Learning through Environmental Policy Implementation: A case story of the Rhodes University Department of Education’s environmental policy

The Declaration, Volume 6, Number 2: November 2003  [Policies]

By Ingrid Timmermans & Heila Lotz-Sisitka

Rhodes University is a signatory to the Talloires Declaration. Over the past six years the university has made a number of commitments to work towards a more sustainable future. This case story is focused on one department within the University. It reports on efforts to implement an environmental policy and illustrates some of the real ‘struggles’ we have experienced as we grapple with the complex social processes of implementing more sustainable practices in the context of everyday life and work. The Department of Education’s environmental policy has been operating for four years.

From the start we adopted an educational approach to the implementation of the Department’s environmental policy. Key features of this educational programme include an action learning framework, a fictional ‘character’ who breathes life into the educational programme, and use of the well-known footprint metaphor. ‘EcoSonke1 is an active, colourful and dynamic fictional character that regularly makes her voice heard in the department (see Figure 1). She ‘speaks’ to staff and students, congratulates them on positive achievements, and informs them if ‘ecological hotspots’ appear in the department. She has a ‘box of tools’ and her interactions within the department are inspired by the concept of ecological footprinting. Using this metaphor, brightly coloured footprints are pasted up around the buildings. EcoSonke grows very large feet as the ecological impact increases. She will place a large red footprint on someone’s office door if she notices that poor recycling practices are taking place or energy is being wasted. She also sticks up small green footprints and ‘thank you’ notes where resource-saving practices are visible.

While the focus of our policy implementation process has been educational, it has also brought staff and students face-to-face with some of the real challenges of implementing change in the interests of environmental best practice and sustainable living.

The Language of Sustainability
A key challenge associated with implementing the department’s environmental policy is developing a common understanding of the language used in the broader ‘sustainability debate’ and in the Rhodes Environmental Policy in particular, which requires us to “…actively pursue a policy of environmental best practice in order to assist in creating an environmentally sustainable future” (Rhodes University, 1997). We have found that both ‘environmental best practice’ and ‘an environmentally sustainable future’ are terms open to a wide range of interpretations. Like Simpson (2001:20) we have found that clarifying the language of sustainability in practice requires ongoing dialogue about “cultural change.” Through such dialogue one can begin questioning what needs to be sustained and from whose perspective best practice should be considered. This can assist with the formulation of practical outputs for working towards sustainability.

To foster this kind of dialogue in the Department of Environmental Policy, we established a working group involving different members of staff and a student representative, to ‘drive’ and ‘guide’ the implementation of the policy initiative. Carpenter and Meehan (2002:30) provide insight into the roles of such a working group when they note that planning for policy implementation involves facilitating the development of management infrastructure, setting up accountability mechanisms and fostering of participation and representation. In keeping with an open-ended dialogic approach to this task, the policy working group discusses plans, problems and successes at regular meetings, which are documented and shared with the rest of the staff at staff meetings. In coming to terms with the meaning of sustainability and environmental best practice, the Department’s policy thus evolves through an open-ended and responsive process, as recommended by Roome and Oates (1996), who comment that sustainability requires flexible, responsive, diverse and devolved organisational forms. They highlight

… the importance of a learning mindset in which staying attentive to the shifting needs of society and the dynamics of environmental change will be as important as staying close to the needs of customers. It requires an approach that questions the adequacy of the organisation’s knowledge, understanding, practices and values so that these are (re)shaped as part of increasingly sophisticated and thoughtful responses to the interconnected concerns we face (p. 169).

A Learning Process of Information Seeking, Monitoring, Action and Reporting
A second key challenge we have faced is the need to ensure that the policy implementation process is more than simply the actions of a few dedicated individuals. Through our educational approach to the policy implementation process, we aim to develop the action competence (Jensen & Schnack 1997; O’Donoghue, 2001) of staff and students in the department, enabling them to be informed and to respond actively to environmental issues as part of a wider community. In developing and implementing the environmental policy process we applied an active learning framework that promotes ‘good education’ through coming to know the way things are (finding information), having meaningful encounters in local surroundings (auditing, taking action and ongoing monitoring), and critical reflection (ongoing reporting). These educational processes give rise to problem-solving interactions that encourage transformation of current practice (O’Donoghue, 2001).

The diagram above describes a number of elements of an environmental policy process that can develop the action competence of participants. In applying these elements to our policy implementation, we have established the policy implementation process as an open-ended learning process, as discussed below:

Finding and Sharing Information
The first step in the departmental environmental policy process was to gather information about particular activities in the department that might impact on the environment. Staff members were asked to identify which issues they felt left the biggest mark on the environment. Issues identified were water, paper, energy, office equipment (including radiation and ergonomics), stationery (including both the toxic and sustainable options of stationery), and the work environment (including aesthetics, the kitchen, consumables and ‘sick-building-syndrome’). More information was then gathered about these issues from a range of sources including other departments such as the computer science and information technology departments and the purchasing division.

