Author: David Bola
Photo Credit: Reworks Agora
2021 was a phenomenal display of climate catastrophes. Heatwaves plaguing Pakistan and Japan, floods in Germany, and hectares of forests lost to uncontrollable firestorms in Greece and Canada… adding to that, a recent IPCC report is once again confirming the urgency of the crisis we’re living in.
One of the solutions available to us is to orchestrate a “green transition” on a global scale. This means that we would first need to examine the environmental impact of every aspect of our lives, and then find ways to diminish said impact. The way we travel, the way we eat and the way we work – or study.
That is why the effort of Aris Chatzinikolaou, Environmental Manager of the University of Macedonia (UoM) in Thessaloniki, needs to be observed. His work focuses on the ‘greening’ of the facility he works in while organizing actions for the students-volunteers part of UoM’s Environmental Team.
Hello Aris, thanks for taking the time to talk with us. As I understand it, your occupation is linked to EMAS (Environmental Management and Audit Scheme) a European scheme created to frame environmental initiatives of structures. When did the UoM register and what does that entail for the facility?
Aris – The University of Macedonia registered in EMAS in 2005. My professor, Eftichios Sartzetakis, teacher of Economics, made the first contact with the people from EMAS (the Environmental Management and Audit Scheme). Simply put, they imitate something like an environmental ISO.*
This means that the organization that is registered with EMAS, needs to follow certain procedures and implement environmental actions in order to be certified. Every year there is an environmental inspector coming to the University to implement an audit. He inspects the University’s procedures and decides if he’s going to renew the certificate for another year.
My job, among others, is to write a report. It’s a long document (70 to 80 pages). Within, we explain all the actions that the University made in every level in order to be able to keep the EMAS certification for another year. We are the only University in Greece that has been registered with EMAS.
Not only that, in 2016, we received an award from the European Commission to celebrate ten continued successful years of being registered in EMAS.
What actions can an institution implement in order to secure an EMAS certification?
Aris – There are many actions one institution can do. The general point is to reduce the ecological footprint of the institution, and this can be done in many different levels.
For example, in our University, the first level is to reduce the emissions we produce and the fuels we consume as a building. So, we replaced the gasoline burners of the building with natural gas, which is a little less polluting.
Then we have done some actions in different directions. One of them, maybe one of the most important is the recycling. During the whole year we distribute recycling bags to the University’s users in order to help them do the recycling in their houses.
Right now, University of Macedonia is implementing one of the most extended recycling programs in Greece with exactly 19 different materials recycled. We started with the simpler ones like paper and plastic, batteries, lamps. And then we moved to more specific waste, like printer toner, CDs, DVDs, organic material (wood pallets, metal, shoes, clothes, frying oil…). The latest material that we started recycling are the coffee capsules and grinded coffee.
We also recycle the plastic leads of plastic bottles. Every ton of plastic leads we collect is given to the municipality, which gives the plastic to a recycling company, in exchange for money. With that money, we can buy a wheelchair, which we donate to a hospital.
So far, we bought three wheelchairs and we are working for the fourth. It helps people realize that plastic waste has value, it’s not rubbish. It’s good for the people both in environmental and social terms.
We try to involve the users of the University’s building in these actions. With them, we transformed our open spaces by planting trees and adding benches so that people can go out and interact with the environment and with each other.
Hundreds of trees, bushes and flowers have been planted inside of the University campus and thousands outside, in the nearby forest. We regularly organize environmental seminars open to everybody, students and the personnel of the University, to have a chance to discuss about all these environmental issues and explain why we do what we do.
Every year we take the students to the recycling centers of the city. Their directors guide us there and we can see what the life cycle of the products thrown in the trash is. When this waste ends up there it’s separated depending on the material composing it, and then it’s sent to recycling. It’s very important for someone to understand that this is not rubbish, that waste is a material with economic and environmental value. These visits are a good way to activate the students in that sense.
One of the things that we regularly do with the students is to organize two-day trips in the nature. We explore mountains, rivers… In order to protect the nature, you need to get to know it first. Doing that we raise awareness (we also do environmental campaigns and awareness-raising events inside the University). All these actions need to be reported in order to get the EMAS certification.
