"At all layers and departments within the university there should be attention for sustainable development"
Simultaneously with the Erasmus Sustainability Days taking place this week, we held an interview with Ellen van Schoten, new member of the Executive Board, and Mariecke van der Glas, sustainability programme manager. They explain the vision of EUR in the field of sustainability, why the topic is more important than ever and what you yourself can contribute.
Ellen, you have been a member of the Executive Board since January. What is your personal motivation for wanting to put sustainability high on the agenda?
"I became a vegetarian as a young teenager, at a time when it was not yet as normal as it is now. I love nature, animals and everything that lives. This earth is very precious. How we treat it, and how we leave it, is close to my heart. I am the kind of person who also cleans up litter in the street. I got rid of my car and travel by public transport. I try to use less plastic in my household and do what I can in small ways. In the same way, I hope I can make my contribution at the university."
The EUR has a pillar in its 2024 strategy called "taking responsibility for sustainable development". What is meant by 'taking responsibility for'?
Ellen van Schoten: "The climate problem is a problem for all of us, and therefore it is also a responsibility for all of us. Everyone makes choices every day that can, to a greater or lesser extent, contribute to a cleaner and more sustainable world. That is why it is important that the university pays broad attention to sustainable development. Among students, researchers, employees, the staff and the board. Everyone has something to do with this planet."
Mariecke van der Glas: "In my exploratory talks here, I noticed that there is a group at the university that is very active and committed to the theme. My ambition is to work together to make that group bigger. Sustainability is also an increasingly important issue for companies. If you want to prepare yourself well for a job, you have to be involved in this."
What are the concrete ambitions of EUR in the field of sustainability?
Ellen van Schoten: "In the field of business management we want to become eco-positive: to give back more than we take in. And we are already taking big steps in that direction: we have solar panels on three buildings on the campus, we are making a plan for greening the campus, in our procurement processes sustainability plays an important role."
Is it difficult to get the theme on the administrative agenda?
Ellen van Schoten: "The good news is: it was already on the agenda, and in the strategy. Incidentally, the theme is high on the agenda of many boards. Climate change and loss of nature is a major social problem. And it is precisely here, at the university, with scientific knowledge, that we can change things. We have the knowledge and skills in-house. And there are people working and studying here who really want to contribute to improvement."
Mariecke van der Glas: "The intention is that eventually all decision-making will be partly motivated by sustainability criteria, at all faculties and all departments. That the question of how to keep your footprint as low as possible becomes the standard mindset throughout the university: when buying things, when organising an event, when setting up a research project, or when making an educational programme. It is actually difficult to think of activities in which the theme is not relevant.
Mariecke van der Glas: "The goal for sustainability is to become the standard mindset throughout the university: when buying things, when organising an event, when setting up research, or when creating an educational programme".
How will you bring sustainability into education?
Mariecke van der Glas: "I would like every first-year student who comes here to be introduced to sustainability in relation to his or her chosen subject. In this way, we can show that there are opportunities and possibilities in every field. Secondly, there are elements in the education programmes that go deeper into the theme, and we want to expand on that. Thirdly, we will also offer services to teachers to prepare them for this. There are already micro labs for teachers, we can scale those up."
What has been achieved so far in this area, what are you proud of?
Ellen van Schoten: "Among other things, I am proud of the sustainable buildings that we have here on the campus, and that will be added to them. They are fantastic examples of how you can build better with respect for nature, and they are also very nice places to work and study. The circular education building of 8,500m² that is now being built will be one of the most sustainable university buildings in the Netherlands."
Mariecke van der Glas: "I think the campus garden is a great example, it started spontaneously, and is maintained voluntarily by staff and students. The initiative has been embraced by the university. The Erasmus Sustainability Hub is also driven by students, they organise, among other things, like these Erasmus Sustainability Days.