Information gathering was initially intense, but remains an ongoing process. As investigations take place in local contexts and as action plans are implemented, we have found the need for more information and have had to delve deeper into issues as more questions arise. Finding and sharing information is therefore an ongoing dimension of the environmental policy process.

The policy working group, together with EcoSonke, plays an important monitoring role. For example, the working group needs to follow-up on whether paper recycling boxes are being used appropriately, if they are being emptied before they become too full and unsightly, and if the paper at the central collection point is being collected regularly. If an initiative is badly managed and becomes a burden, it is very easy to lose hard-won support and cooperation.

Taking Action and Reporting
The working group makes decisions about how to tackle identified issues and sets about implementing those plans with the support of all staff members. Major activities include: ongoing development of an environmental policy file (accessible to all staff and students); updating an environmental policy display indicating current action plans; identifying footprint ‘hot spots’ and informing staff and students of emerging issues; and updating the regular newsletter ‘EcoSonke Says,’ containing short pieces of information related to action plans in process or ideas for reducing ecological footprints. EcoSonke Says is also e-mailed to all staff.

Policy Implementation Outcomes and Associated Challenges
Through the adoption of a dialogic approach to policy implementation, and through adopting an open-process educational framework aimed at the development of action competence, we have made some progress towards enabling a ‘culture change’ within our department. Each outcome (or success) is, however, characterized by a number of associated challenges, which are both social and technical in nature.

Change at Individual and Societal Levels
To date we have addressed issues associated with paper, energy, water and stationery use. Boxes of one-sided paper have been placed in all the offices for re-use. The one-sided paper that is not used is sent to local pre- and primary schools. Non-reusable paper is sent to a local Grahamstown recycling company. We have been collecting about one ton of paper per year in the Department. Although the money obtained from our recycling is minimal, it is enough to make small contributions towards improving our office environment. For example, we bought a cycad for the gardens outside the Department with our first payment received. We are now trying to establish a policy for using recycled paper for letterheads and publicity flyers for the Department. We have also established a system for collecting printer cartridges for recycling and are investigating the use of remanufactured/ compatible cartridges in our printers. We are trying out small energy-saving initiatives by looking at how different appliances use electricity, and by strategically placing reminders to switch off lights. In the immediate future we hope to address issues such as the recycling of plastics, cans and glass.

Having an environmental policy creates an awareness and preparedness in the Department that enables us to respond to issues as they arise. For example, when a toilet cistern cracked recently, we specifically requested a regulated flush cistern to replace it. Without our heightened awareness, a more environmentally conscious option may not have occurred to us at all.

One of the challenges we have faced in our resource-use reduction programme is the fact that South Africa does not have the culture of recycling evident in many northern countries. This is particularly demonstrated by the difficulty we had in encouraging staff members to use the recycling bins provided. Despite repeated reminders, we still found that the majority of rubbish collected from the ‘normal rubbish bins’ was paper, and that the paper recycling boxes were being used for other purposes. EcoSonke‘s green and red footprint cards, placed strategically on bins in the department have made a big difference, radically reducing the amount of paper thrown out with the general rubbish.
Trying to encourage small cultural changes in an office environment (like changes in paper management habits) requires consideration of the broader context. In South Africa, many environmental issues involve more pressing problems associated with poverty, unemployment, AIDS/HIV, inequality and the meeting of basic human needs. Seen in this light, small resource-use initiatives can seem even more insignificant. Considering our policy implementation process in this context, we made decisions, for example, to distribute one-sided paper to poorly-resourced early learning centers, thus ensuring that the policy implementation process has broader social benefits (if only on a small scale). We have furthermore been able to make a small contribution in response to the issue of HIV/AIDS. The policy working group and EcoSonke have taken the responsibility of organizing condom dispensers for the student toilets. An important monitoring task is to ensure that the dispensers are regularly replenished.

Change at the Institutional Level
In implementing the departmental environmental policy at a local level, we have identified some of the issues associated with our interdependence within a broader organizational and social structure. One of the issues we have dealt with is aligning the policy requirements with institutional traditions and culture. For example, we experienced resistance when attempting to produce letterhead on recycled paper, mainly because the recycled paper was not white (bleached) enough to comply with the corporate image of the institution. After much negotiation, we compromised by purchasing an expensive (bleached) imported recycled paper. Besides the cost implications, having to compromise in this way reduced our capacity to support the emerging South African paper recycling production industry. The paper we initially wanted to purchase is locally made and is neither chlorine-bleached nor de-inked.

Roome and Oates (1996:165) comment that there are many companies or institutions that are involved in a process of improved environmental performance, but few have considered this performance in light of the broader notion of sustainability. They note that considering the latter means a “profound examination and change in [the institution’s] social and environmental identity, its purpose and its practices.” A reconsideration of the letterhead requirements to support the corporate image could be an example of such a change.

In our efforts to recycle printer cartridges, two departments confronted organizational challenges beyond the university. The Department of Electronics discontinued a system of donating all of the university’s old printer cartridges to a recycling company because the cost of the courier outweighed the price received for the cartridges. After repeated disappointments with two organisations that promised to collect cartridges, the Department of Education eventually found a local company that pays us for our used cartridges.

