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By Ila Alberts

The climate is in a state of crisis, and we have to act fast. This is a central message that has been at the forefront of the news for the last decade, especially in light of the recent United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) in Glasgow last year. But what can students do? And what does sustainability look like on campus?

Micha Ruwiel, a third-year BA (Politics, Philosophy and Economics) student and the chairperson of EcoMaties—a student society at Stellenbosch University (SU) which aims to educate students and promote sustainability—believes that the solution is political, not personal. “So often people only focus on the consumer side of things rather than the political side. Above all, we aim to let people see themselves as a political citizen, rather than just a consumer.”

However, Ruwiel does not believe that this absolves people from personal responsibility. “Personally, I eat vegetarian meals and cycle as much as I can, but the most important thing I am doing to be more sustainable is being the chairperson of EcoMaties and raising awareness in my social circles about the extent of the crisis we’re facing,” says Ruwiel.

Johané Berry, a fourth-year LLB student, who is vegan, agrees with Ruwiel. “I became aware of environmental issues [around] 2015/2016 when I watched the documentary called Cowspiracy on YouTube,” says Berry. 

“This was the first time I truly realised how detrimental our diet choices can be to the environment.”

There are many other ways in which Berry believes that students can be more sustainable, like by moving away from single-use products such as takeaway coffee cups, straws and plastic water bottles. Making use of sustainable alternatives like stainless steel razors and reusable menstrual products is ­another way in which she is lowering her carbon footprint.

As someone living in a residence on campus, Berry says that being a vegan student can be quite challenging, as residence events rarely cater for vegan dietary requirements. She adds that vegan residence meals are “not only bland and unpleasant, but they simply are not nutritionally balanced either”. As such, she has learnt to cook her own meals in res, which is the easiest way for her to monitor her nutrient intake.

EcoMaties aims to encourage climate activism and education through group mobilisation and through raising awareness about the climate crisis. Currently, ­Ruwiel believes that the main obstacles to change are ignorance and bureaucratic failure. She says, “The biggest things the university can do to advance sustainability would be to declare a climate crisis, change the curriculum [to place greater emphasis on the climate crisis] and endorse the Climate Justice Charter.” 

According to SU’s official website, sustainability is one of the university’s main focuses for the next few years, and the current systems in place on various campuses aim to redirect 80% of waste away from landfills through the three-bin system (food wastage, recyclables and non-recyclables). Students can also contact the IT division to dispose of their e-waste (such as computers, phones and televisions) in an environmentally ­responsible manner.

“I do think that [SU] is a sustainable campus, but it could be bettered in the sense of really educating the students [on] the various resources and services that the university provides in order to be more sustainable,” says Carina Wenn, a second-year BCom (Actuarial Sciences) student. 

“. . .Stellenbosch students can be more green, and it would really make a difference . . . ­  [I]f we were to all use reusable coffee mugs or straws, it would cut down a lot of our waste as a whole,” says Wenn.

“We are so many that even if [only the] majority move towards being more sustainable, it would make a big difference.” 

Wenn notes that in the period following a recent stomach bug outbreak across Stellenbosch, many students have been buying bottled water, which has led to an increase in plastic waste on campus.

When asked what she believes the future holds without radical change, Ruwiel answers that the report from the International Plant Protection Convention (IPPC)—which aims to protect the environment and biodiversity through the control and prevention of plant resource pests—reveals that if the world does not halve its carbon emissions by 2030, scientists predict that there will be large-scale environmental and social upheaval as people migrate to areas that have more resources and are better protected against climate change.

Still, Ruwiel has hope for university students, saying, “The best time to plant a tree is 10 years ago. The second-best time is now.”

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