental initiatives. Deputy Vice Chancellor of Resources, Dr. Peter Frost, who reports directly to the Vice Chancellor, chairs EMAC. Saunders feels Dr. Frost’s position is key for the committee’s access to upper administration and to show senior support for campus efforts.

Student leadership

As a signatory of the Talloires Declaration, RMIT is committed to student involvement across curricula, research, operations, and partnership activities. Students have undertaken a variety of intersectoral and interdisciplinary campus improvement initiatives as class assignments, contract projects, and as voluntary efforts. Some of these are highlighted below:

  • Undergraduate volunteers from SEAP are establishing a student-organized campus food cooperative designed to promote concepts of cultural, social, and environmental sustainability, provide a setting for students and staff to work collaboratively, educate about sustainability, and offer small business experience.
  • SEAP and Environmental Engineering undergraduates identified the need to reduce campus traffic. Their voluntary research project resulted in improved bike parking spaces and they actively encourage biking in lieu of driving.
    Environmental Engineering, Landscape Architecture, and SEAP undergraduates are collaborating on a voluntary initiative to create an indigenous rooftop garden to increase biodiversity on campus.
  • SEAP students conducted a staff/student study to evaluate perspectives on recycling and attitudes toward waste reduction. Findings were considered for the formation and implementation of RMIT’s recycling, waste reduction, and litter control strategies.
  • Undergraduate Accounting students received course credit for evaluating strategies to integrated RMIT’s Environmental Policy into the university’s strategic planning process and proposing performance indicators.

Advocacy and communication are key

Motivating the university community, explains Saunders, requires a system for feedback and an open forum to evaluate practices and seek suggestions for improvement. Faculty, staff, and students are encouraged to participate and actively assist in the implementation of RMIT’s environmental policies and programs through the Environmental Advocates Network. Environmental Advocates are volunteers who act as a point of contact for the Environmental Coordinator to distribute information to departments. They are also responsible for managing the collection and transport of recycled materials to designated pick-up points.

Saunders encourages members of the university community to express their ideas and feedback about environmental strategies through their departmental advocates and via the RMIT environmental policy pages on the Internet.

Financial concerns

According to Saunders, not every initiative needs to demonstrate a short term cost savings. In fact, most of the investments the university has made, such as the $55,000 investment for the installation of outdoor recycling and cigarette bins, have not yet reached a “payback” point. The willingness of the administration to support long-term payback projects is contingent upon the popularity of the initiative and the level of support from the manager/department designated to implement the project.

For example, Saunders notes that gaining support for alternative energy investments is much more difficult than for outdoor recycling equipment. “Recycling is mainstream while alternative energy is still perceived as a ‘greenie’ issue,” he says. “Further implementation of environmental policies and strategies will hopefully overcome this perception and allow more energy and other non-mainstream initiatives to be adopted.”

Saunders, students, and staff members have also proposed criteria for evaluating environmental performance at RMIT, including financial assessment.


Recommended Performance Indicators

Community Education

  • number of articles in internal publications
  • amount of information published on the World Wide Web
  • number of student environmental stewardship projects
  • number of staff/student environmental training programs
  • Natural Resource Conservation and Landuse
  • percent of open space per Effective Full-Time Student Unit (EFTSU)
  • percent of total open area at Bundora revegetated with indigenous under story species

Energy and Transportation

  • total energy consumption, cost per capita, and cost per EFTSU
  • energy consumption per building
  • level of investment in environmentally efficient technology and renewable energy
  • fuel efficiency and total energy cost
  • greenhouse emissions level per capita (fleet vehicle)
  • number of bicycle parking spaces and their use

Resource Conservation and Use

  • total annual weight of solid waste and cost of waste disposal
  • percent reduction in water use by volume per capita and EFTSU
  • cost savings achieved through waste minimization efforts
  • percentage of solid waste recycled
  • percent of recycled and environmentally sound materials purchased


Furthering a conservation culture

RMIT’s achievements thus far are indicative of how a multidisciplinary approach toward education, research, and partnership activities integrates with the development of environmentally sensitive institutional operations. Saunders has succeeded in identifying many of the barriers to implementing campus-wide environmental initiatives and he continues to devise strategies to meet those challenges.

He attributes RMIT’s accomplishments to date to the support and involvement from faculty, staff, and especially students. In addition, he stresses that support from upper administration has been critical for the implementation of environmental initiatives at RMIT. “Enlisting someone at the executive level of the university to advocate the cause to the power brokers is a proven approach,” Saunders advises.

By focusing on an institutional culture of conservation and environmental literacy, RMIT aims for a greener curriculum in both environmentally and non- environmentally related degree programs. Saunders suggests that institutions of higher education should not separate environmental operations issues from curricula reform.

“The curricula is the core business of the university even though in many ways it is more difficult to address [because of] academic sovereignty,” says Saunders. “We have to send consistent messages out to students, industry, and the wider community.”

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