The University of Alberta, in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, is home to roughly 37,000 students and an additional 12,000 faculty and staff inhabiting approximately 13.5 million square feet in close to 80 buildings. The university is also a committed leader in promoting sustainability throughout campus, a commitment George Thomlison, Manager Grounds, Human Resources & Procurement, in Buildings and Grounds Services, a division of Facilities and Operations, is proud to support. After all, Thomlison has been promoting the same message for nearly 25 years.

According to Steve Ashkin, CEO of Sustainability Dashboard Tools and president of The Ashkin Group in Bloomington, Ind., sustainability is defined as development that "meets the needs of the present, without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs."

"Essentially we want to do things today in a way that won't compromise the ability of future generations to meet their needs," says Ashkin.

The University of Alberta believes strongly in this message and has made great strides to move towards a more sustainable path. With the development of the Office of Sustainability in 2008, the university stands behind its "commitment to a continuous effort to instill sustainability into the many aspects of the university, on campuses, in institutions, and in the larger community of which [they] are part."

This commitment mirrors the sustainability "Triple-Bottom Line," which is a phrase coined by John Elkington in 1994 and suggests that organizations can not solely focus on profits, but must also consider impacts on people and the planet.

"Often a three-legged stool is used to illustrate the concept because it demonstrates that all three legs must be strong, and that none is more important that the others," Ashkin adds.

Thomlison, as it turns out, has played a pivotal role in implementing sustainability on campus. With over 20 years of experience at the university, he has helped shape the programs that keep the sustainability stool upright.

Focus On People

Although "green" and "sustainability" are heavily promoted on campus today, that wasn't always the case. Early in his career, Thomlison quickly grew tired of using harsh chemicals that burned his eyes and skin. It was then that he made it his goal to provide a healthy working environment for his staff.

"We were never really looking at being green," Thomlison adds. "That wasn't the reason we were doing what we were doing. We just wanted to provide a healthy place to learn and work, and we take that commitment toward health very seriously."

The challenge was that "green" was not yet commonplace and certifications would not be born for another 20 years. So, Thomlison went to his distributor for help, seeking chemicals that were "softer" and "less harsh" than what was currently available on the market.

The same was true when purchasing equipment. He sought efficient and effective equipment and as it turned out, that equipment often used less water, softer chemicals and less power.

"We were making the changes here because it made sense," Thomlison adds. "It was what we felt were best practices. What we also found, as a result, was that the product we transitioned to was typically better for the environment."

What was initially developed as a cleaning for health program, it was found, fit perfectly into the university's promotion of sustainability.

With the custodial operations already working to promote a high-quality healthy indoor environment and keeping up-to-date on advancements with chemicals, equipment and cleaning procedures, all that was needed was a way to promote the program. It needed a name.

"Cleaning for a Healthy U" communicated that the custodial efforts on campus were about the university as a whole. The "U" had multiple meanings — it included the staff, the students, faculty, the entire university, the community and the environment.

Titling the program also put a name to the custodial efforts going on throughout the university. It was a clear message to all students and staff that the buildings and grounds workers were trying to improve the health on campus by reducing volatile organic compounds (VOC) and airborne particulates that can cause health concerns.

The Cleaning for a Healthy U program is about more than just cleaning, though, it includes education and emphasizes looking after ones self — getting enough rest, eating properly, washing hands frequently and staying home when sick.

"Our program is about both cleaning and education," says Thomlison. "For instance, we clean and disinfect touch points, but we also work to change people's habits through education. Germs don't jump off doorknobs into our bodies. We have to place them there somehow. So, we promote proper hand hygiene practices."

With the help of the Office of Sustainability, that type of education has gotten easier and student involvement has grown. In fact, there are currently 20 clubs and programs on campus that help work towards sustainable initiatives.

Thomlison continues to evaluate the Cleaning for a Healthy U program and makes necessary advancements in an effort to maintain that healthy environment he has been promoting for more than 20 years.

"We want to ensure that everyone on campus understands what and why we do the things we do, the positive effect we have, and will continue to have on the university environment," he says.

Helping The Planet

Without a doubt, the sustainability stool would crumble without some successful environmental aspect. Although there are countless benefits sustainability has on Mother Nature, Thomlison highlights one particular innovation prominent at the University of Alberta: recycling.

What started out as a simple paper and cardboard recycling program in 1975 has grown to also include beverage containers, plastics, light metal and glass today. In fact, in 2009, roughly 800 metric tons of paper, plastic, glass, tin and metal were collected by the buildings and grounds crew.

The challenge with any recycling program, though, is building occupant cooperation and the potential for contaminated bins. The University of Alberta is not immune to this, but found that the varying colors — blue for paper, green for beverage containers, brown for plastics, yellow for light metals and glass, and gray for general waste — and proper signage, in addition to bin placement throughout campus, has aided in their success.

