Survey temporarily discontinued amid slow progress on sustainability awareness

Sunday, November 27, 2016 - 5:19pm

Findings released last week from the annual University of Michigan’s Sustainability Cultural Indicators Program survey show that faculty, staff and students are making progress with sustainability activities, though some students doubt the commitment and ability of the University to maintain an ongoing sustainability plan.

The Sustainability Cultural Indicators Program, launched in 2012, is a joint effort between the Graham Institute and the Institute of Social Research. The survey part of the program, is given to a random sample of students, staff and faculty from across the University.

Though the survey has been given annually since 2012, Robert Marans, one of the co-principal investigators of SCIP and a research professor at the ISR, said SCIP data will not be collected this year.

“It’s partly (because of) budget, but also we’re not seeing the kind of changes we were hoping to see,” Marans said. “And the general feeling is that trying to change people’s behavior is a slow process. The annual survey shows small changes here and there, but for the most part, no changes.”

The survey will resume in the fall of 2017 and will then be administered every other year, with hopes that more significant changes will be observed in the data with a larger gap between surveys.

There are currently four long-term sustainability goals for the University, created under University President emeritus Mary Sue Coleman in 2011. These goals, which are implemented by the same program that distributes the survey, outline University initiatives on climate action, waste prevention, a healthy environment and community awareness. SCIP was created as part of the community awareness goal and tracks the “culture of sustainability” on campus.

The data showed an increase in community awareness of areas of sustainability, such as travel, transportation and food. The full report also shows the campus community has become more knowledgeable about waste prevention, and has increased recycling and reusing of materials both on campus and at home.

Beyond the survey, SCIP is currently piloting several projects on campus to increase awareness of sustainability.

In Bursley Residence Hall, an experiment to increase composting opportunities beyond the dining hall is currently in place. Marans said the experiment began last January and will be extended to other residence halls if successful.

“If you want to order pizza, what do you do with the leftover pizza and the box and all that stuff in the room?” Marans said. “If Bursley residents know more about  composting(after this experiment), do more composting, than students in other residence halls, then we can say, ‘Hey, that experiment was worthwhile; we should take it to other residence halls.’ ”

Students around campus are also getting involved in sustainability in various other ways on their own. LSA senior Jayson Toweh, a Program in the Environment major, is the president of Students for Clean Energy, the chair of Central Student Government Sustainability Commission and an administrative liaison for the Students for Sustainability Initiative. He said students are becoming increasingly involved in part because they see a lack of interest from the administration.

“One reason that we’re really active is because a lot of people involved in sustainability organizations do not believe that the University itself is making any large commitment towards being more sustainable,” Toweh said.

Other students said they wanted to University support on sustainability, such as in Greek Life.  LSA sophomore Aliza Sitrin, a member of Delta Phi Epsilon sorority, wanted to introduce composting to her house but ran into barriers due to potential cost and smell. Eventually, she and the friend she was collaborating with decided to drop the project.

Currently, the sorority house has recycling bins but Sitrin says she doesn’t know of any other plans to increase sustainability efforts.

Marans acknowledged that the SCIP survey shows that communication from the University about sustainability is an area that could use improvement.

“There are signs up in the Fishbowl and all over, but no one reads them,” Marans said. “We need to do a better job communicating.”

Toweh said based on his experiences, he would like to see the University launch an online educational program similar to AlcoholEdu could help students learn more about practices like conserving energy and washing clothes in a sustainable way. 

“Currently you have a lot of people who are really informed and really invested, and a lot of people who would be more invested if they knew what the impact was,” Toweh said. “The whole concept is just staying alive. If people care about sustaining life as it is, caring about sustainability is a key thing.”

The survey will resume in the fall of 2017 and will then be administered every other year, with hopes that more significant changes will be observed in the data with a larger gap between surveys.