BY TYLER COLLINS
Sheridan College’s Office of Sustainability began its triannual STARS assessment earlier this week as part of the office’s evaluation of Sheridan’s environmental programs. The college hopes to improve its past ratings from previous assessments this spring. But that’s only possible if the improved data management brings positive results.
The study is conducted across all three campuses before being voluntarily reported to the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE.) Once reported, the assessment concludes with a tiered award and certification for the college.
“AASHE is based out of the US, but they’re an international organization that promotes sustainability at colleges and universities across North America,” says Anna Pautler, Sustainability Data Assessment and Reporting Officer.
Pautler works in the Office of Sustainability on Trafalgar Campus. “One of their [AASHE] programs is STARS – a voluntary report that tracks sustainability progress.”
The STARS rating is an acronym for the Sustainability Tracking Assessment Rating System, a point-based system that designates the level of a post-secondary institution’s current (or lack of) sustainability efforts. The system is monitored by the AASHE at all participating colleges and universities across North America, and awarded ratings are certified for three years.
Awards are designated to schools by their submission of verifiable data to the AASHE. After being checked and filed, a score is awarded to the institution. Sheridan’s latest assessment is the third since beginning the program in 2012, with the latest report published April 22, 2015.
Pautler was the manager on Sheridan’s last STARS report in 2015. “Last time the assessment took a full school year, so we’re starting now before our last one [STARS certification] expires,” she explains.
Her primary job in the office is performance tracking for all of the school’s sustainability initiatives. “Our goal was to reduce energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions by 50% by 2030,” she continues, then laughs. “But we’ve kind of bumped it up to 2020.”
The office’s confidence comes from goals made in 2013 that have already been met. One example, as Paulter explains, “At Trafalgar Campus, we’ve reduced just our electricity use by 25%, so we’re already making really good progress.”
Over the next several months, Paulter will work with grad students on the STARS report hoping to upgrade Sheridan’s silver level (45/200 awarded points) certification to gold (minimum 65/200 awarded points). While the total points on the AASHE scorecard vary based on some non-applicable categories.
Sheridan’s 2015 score was 49 of a determined 201 points. Despite appearing to be a low score, Pautler claims this is a standard passing grade from schools around North America. It’s an improvement over the 2012 assessment, where the school only achieved a Bronze level (a minimum 20 points.)
Should Sheridan College achieve a gold certification, it would be the first college in Canada to do so. But not everyone in the office calls these objectives “goals.”
Herb Sinnock is the Manager of Sustainable Energy Systems at Sheridan and a contributor to the upcoming STARS report. About achieving a higher rating, he says, “It’s not so much a goal. I don’t want to look at this as an activity where we have specific goals. But I do have a hope where we’ll begin to progress in points.”
One area that featured low scores in 2015 is water use and waste. On the last STARS report, Sheridan scored only 1.5 of 3 points in water usage, 1 of 3 in low-impact dining, and 0 of 4 points on food purchasing.
In response, facilities operations began installing water bottle refilling stations when replacing broken water fountains on campus. These stations are now standard in new Sheridan buildings, such as they recently completed Hazel McCallion Campus in Mississauga.
But have changes like these made enough of an impact to improve the STARS score? That all depends if proof of the changes has been documented and reported. While the Office of Sustainability has been tracking some projects, they will begin this term acquiring the reports and data needed to write the full report for the AASHE.
“The record keeping and awareness across Sheridan will gain points,” says Sinnock. “It’s an indication for us that we have more involvement, more culture change, and more enthusiasm.” And for those categories with weaker scores? “Low point totals in the past – it’s either we didn’t have the data to back up what we’d done, or it was measured in a way that’s not consistent.”
And for those categories with weaker scores? “Low point totals in the past – it’s either we didn’t have the data to back up what we’d done, or it was measured in a way that’s not consistent.”
The category of food purchasing, for example, includes efficiency in ordering food and drinks for sale across all Sheridan campuses. Pautler says Chartwell’s Food Service claimed its ordering was 59% efficient at the time of the last report but had no data to prove it. Without proper evidence, no points can be awarded.
But the possible impact of the water bottle stations, for instance, isn’t tracked by anyone. Students can see the positive effects for themselves. The filling stations are each equipped with a tracker, counting the number of bottles “saved” from being wasted by filling a reusable bottle. The filling station on the SCAET building’s main floor, for example, passed 100,000 filled bottles last week.
Both this year’s STARS assessment report and the results will be available to the public online in spring 2018. Following submission to the AASHE, an updated certification will hopefully be awarded the next month.