This week, Royal Holloway's E-zine announced, next to a smiley picture of the Principal, that the College was going 'Green', and no more waste from the campus would go to landfill. You would be forgiven for at first thinking this is a great initiative, as I did, but it is only when you look at the specifics that you find some darker details of what is actually happening to that waste, that are indicative of some wider issues within the University.
The chirpy announcement in the Principal's weekly address stated: "We're separating out more of our waste to be directly recycled than ever before, while the remainder of our waste (which would have been landfilled) we are now sending to a Waste to Energy plant, where it will be incinerated to produce electricity." Now read that last line again - the waste from halls of residence, cafés and classrooms that isn't recyclable will be burned for electricity. For me, this announcement is nothing but a bit of positive spin that encourages the shirking of environmental responsibility, and hides a lack of strategy towards making Royal Holloway truly sustainable - unless that strategy is to write one and burn it to create electricity, of course.
The crux of the scheme is that Royal Holloway has a new arrangement with the company who manages its waste disposal, Veolia, to take any non-recyclable materials to a plant where they're burned to create energy. I would imagine that this saves some money for both parties; however we should be worried by this. Primarily because of the raw environmental damage burning waste can cause: According to the American Environmental Protection Agency, not only does incineration contribute more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than coal-fired power plants, they also release ultra-fine particles that have been linked to illnesses in individuals living in neighbouring locations such as cancer, heart attacks and strokes. Further, recycling efforts have been statistically shown to decrease whenever incineration is introduced to an area. A lot of fallacies surround the pro-incineration camp, as can be seen by Global Anti-Incinerator Alliance's 'myths v facts' resource, and regardless of this, there seems to be no extra advantage that recycling and reducing the use of non-renewable materials can't cause alone, particularly in terms of environmental benefits and job creation.
When you strip away the spin and smiley photos, you see this new initiative for what it is - some positive PR, a distraction and lip service to a vital cause. In the New Year, Royal Holloway played a fantastic role in the efforts to relieve flooding in the local town. To go from this to burning the kinds of waste that creates greenhouse gases which can contribute to flooding more by causing artificial climate change seems counter-intuitive. A more stern strategy for having a more genuinely sustainable campus is needed, and one that fits into a more sustainable society.
Call me biased, but the Students' Union at Royal Holloway has been a vanguard for sustainability and our Gold Awards in the Green Impact accreditation scheme and the fact that there is no shortage of students on campus who care about the environment, prove this. Instead of burning waste from bins on campus, Royal Holloway should be working with students to promote the reduction of waste through channels like the course reps and halls reps systems, and encouraging people to be green ambassadors and looking at how we can include sustainability into the curriculum. We should be looking at ways to eradicate the use of plastic or other non-sustainable materials in commercial outlets, so no waste has to go to the landfill or incineration plant in the first place! In short, a community effort could provide a community's answer, if it was invested in and made a true priority.
Some of the things that make a greener campus are what make better Universities: Partnership, sustainability and accountability. If Royal Holloway's management want true partnership between students and staff, emphasis on recycling, and changing environmental attitudes, then maybe working with students to solve the problem of sustainability might be the way to go, rather than shifting the problem elsewhere.