Worms are on duty at the University of Waikato, chomping through food scraps and organic waste from the campus food court.
The industrial-sized worm farm, affectionately known as the "Faculty of Worms", can handle four tonnes of organic waste annually. It's a perfect way to turn waste into a valuable resource.
This is but one small part of the university's campus sustainability programme, an initiative that was given a chance through the passion and commitment of Professor David Hamilton and colleagues on the university's environmental policy committee.
I was interested in the university's sustainability efforts, and rang Dr Hamilton a while back. "Would you consider doing an environmental scan of campus operations?" I asked him. "Have a look at options and opportunities for improvement? Search for ways to reduce environmental impact and save the university some money?"
"Let's do it," was his simple reply. So, with funding from the facilities management division and support from its director and staff, the study was launched.
We considered five areas: energy, water, waste, transportation and purchasing. We compared progress and efforts against other New Zealand universities, and looked to some leading overseas institutions for ideas and inspiration.
What did we learn? In terms of facility operations and grounds management, Waikato is right up there. Good systems and practices are in place, and steps are being taken to improve them where warranted.
The interesting part was the attitudes and behaviours of faculty, staff and students. Take energy use, for example.
An energy audit assessed electricity use in unoccupied rooms after normal working hours. The cost of this wasted electricity was nearly $370,000 a year.
A similar audit looking at waste found that 88 per cent of material deposited as rubbish was recyclable.
We completed our report, and presented the findings and recommendations to the vice-chancellor - and held our breath. "I intend adopting this report and acting on its recommendations," was his response. Now that was music to our ears!
Rachael Goddard, with more than a decade's experience in the field, was hired as environmental and sustainability co-ordinator. I caught up with her recently to see how things were going.
She and other staff have already done some updated audits, surveyed staff and students about sustainability, and prepared a waste minimisation plan. They have run a "green ideas" competition for students, created "Ratty the Recycler", a student-designed environmental issues "spokesperson" to feature in animated educational videos, and now publish a monthly newsletter for staff and students and a quarterly newsletter for the public.
They are about to complete a cleanup of Oranga Lake on campus. Sediment that has built up over 45 years has been removed and will be used as a base for native plantings to create a small wetland. Community planting days have helped to revegetate the lake's edge.
There are lessons here for organisations large and small. From family farms, small shops and restaurants to offices, healthcare facilities and large manufacturing plants, sustainable business practices make good sense. They can save you money, reduce your impact on the environment, enthuse and engage staff, and enhance your image.
- Gord Stewart is an environmental sustainability consultant. He does project work for government, industry, and non-profit organisations.