Is it feasible for UBC to become entirely self-sufficient for its water needs? How can it work to reduce its waste and stop sending so much discarded material to the landfill? On February 8 and 10, two groups of campus stakeholders got together to discuss enduring solutions to these wide-ranging issues with repercussions for the sustainability of the entire UBC community.

“When we talk about sustainability on campus, we usually focus on energy,” says John Robinson, Executive Director of the UBC Sustainability Initiative. “But we have to expand the scope of our vision, to bring in water and waste. They’re part of a single, integrated system, and fit into the larger campus sustainability picture.”

The long-term vision is to transform UBC from a commuter campus to a sustainable, on-campus community, Robinson adds. “And to do that, we need to control all aspects of daily life on campus.”

Justin Ritchie, a graduate student in material engineering who attended the Water Vision and Action Planning Session, was surprised by the figures. Every year, the Vancouver campus consumes more than 4.3 billion litres of water—an average of 137 litres every second—primarily for research, equipment cooling, flushing toilets and irrigation. Virtually all of that water comes from off campus, piped in from reservoirs in the distant North Shore Mountains. At the same time, about 5 billion litres fall on the site as rainwater; most pours into stormwater drains and ends up in the sea or river.

“There just seem to be so many opportunities for catchment and re-use,” Ritchie commented. “To make progress, we have to look at our expectations, and work to change behaviour.”

Other solutions include working with natural systems to store and exchange water, and making processes that use water on a constant basis more efficient.

UBC has already made significant strides in many of these areas. The ECOTrek project, for instance, which involved repairing leaks and installing low-flow fixtures in more than 200 core academic buildings, led to a 20% drop in overall water consumption at UBC between 2000 and 2007, despite an increase in population. And low-flow water fixtures, efficient irrigation systems and ecologically sound planting are now mandatory for all new family housing residences on campus.

The participants in the planning session— including a visiting scholar in urban water management from Poland, Mariusz Barszcz—split into groups and worked up a list of goals and priorities. Ritchie’s group aimed to reduce water use by 50 percent in 20 years. Another group proposed getting the campus off the grid by 2050, primarily through the re-use of stormwater and sanitary water. Yet another group called for a paradigm shift in attitudes to the campus and its resources, “to foster a culture of place.”

At the Waste Vision and Action Planning Session, Nancy Knight, AVP Campus & Community Planning, described how the university was progressing up the supply chain, working with groups such as food vendors and construction companies to minimize packaging for materials brought on campus. Her key message was that we have to learn to treat waste as a resource, not an expense.

In 2009–2010, UBC diverted about 44% of its waste, sending only 7 million pounds of waste to the landfill while recycling or composting 5.4 million pounds. The university is working hard to better these numbers. For instance, it has been a pioneer in organics management, with several food-scrap composting initiatives, a system for composting yard trimmings and a large in-vessel composter in South Campus that produces nutrient-rich fertilizer.

Areas for improvement include expanding the organics programs, further educating staff about sustainable purchasing practices, and improving communication and education about waste management programs on campus. The university has also mandated that 75% of construction waste be diverted from the landfill for all residential and institutional buildings.

Darren Duff, Manager of Municipal Services (which includes waste management), reminded participants of how difficult —and important—education is, given that the campus receives an influx of thousands of new students every September. “We need to create a culture of personal responsibility,” he stressed.

“UBC has more pieces of the puzzle than other universities,” says Robinson, “so we also have bigger opportunities when it comes to issues like water and waste. We can do bigger, better things. And research and teaching should be built into all the processes.”

The two visioning sessions were the first steps in a process of discussion and feedback that included a community Open House held on February 22. Throughout March and April, Campus and Community Planning will gather further input from various stakeholders, and combine them with detailed analyses by water and waste working groups made up of faculty, staff and community members. The results will be used to draw up draft water and waste action plans for the Vancouver campus, including short- (2015), medium- (2020) and long-term targets. Draft plans should be ready by summer 2011.

To learn more about water and waste management on campus, and about the next steps in the consultation process, visit the Water Action Plan Process and Waste Action Plan Process websites.