All these actions must demand an incredible amount of time to plan, and a tremendous effort to communicate within UoM. How is the environmental management organized in the facility?
Aris – There are some levels of hierarchy. There’s me who work in the environmental office, and then there is the environmental committee which consists of ten to twelve people who represent ten different administrative departments.
One of the students, one of the teachers, the dean, someone from the maintenance office, someone from the sales department… One person from every department that is related to the environment somehow. We get together every year, I present the data we gathered: How many students were there this year? What was the consumption? What was the pollution rate like? How did we improve the recycling? We have more than 40 indicators to measure our progress.
Then we discuss about what went wrong, what was okay, what we can do in order to improve the environmental protection of the University. Every department has knowledge on certain things. When I tell them, for example, that we need to plant more trees, the technicians will be able to say which open spaces are available to do that. When, I recommend that we buy recycled paper instead of regular paper, the relevant person is here.
Of course, the dean of the University is present and can be aware of things and decide things also. It’s both a think tank, a brainstorming place and a decisive body. That is quite good because that way, everybody knows what’s happening.
There are some things that we must do, and they’re necessary in order to get an EMAS certificate. They are compulsory. We must do them. Other things are up to us to decide if they are important or not. There’s a great flexibility, if you do fulfill all the EMAS standards, then you can start doing extra things by your own.
You participated in a panel today at Reworks Agora: “Is it too late to create a sustainable circular economy and save our planet?” I find it interesting that the panel’s title considers the growing urgency of the matter at hand, an urgency not reflected in our government’s policies. What can we do to enact change?
Aris – Let me make a point about the time limit we have right now. Today the global average temperature is increased by 1.2 degrees Celsius compared to the preindustrial era. If we go over the 1.5 degrees Celsius, it’s not two degrees, it’s 1.5. (It used to be 2 degrees all these years, but the last year in the Paris Agreement, which took the numbers from IPCC being the governmental Panel on Climate Change, they say that if we go over the 1.5 degrees, then we move towards a non-reversible situation which many call ‘beginning of the climate collapse’)
For us to avoid reaching over 1.5 degrees, the Paris Agreement – which most of the countries signed -says that we need to reduce our CO2 emissions by 7.5% every year for the next ten years until 2030. Last year, 2020, the COVID situation put the whole world at a stop, and we reduced our emissions by 7% we need to have a similar or higher reduction every year for the next 9 years.
In 2021 we did not reduce our emissions. There is no serious political commitment from the governments to find a way to implement the CO2 reductions they agreed on.
This must be transformed into action. We need to take the numbers that science gives us and see how we can implement immediate action, on every level. From citizens’ everyday consumption or environmental behavior, up to companies, factories and the government.
There are three main things, that need to change, in all the countries and at the same time. The first thing is technology. We need to switch to renewable resources as soon as possible. Secondly, we need to change our personal behavior. Lastly, we need to change the politics and the legislation that we have right now. We need a very strict framework, able to force the reduction of carbon emissions from companies and governments, while giving an incentive to companies, and institutions who want to transition to a more sustainable way.
And these changes need to happen today, all of them, in all the countries. Climate change is not about one country, it’s about one planet.
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ISO: ISO stands for International Organization for Stantardization. The organization develops and publishes worldwide technical, industrial and commercial standards. (A4 paper is a standard for example). EMAS operates closely with ISO 14001 a standard on environmental management.
EMAS: The Environmental Management and Audit Scheme attributes a certificate to organisms who follow a certain criteria of environmental management. It demands a certain investment from the facility requesting the certification.
In example, the University of Macedonia needed 1500 € for the initial visit of the external auditor, around 1500 € for the company that created the plan and the application for EMAS, and an additional 1000 € per year for the annual external auditor controls. Note that this sum varies depending on the size of the facility.
For more informations consult the European Commission website’s here.
David Bola is the content editor of We are Europe Media. Formerly working at Radio Nova as a freelance journalist and hosts a monthly residency on Piñata Radio‘s soundwaves, with Ludotek, a show focused on video game music.