Plastic is polluting our seas, we urgently need to reduce our meat intake, and contaminating the recycling bin just isn’t funny. But while we may just be hearing about it now, there are many people right here in St Andrews who have been caring about these environmental issues for a long time, and their work is now more important than ever.
The Saint spoke to Anya Kaufman, the Sustainability Intern with the University’s Environments team. The Environments team are concerned with ensuring that conditions are as ideal as possible for sustainable action, such as improving bike facilities or standardising the colour coding of the recycling systems.
The position is open to graduating students from any part of university with a strong interest in sustainability and Ms Kaufman, who graduated in Sustainable Development earlier this year, has developed many elements of this role, including relaunching Earth Year.
Begun in 2017 following a request from the Principal, the University of St Andrews Earth Year selects a fresh theme for each month, each one surrounding an area of sustainability.
“I decided to change some of the themes”, explained Ms Kaufman. “There are campaigns that are running currently throughout the year. Like October’s theme, for example, is better travel because we already have the Bike Lights Campaign and the Night Bus gets going again. And April is Wellbeing for Sustainability because that’s when the Wellbeing Campaign is run.”
“I’m trying to link up with these other people.” Ms Kaufman continued. “I’m sort of the Project Manager of Earth Year, and being able to cooperate with other people is really helpful. And that’s actually how you’re going to get sustainability into things; there’s already so much going on here that just adding another random initiative that’s not linked to anything else that’s going on, you’re not going to achieve anything.”
When noting the current increase in momentum behind environmental concerns, Ms Kaufman said: “As it should be!” Ms Kaufman emphasised the urgency of these concerns, but stressed that while she may have adopted a new role, the focus has existed for many years: “If you’re in the environmental community and this stuff is your day-to-day, then you’re like ‘it’s always time, because we’ve run out of time’.”
“We’ve known about climate change since the 60s and the 70s, and really we’ve even known before that. If you look back, people have always been like ‘this can’t be good for the planet, what we’re doing’.” Referring to the effects of recent press coverage, Ms Kaufman said “Yes, it’s great that stuff is happening, and it’s being talked about a lot more. I’m glad if that gets more people engaged with us and if that’s driving people. But it’s not the drive behind why we’re doing it. We’re doing it because we’ve known forever. The University have had a sustainability policy since 2012, the Environments team has been around since 2005. It’s never not been a priority.”
While Ms Kaufman and the Environments team are doing all they can to raise awareness, what it really takes is plenty of people replacing anxiety with action and starting to consider what practical steps can be taken.
“If people want to run projects or identify things they think the university should be doing, then I really want people to come to me. I do have ideas, but I need other people for innovation too. After doing a Sustainable Development degree here I’ve found that the most important thing you can do is to talk to people, think about what other people are doing and communicate with each other. And that’s something we’re trying to push across the wider university.”
Breaking into the excess of Facebook page notifications and flyering in the freezing cold can be a difficult road to navigate, but Ms Kaufman hopes that her endeavours to keep the themes relevant to students’ everyday lives will help: “There’s a huge number of sustainability initiatives going on and I get why people don’t find out this stuff – we’re studying and it does get really busy, it’s just like tunnel vision! And I cannot criticise anyone for doing that.”
But issues of sustainability can connect to anyone. Ms Kaufman helped to found the sustainability development society here and during her time with them, made a poster titled How Does Sustainable Development Relate To You? She said, “We took every degree subject we could think of and showed people how it related to SD. I think it might be useful to have that on a larger scale.”
One example Ms Kaufman gave was regarding the usage and contamination of recycling bins in halls of residence. The university pays taxes for landfill collection, but the costs are much lower for recycling facilities. Every unnecessary penny they are spending on landfill could definitely be put to better use in other areas of student life.
While Earth Year is her current focus, Ms Kaufman and the Environments Team support a whole range of important projects throughout the year, such as The Tree, a local food online ordering service run by Transition University of St Andrews which is available to students, or Living Labs, an attempt by the university to incorporate sustainability into the curriculum but in a practical way. For example, a computer science student using the platform of a project to create an app indicating biodiversity unit locations. People using academic projects to give something back to St Andrews and “make St Andrews a more sustainable place.”
For now, Ms Kaufman is finalising events for many of the upcoming themed months. Look out for November: energy month. Earth Year will be asking what it means for the university to be both a consumer and producer of energy, and will be offering practical advice on saving on energy bills – a top priority for any student really!
Asked what she’d like to see happen by the end of her year in the intern role, Ms Kaufman optimistically suggested: “Ideally I would like for every single student who walks through these doors to engage with sustainability in some way other than maybe occasionally using the recycling bin correctly!
There are small ways students can start making a difference right now and, just like Ms Kaufman’s intentions with Earth Year, they can be carried out in collaboration with other areas of our lives.
“The first thing you can do is volunteer your time, for example with Transitions or with the wider community with The St Andrews Environmental Network, which also helps improve town and gown relationships,” suggested Ms Kaufman.
“Personally, you could eat less meat and dairy (said a thousand times but still worth remembering), and take the train home if you can because trains use way less energy and fuel than planes do.”
What was astoundingly clear was that the little things do matter and that improved sustainability focus can be beneficial for us all. If you are interested in learning more about Earth Year, getting involved in one of the themed months, or just fancy a sustainability chat, reach out to the initiative through the Earth Year (@UniStAEarthYear) Facebook page or Green St Andrews Facebook group.