Another practical example: we strive for a longer life span of our devices. The first shipment of Chromebooks has now been tested and can last a year longer. We are also looking at what we will do with them when they are discarded. We have found a company that works with people at a distance from the labour market, who can take the devices and recycle or refurbish them for children who do not have a computer. That is a wonderful step: taking care of the waste, closing the chain, and supporting a social project at the same time."
What are the biggest stumbling blocks?
Ellen van Schoten: "I think the will is there, throughout the university, but sometimes people have to cross a threshold. To come up with a proposal, or to be able to imagine at all that things could be done differently. At the same time, it is important to implement the good ideas that are there, and sometimes that requires perseverance."
Mariecke van der Glas: "Financial considerations can be a stumbling block. On the other hand, more sustainable choices sometimes save money, such as using appliances for longer. And some decisions require a bit of guts. We are not all at the same stage yet. I also notice in my private life that I am still making new steps towards sustainability, it remains a daily challenge."
Ellen van Schoten: "Yes, for example, going shopping without buying plastic is almost impossible, I have noticed. Unless you set aside days for it. In your life, you are always faced with a new challenge that you can get to work with; it's the same here on the campus.
I do believe that the theme is alive and well among students. We see the consequences of climate change, such as heat or enormous rainfall, every day; you can no longer deny it."
Mariecke van der Glas: "Maybe we have been too rich to have noticed it before. I used to work with vulnerable groups in the Global South, they experienced climate change much earlier, through floods, droughts, depleted land. Here the thinking was: there's enough money, we'll throw fertiliser on it. Now we are slowly finding out that that is actually a destructive way of producing. I hope one day we look back on this time, and don't understand why we did certain things the way we did, because sustainable choices will have become the norm.
Ellen van Schoten: "We have some fantastic examples here of how you can build with respect for nature, and they are also very nice places to work and study."
What are you looking forward to?
Ellen van Schoten: "I am looking forward to it becoming increasingly easier to make sustainable choices. We already see that it is easier to find vegetarian catering, for example, as we also have on campus. Actually, you want it to become easier for everyone in society, and at the university, to be able to make good choices on a daily basis."
Mariecke van der Glas: "I am also looking forward to our new policy on business trips and commuting. I hope for a plan with guts. I will gladly work for that.
Everyone to have a public transport pass instead of a parking pass?
Mariecke van der Glas: "We already have a public transport card! Together with HR, I am looking into what else we can do to make sure that people are less likely to take the car, also for health reasons. Business travel is also an exciting topic. Many employees travel for research or symposia. But in this corona period, we have also seen that some things can be done remotely. One faculty (ESHCC) has already agreed to take the train if a destination is less than 700 kilometers away. That is a start. We may not be able to stop flying, but we can limit it. And we can compensate for the air travel that has to be done.
What else can employees or students do if they want to commit to sustainability?
Mariecke van der Glas: "We have a lot of knowledge and expertise in house. My job is to connect the dots. People can approach me with ideas. I would also say: make use of the things that we already have, such as the waste separation system or the range of subjects focusing on sustainability. Soon there' ll be water taps on the campus: there you can refill your bottle instead of buying a new one."
Ellen van Schoten: "It is important that people continue to speak out, and come up with ideas. We want to give researchers, staff and students room to realise their own initiatives."
Dr Ellen van Schoten holds a PhD in Economics from the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam. Before becoming a board member, she worked in similar positions at the Court of Audit, the Netherlands Authority for the Financial Markets and two ministries. She had wanted to go into higher education for some time. She says: "What happens here: educating 30,000 young people to become critical citizens and producing research that is of real use to society and the city, that's what I think is great. And Erasmus University Rotterdam suits me well: it's a young, enterprising university with a lot of energy, and interesting challenges in my portfolio."
Dr Mariecke van der Glas received her PhD in geography from Utrecht University, and before that worked in international cooperation, always with an eye on the Global South. Before joining the EUR as sustainability manager, she worked for five years for the Rainforest Alliance on a global programme to make the coffee, tea and cocoa sectors more sustainable. She says: "Sustainability has always been an important part of my research and work, a common thread throughout my career."