Thomlison credits some of this success to younger generations who have been taught the benefits of recycling since an early age. In fact, younger students have come to expect some level of recycling throughout campus. Due to the increasing demand, recycling is expected to grow in coming years.

"We are looking to implement full recycling stations at some key locations within certain buildings," says Thomlison. "Those full stations would have bins for batteries, plastic, glass, paper and a very small waste container beside it. The only thing we can't take right now is styrofoam, which isn't used as much as it was in the past."

The facilities and operations department has also taken a look at their own operations and found a laundry list of recyclable products. These include, vehicle tires, batteries, oil, filters and other fluids, scrap steel, refrigerants, office batteries, fluorescent tubes and construction materials.

With these successful recycling programs in place, it didn't take long for Thomlison and the buildings and grounds department to also explore the benefits to removing organics from the waste stream. These organics can include food wastes, food related fiber packaging, serving containers and paper towels used in restrooms.

Implemented just a few years ago, the university already averages roughly 40 metric tons of organics a month. The program started as a pilot and collected from just two kitchen locations, where only staff took part. Last year, the program was added "front-of-house" and involved student participation. With the start of school in September, organic collection and composting was also added to kitchens in all the cafeteria-type operations across campus.

"We do a little bit at a time, but we are making progress," says Thomlison. "We make sure we get something right before moving forward. Once it's fine-tuned, we'll expand it on a larger scale. We'll be looking at doubling our composting sites in 2011."

Since roughly 35 to 40 percent of the waste on campus is organic, Thomlison expects that this program will make a big impact on the amount of waste the university puts into landfills.

Price Benefits

The sustainability program at the University of Alberta has obvious benefits to people and the planet, but what might be less obvious to the common observer are its financial benefits. In fact, the third leg of the sustainability stool is standing strong.

With the implementation of a strong sustainability program on campus, projects and programs related to research, energy conservation, pollution prevention and water usage have strong potential for cost savings. For example, 100 percent of the computers in one area of the campus automatically shut down at 10 p.m. to save energy. And the implementation of 10 solar panels provides 20 to 30 percent of the energy required to heat cafeteria and gymnasium water at the Augustana Campus in Camrose, Alberta.

Savings from these types of strategies can be invested back into programs that improve the availability of learning and research opportunities related to sustainability on campus. These opportunities have the potential to increase student attendance. In fact, there are already over 225 researchers on campus involved in environmental and energy research.

"We are getting more grad students than ever before," says Thomlison. "We suspect that the reason for the increase in grad students is this heavy emphasis on research."

These are great overall benefits, but as it turns out, cleaning can fit into the mix as well. For instance, Thomlison use to purchase chemicals in 20-liter pails until closed-loop metering systems became available.

"I didn't buy it because it used less plastic," he says. "I bought it because I was going to be able to control the usage of it, which in turn, controls costs."

Educating Others

The advanced sustainability program at the University of Alberta has drawn a lot of attention from prospective students and the community of Edmonton. In fact, the university was recognized as a Campus Sustainability Leader by the Sustainable Endowment Institute. They have also been named one of Canada's Greenest Employers two years in a row.

"The University of Alberta is truly green and gold," Indira Samarasekera, O.C., president and vice-chancellor said in a press release. "Green in terms of our commitment to environmental sustainability and gold in terms of being winners and leaders as we achieve our sustainability goals."

In addition to the university as a whole, the custodial program also receives regular praise for their hard work on campus. Since the launch of the Cleaning for a Healthy U program, Thomlison and the rest of the buildings and grounds staff can be found wearing or displaying pins that promote their healthy cleaning program. The saying is also found on training manuals, hand washing signs and stickers plastered throughout campus. And, according to Thomlison, even a few university vice presidents have been known to sport a Cleaning for a Healthy U pin from time to time.

Although the message of healthy cleaning and sustainability are prominent throughout campus, it took a number of years to get where they are with the custodial program. Thomlison stresses that it wasn't an overnight change and credits other facility managers with helping him get the department where he wants it to be.

"Over the years, there were other institutions that had the same experiences and expectations we had," he says. "When we found them, we would ask what they were doing successfully, as a way to improve our program. I got ideas from my colleagues and I'll continue to do that to better our program."

As a thank you to all those facilities that helped steer the program at the University of Alberta, the buildings and grounds, facilities and operations department also likes to give back to the industry. They do so through education and presentations on the success of their sustainability program. In addition to a handful of formal presentations on the topic, Thomlison has done more than 50 one-on-one consultations with individual institutions.

"We are making changes here because they make sense," he says. "We feel they are best practices and I have no problem sharing our successes with others in the industry."