A Look in the Mirror: Sustainability progress at UW-Madison

by Jacob Swanson

The first step for sustainability progress at the University of Wisconsin-Madison may have been admitting the school wasn’t as far along as everyone thought.

“I didn’t see a cohesive drive to get where we want to be, because I think a lot of people thought we were already there,” said Interim Director of Sustainability Operations Robert Lamppa.

Lamppa said that UW-Madison is the only Big Ten school not to have invested in a Sustainability Tracking, Assessment and Rating System (STARS) ranking, which would give the school a sustainability “grade” based on data from operational, academic and financial standpoints with great detail.  He says he hopes the university will do so in the next year.

For now, he estimates the university would rank in an average position, as opposed to early rankings, of which some ranked UW-Madison as one of the top institutions in the country.

“I think the earlier rankings, where UW was ranked as one of the top institutions in the country, was based on a lot of potential that we were going to do as opposed to what we actually implemented,” Lamppa says.

“What I think we need to do is take a snapshot and just realistically look, say ‘where are we?  Good, bad or ugly here’s where we are,’” Lamppa says.  “The nice thing about that is we’ll know where we are and we’ll know where we want to get so we can start building action plans to get there.”

University of Wisconsin system universities UW-Milwaukee, UW-Oshkosh and UW-Stevens Point all received gold ratings as of July 1, 2016, while UW-Green Bay, UW-La Crosse, UW-River Falls, UW-Stout and UW-Whitewater all received the silver designation. UW-Platteville is in the reporter class as of July 1.  UW-Oshkosh ranked as the seventh-best institution that awards up to master’s degrees in last year’s rankings.  Schools can be given a designation of platinum, gold, silver, bronze or reporter, in descending level of prestige.  

One good example of “taking a look in the mirror” comes in terms of recycling.  As Lamppa says, the average person might look at UW-Madison and think that recycling was prevalent, considering all the bins around campus, but when workers actually go and audit the bins, lots of recycling is being put in trash or recycling is being put in black bags, which go to landfill.

UW-Madison has recycling bins throughout campus, such as these at Union South.

“There are ways that we can modify even the processes that we think we’re doing well, but, again, we have to take a realistic look at where we are and not make those assumptions,” Lamppa said.  “It’s trusting that we’re doing it, but coming back to verify that indeed we are.”

“We haven’t necessarily stepped up to look in the mirror and see where we are,” Lamppa says.  “We hope to do that in the next year.”  Lamppa also said the department wants to hire a director instead of two co-directors, as he currently serves as co-director with Cathy Middlecamp, Interim Director of Sustainability Research and Education.

The department split into co-directors following a 2010 sustainability task force report.  As Lamppa says, however, the system didn’t necessarily work off the bat, as both directors left soon after to accept positions at other universities, leaving Lamppa and Middlecamp to “reinvent” the system, as Lamppa puts it.

“There was no such thing as sustainability,” Interim Director of Sustainability Research and Education Cathy Middlecamp said when describing how the university’s policies on the subject have changed since she got her doctorate in chemistry from the school in 1976.  Lately, however, she says there may be a shift in opinions towards the word in general, despite Lamppa’s thoughts “that there is coming a renewed emphasis on sustainability.”

Although she says she doesn’t have any data to back it up, she thinks “the term ‘sustainability’ has gotten either politicized or loaded.”  

She continued, saying “It isn’t as friendly as I remember it being ten years ago.  I just have a hunch the word has fallen out of favor.”  If she were to name a center for sustainability now, she said she might think of a new name.  She threw out options such as “resource management” and “stewardship” as potential options.

As far as education and student programs go, the content of the work is always changing.  Lamppa mentioned student programs focusing on solid waste, compost and recycling, and while Middlecamp mentioned many conventional sustainability studies going on within the school, she mentioned some that had less to do with natural science, and more to do with social science.

“For sustainability, it’s not just science.  It’s people:  How people behave, how they chance, what motivates them,” she said.  “You can’t do sustainability without the social sciences and humanities.  It’s a topic that cuts across everything.”  

Both Middlecamp and Lamppa mentioned the newly established UW-Madison Green Fund, which “supports student-initiated projects that reduce the environmental footprint and operating costs of on-campus facilities in the areas of solid waste, energy, and water conservation,” according to the sustainability department website.  Students apply for funding, and the university supports projects of selected students.

“Unlike the previous program which tried to line up a whole bunch of students to do things for this department… this group would try to teach and basically ‘light a green fire,’” as Lamppa put it.

As sustainability on campus evolves, it continues to grow, it no longer just involves students.  A new green office initiative will study how faculty and staff live and work on campus in regards to sustainability, Lamppa hopes.

“The behaviors we want to instill in the group that’s always here can have some of the greatest impacts,” Lamppa says, mentioning that staff sometimes stay for 15-20 years or longer, while students hopefully remain on campus for a much shorter time.

“Through our academics and through our operations try and collaborate to provide an experiential opportunity for student learning and also try to promote sustainability operations and behaviors on campus,” Lamppa said.

The main campus of the university is 936 acres, with 338 buildings on campus, according to the Wisconsin State Journal.  There are also an additional 1,713 acres managed by the UW-Madison Arboretum, which has been part of UW-Madison since 1932.