Maria Kirrane is a leading advocate at UCC for applying the small steps taken by the college on sustainability across the whole of the city, writes Pádraig Hoare.
When top management saw the collective groundswell of students demanding change, they bought into environmental change wholeheartedly, according to UCC’s sustainability officer Maria Kirrane.
The results of this management-student collaboration are wholly encouraging, and UCC is a microcosm of what can happen beyond its gates when everyone buys into sustainable practices, Ms Kirrane said.
“It has become part of UCC. It’s almost a unique selling point for UCC in some ways. It’s supported very much from the top also, which is critical. It started off with the students, really pushing from the ground up to what we are seeing now. Back then when it started, it was really around waste. It’s nice to see it happening again with the climate agenda.”
Ms Kirrane said: “It goes through everything in UCC, it’s part of what the Glucksman does with its schools’ outreach, it’s part of the university’s academic strategy, it’s part of our outreach strategy, so it has become part of what we do here now.
"The aim now is to continue that momentum, to change mindsets and conditioning and behaviours. We have demonstrated what is possible, we’re not perfect but we are trying new things, we are trying to challenge people. We are trying to embed that sustainability ethos into everything that we are doing.”
UCC is the only university in Ireland to make the top 10 in the UI GreenMetric World University 2018 ranking of the greenest universities in the world, and it also holds a gold-star rating from the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education.
UCC was ranked number one in the world for its work in assisting the UN goal of “responsible consumption and production”, and was ranked 21st in the inaugural 2019 Times Higher Education University Impact rankings in contributing towards the delivery of the UN Sustainable Development Goals.
Ms Kirrane said: “The next step now is to see how we can replicate what we are doing here and influence more broadly policy.
She said UCC, which has 20,000 students can have a huge impact.
“A university is definitely a microcosm and if you think about what we have done here, and how we have transformed over the last 10 years. It started at the bottom up, but then the top levels bought in. That is what we need globally.
“We have got that groundswell but governments and policymakers need to come on board also. It will only really achieve that transformation if it is coming from all sides,” she said.
Simple steps add up.
“I started this job two years ago, and one of the first things we did was implement the ban on coffee cups in the library. That was a huge challenge two years ago, and now it is part of the culture. Nobody would argue with it now. It’s as simple as changing habits, but we did try and make it easier for the students to do so,” she said.
“For short journeys, we are seeing the move towards electric vehicles, but then we have to ask ourselves, do we need to drive for those short journeys? Electric vehicles are part of the solution, but public transport, cycling, and walking have a huge role to play.
“Cork at the moment is not walkable. I walk everywhere in Cork, but it is designed for cars. Even pedestrian crossings, you’re standing there for longer than you should. Cycling, unfortunately, can be frightening in the city. There are groups that are working on that, with the Cycle Works initiative, that UCC and a lot of the big employers have signed up to in order to push for better cycling infrastructure.
“As a consumer, think about the lifecycle of what you buy. Think about what you pick up in the shop.
“If you buy a T-shirt for a euro, is that really good value if you only wear it one and then throw it out, and it ends up in a landfill.
“Ask yourself where has it come from, what was required to make it, and where is it going to end up. Thinking of the value of products in that way instead of thinking of the fastest, cheapest option is making a difference, taking that step back and asking am I really happy with this purchase? What impact is it having on the world?
“Take a bit of time. We are all moving so fast at the moment, if we take that step back, we can all make that difference.”