Trinity cannot rely on greenwashing

Trinity has a responsibility to set in place a climate strategy, and the next Provost should be at the forefront of this

Institutions such as Trinity are not exempt from greenwashing practices. Greenwashing, defined as an organisation deceptively using green values to persuade the public that their actions and policies are environmentally friendly, is driven by the heightened demand for sustainable practices by consumers. Allegations of greenwashing have been on the up in recent years. Is Trinity also practising some aspects of greenwashing, and should it be doing more to alleviate the existential risk of climate change?

There is no denying that Trinity has made significant steps to reduce its environmental impact. The Business School is perhaps the most obvious example of the College’s growing focus on sustainability, with its own waste-reducing water management system, a solar-shading system to control heat in the building, and Dublin’s largest “living wall”, home to 96 bio-diversity-boosting plants. Moreover, Trinity has an extremely active Green Campus Committee who have made significant gains in recent years. On-campus catering options have expanded to include a range of plant-based options, composting has been introduced in Trinity Hall, and 18 “green” projects have been funded by Trinity’s sustainability fund.

However, these sustainable successes must not be allowed to mask the issues that still exist within our university. There are a number of issues requiring further attention and Trinity, as a leading educational institution, has a responsibility to address them.

“Visitors to Trinity’s campus, whether they be students, staff, or tourists, either aren’t paying enough attention to their waste disposal or don’t know how to dispose of it effectively.”

 A key area of unnecessary waste and consumption is Trinity’s laboratories, of which there are over one hundred. The average person in Ireland produces 61kg of plastic annually, whilst the average bench scientist typically produces over 1000 kg of plastic waste each year. Put simply, labs consume ten times more energy than an office or classroom of a similar size. This is frequently due to poor resource management and unsustainable habits.

The ongoing campaign to make one of Trinity’s labs a “green lab” will help College to reduce its energy usage and waste disposal exponentially. Transitioning to sustainable labs will have an added benefit on operational costs in the long term, making this an economically and environmentally attractive option. It is in everybody’s interest to place sustainability at the forefront of Trinity’s aims when operating research laboratories.

Whilst making one of our labs environmentally-friendly is a step in the right direction, more needs to be done to accelerate Trinity’s transition to green infrastructure. Instead of having one “green lab”, our aim should be to make them all more sustainable, and fast. Indeed, Trinity should aim to reduce the environmental impact of all its buildings. Only then will College be able to fully benefit from the economic and environmental benefits of its reduced impact on our planet.

 There is a distinct lack of compost bins on Trinity’s campus. This is a clear area for improvement. On-site composting bins would help Trinity to achieve zero-waste status.

“Trinity, as an educational body, must make a greater effort to educate its population on sustainable practices and the severity of the climate crisis.”

Moreover, discussions with a member of Trinity’s waste disposal team revealed that campus recycling bins are regularly contaminated with other types of waste. In 2019, the percentage of Trinity’s waste that was recycled was 48%. However, 67% of waste in campus black landfill bins is recyclable. Contrary to this, it is not uncommon to see a disposable coffee cup thrown carelessly into a library recycling bin. Coffee cups are not recyclable, and students and staff need to be educated on matters such as these in order to prevent contamination.

This reveals a clear issue: visitors to Trinity’s campus, whether they be students, staff, or tourists, either aren’t paying enough attention to their waste disposal or don’t know how to dispose of it effectively. There is one simple solution to this. Trinity, as an educational body, must make a greater effort to educate its population on sustainable practices and the climate crisis. If College wishes to have a positive impact on our planet, emphasis must be placed on integrating environmentalism into every aspect of the curriculum and College life. The only way Trinity will achieve its sustainability potential is by striving to change the everyday habits of its population through climate-focused education.

There are currently a number of environmental goals which Trinity is in pursuit of. However, what our university really lacks is a well-defined, ambitious climate strategy encompassing both practical matters and education. Therefore, the issue of Trinity’s climate strategy comes down to our next Provost. In order to achieve real change, we need a plan for the future of Trinity’s climate action. It is the responsibility of the next Provost to make climate action central going forward.

“It is the responsibility of the next Provost to make climate action central to the university’s strategy going forward.”

One enormously important change for the new Provost to implement would be the introduction of Trinity’s own Sustainability Office, where full-time staff would work to formulate and carry out Trinity’s climate strategy. Currently, most of the environmental progress on campus has been carried out by a scattering of students, societies and staff. There is plenty of progress being achieved through a “bottom-up” approach, but nowhere near enough change is driven by the top level of Trinity personnel. If the new Provost were to introduce a sizable and well-funded Sustainability Office, such as the University of Edinburgh’s 35-person Sustainability Office, climate action can become a whole university approach.

A petition circulating Trinity at the moment calls for just this, having been sent to students in advance of the next Provost election. This petition, and the election, provide us with a chance to make sustainability a lens through which all of the College’s activities are viewed. Trinity has certainly become a greener campus. However, there is always more to be done, and institutions such as ours cannot allow sustainability efforts to plateau whilst relying on successes so far. Whilst our resource-saving Business School is certainly a great feat, there are many 400-year-old buildings on campus which require updating, as well as a range of issues to do with waste management and education that still demand attention.

Trinity must not rely on its successes to date in order to appear environmentally-conscious. Instead, a climate strategy must be put in place to achieve continuing improvements. This ultimately lies in the hands of the future Provost who, through both practical measures and education, must shape Trinity’s future response to the most serious threat to humanity today. Doing so will prevent Trinity from operating under a façade of environmentalism whilst failing to achieve sustainability goals.