Recycling initiatives are better established in larger South African cities such as Cape Town and Johannesburg, but the cost of transporting recyclable material to the recycling plants from small, more remote towns such as Grahamstown (where Rhodes is situated) is often very high. This highlights the need for a broader, institution-based initiative to establish working recycling initiatives involving all departments and ideally also the local municipal council. Recycling on a larger scale may make these initiatives more financially viable in terms of transport and equipment. In working at a departmental level, we have found recycling companies particularly willing to negotiate better prices with us once they hear that we are part of a large organisation that can potentially generate a lot of business for them.

Technological Change
During the initial phases of policy implementation, we have also been faced with a number of technological challenges. For example, we feel that if we genuinely want to support the recycling of printer cartridges, we should be using recycled cartridges ourselves. Yet research and experience at the university has revealed that refilled inkjet cartridges are notoriously unreliable and result in costly repairs to printers when they leak. Thus for the time being we have been given the blessing of the Department of Electronics (who repair our printers) to experiment with using recycled cartridges on one of our LaserJet printers, but we have had to abandon the idea of using recycled inkjet cartridges until we have some indication that technology in this field has improved.

Another technological shortcoming is the lack of a suitable, economically viable recycled paper to use for the copying of student notes. The only recycled paper that is economically viable for this purpose is a paper that utilises chemicals for the de-inking process and bleach for whitening. The paper is also not of a sufficiently high quality to be run through high-speed copying machines. Paper making companies argue that their normal bond paper is environmentally friendly because it is oxygen bleached and because they re-use the water from the paper-making process. Yet this does not address the many hectares of indigenous grasslands that are ploughed up and replaced by plantations nor the large amounts of water used by these plantations, which presents a big problem in a water scarce country such as South Africa.

Conclusion: Next Steps in the Learning Process
In the past four years, the environmental policy implementation process has enabled staff and students to learn more about the environmental implications of their day-to-day habits and choices. The working group has developed skills to better manage departmental resources. Practical actions have been taken, and our ecological footprint (resource use) has been reduced. Other environmental improvements have also been made. In addition, a dialogue about cultural change towards more sustainable living has been initiated, within both our own department and the broader institution. This has been achieved through ongoing problem identification and the seeking of solutions to these problems (as illustrated in the issues reported above).

We have also highlighted a number of challenges that lie ahead. Key amongst these is the need for broader institutional support for practical environmental management on campus, so that a larger constituency is created to encourage and support smaller initiatives such as our departmental policy. We have also identified the need to support recycling initiatives in South Africa so as to enable and promote the necessary research for improved technology and infrastructure. Our environmental management initiatives need to be contextualised within the broader socio-economic issues faced by the majority of South Africans. We have also reflected critically on the structural and broader social and economic constraints that reduce our ability to make more sustainable choices. We have identified these as the most complex of the problems to resolve.

Our work so far has illustrated that seeking environmental sustainability is not a simplistic or pre-defined framework towards which we should be aiming. The complex nature of environmental issues means that we need a dynamic and responsive process in order to strive towards more sustainable lifestyle choices. We have found that adopting an educational orientation to policy implementation has created such an open-ended, dialogic process aimed at cultural and social transformation.

Carpenter, D. & Meehan, B. (2002), “Mainstreaming Environmental Management: Case Studies from Australasian Universities”. International Journal of Sustainability in Higher Education, Vol.3 No.1, pp.19-37.

International Association of Universities. (Date unknown), The Talloires Declaration. [http://www.unesco.org/iau/tfsd_talloires.html].

Jensen, B.B. and Schnack, K. (1997), The Action Competence Approach in Environmental Education. Environmental Education Research, 3 (2): 163-178.

O’Donoghue, R. (2001), Environment and Active Learning in OBE: NEEP Guidelines for facilitating and assessing active learning in OBE. Share_Net: Howick.

Rhodes University. (1997), Rhodes University Environmental Policy. [http://www.ru.ac.za/environment/].

Roome, N. & Oates, A. (1996). “Corporate Greening”. In J.Huckle and S. Stirling (Eds) Education for Sustainability, Earthscan Publications, London. pp. 165-180.

Simpson, W. (2001). Environmental Stewardship and the Green Campus: The Special Role of Facilities Management, UB Green Office, Buffalo.

1 The name EcoSonke is derived from ecological and the Xhosa word for ‘all together’.

Ingrid Timmermans is a researcher and manager in the Rhodes University Environmental Education Unit. She chairs the Education Department Environmental Policy Working Group.

Heila Lotz-Sisitka is Associate Professor, and holds the Murray & Roberts Chair of Environmental Education, Rhodes University.

Acknowledgements: The staff and students in the Department of Education, Rhodes University, are acknowledged for their contributions to the policy implementation process. In particular, the members of the policy working group are acknowledged for their ongoing contributions: Di Gruneberg, Mark Schafer, Varonique Sias, Gladys Tyatya and Adele van der Merwe.

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