Environmental auditing course has led to more sustainable practices on campus

See those brown paper towels and electric hand dryers in campus washrooms? The University installed them after receiving an energy and waste audit by students in York’s Environmental Monitoring & Auditing course.

Hand dryersA student team compared the cost, hygiene level, waste and energy consumption associated with white and brown paper towels, cloth-roll towels and electric hand dryers. They discovered that disposing of waste paper towels cost more than installing and operating energy-efficient hand dryers. Campus operations accepted their recommendations to use brown paper towels instead of bleached white ones, which are less environmentally friendly, and to install hand dryers, which the community also preferred for hygienic reasons.

Over the past seven years, students in the fourth-year environmental studies course have played a direct role in the greening of York’s campus operations. Using skills they have learned in class, they have conducted 30 audits for University clients on a range of environmental, health and safety issues. Audits have been done on waste management, transportation, water use, biodiversity, energy efficiency, campus safety and disability access.

“This course was probably one of the most beneficial courses I took during my degree,” said Paul Valenti, who took the course last year. “I am now working as an occupational health and safety technician for an environmental consulting firm located in Mississauga. This job is allowing me to practise many of the skills I learned in the green auditing course.”

Philip StoesserValenti and his team did an accessibility-for-the-disabled audit and identified obstacles faced by students in wheelchairs. Their final report included a video of a team member trying to negotiate campus in a wheelchair – attending classes, visiting washrooms.

Though not all the students’ post-audit recommendations have been feasible, many have resulted in improvements to the University’s overall sustainability performance, writes course director Philip Stoesser in the September issue of Metropolitan Universities Journal, an Indianapolis-based higher-education quarterly.

     Right: Philip Stoesser

Universities, he writes, have an important responsibility to green both their curriculum and their campus operations. The auditing course addresses both by giving students hands-on experience working on environmental issues and providing the University with information to make the campus more sustainable.

Stoesser is a certified environmental health and safety auditor with extensive experience in the corporate sector. Hired in 2004 to teach the course, he shifted the emphasis from monitoring to applying auditing principles and techniques and added hands-on experience for students.

“The idea of getting students to conduct an audit came from a course project my daughter was working on at the time. I liked this concept and wanted to take it a step further by getting the University administration to be a willing participant,” recalls Stoesser, who also works as an audit associate in York’s internal audit department.

In the first part of the course, students are given the basic skills needed to conduct an on-campus green audit project identified by campus operations, the audit client. They work in teams for a month, then present their findings and recommendations to the class and client, who also receives a final report.

“Getting University administration involvement in the course was key and from day one, there was a mutual agreement that they would receive a product, that is, an audit report for their participation in the course. At the same time, students get rewarded with a grade and some practical, real-life work experience they can relate to when entering the workforce,” explains Stoesser.