Universiteit Stellenbosch
Welkom by Universiteit Stellenbosch
Making sustainability matter
Outeur: Petro Mostert
Gepubliseer: 08/05/2024

In April, we once again celebrated Earth Day (22 April) and Earth Week (22-26 April) by raising awareness of the importance of becoming more sustainable and conserving our planet's biodiversity. I know that a day or a week seems almost insignificant compared with the enormity of the climate change risk we face, but am glad that we use all opportunities, whether large or small to build momentum for the University's sustainability agenda.

Proposed in 1969 by a senator from the US state of Wisconsin, Gaylord Nelson, Earth Day began as a day of events organised by a handful of young activists and local volunteers and eventually resulted in a day where 20 million Americans (10 percent of the total US population then) from all walks of life came together for the birth of a modern environmental movement. Since then, billions of people have celebrated this day across the globe to raise awareness and fight for a sustainable future and legacy for those who will inhibit this planet long after we are gone.

Earth day and the awareness raised by the associated events have helped build a coalition for regulation internationally on, for example, industrial air pollution, the discharge if waste in rivers and ocean and much more. We have come a long way to raise awareness of the extent of environmental degradation as well as the inextricable links between pollution and public health.

In 2022, Stellenbosch University launched its first Environmental Sustainability Plan 2020-2025​ — a plan with which we will reduce the environmental impact of our campuses and serve to demonstrates the University's commitment to sustainability from the perspectives of the environment, resources, and society. By leading through example, our University should play a significant role in forging the path to a sustainable future and ensuring we use our resources in such a way as to leave a thriving environment for future generations.

Nicolette van den Eijkel, our Chief Director: Facilities Management, introduced us to the concept of using the operations of SUFM as a Living Laboratory for sustainability by putting in place future-fit systems and processes since 2015 to turn SU into a sustainable smart campus. We monitor our water, energy usage, carbon emissions, and even our trees for water consumption — all to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels and increase energy procured from clean, renewable sources as we journey to a net zero future by 2050.

During Earth Week, we've raised awareness of our campus waste footprint by showing that we produce three tons of waste on any ordinary day. Thanks to the creation of a material recycling facility (MRF), we now send only 26 percent of our waste to landfill—although we aspire to reduce that to zero by 2028.

If you have a wheelie bin that gets cleaned out every week, you are among six out of ten households that benefit from this public service nationally—a service that is declining almost daily. Please be aware that whatever you've put in that bin will go directly to landfill, as is the case with nine out of ten metropolitan households that do not separate their waste at home for recycling. Please join me in my challenge to have an empty wheelie bin every week. My family and I don't succeed every week, but we do so more often than not. It can be done.

How long can we sustain this, as most of our country's estimated 1,000 landfill sites have reached full capacity? Our campus's waste-to-landfill ratio might look promising, but this is just a drop in the bigger ocean of waste our country produces daily. I read in a recent article in the Daily Maverick that South Africa creates an estimated 122 million tons of waste per year, with an average of 41 kg of plastic waste per citizen. Only 10 percent of our country's waste is recycled or reused, while the rest goes to landfills or is dumped illegally.

As human beings, we have a fundamental right to a clean environment. Those living in poor areas, close to dump sites or even areas where there is no waste collection service at all, are exposed daily to a range of toxins that increase their health risks. Our waste is part of this social justice issue.

The enormity of this problem sometimes makes one despondent, but maybe one could solve this problem like we solve a lot of our issues: by starting at home. Next time you want to throw rubbish away, think again: Can it be recycled, reused, or even put to good use, like making your own compost?

Planet vs Plastic. The choice is yours.​