Sustainability at TU Berlin – A “by All for All” Participative Approach

Interview with TU environmental protection officer Dr. Jörg Romanski about the new Sustainability Report

Dr Jörg Romanski jointly headed the interdisciplinary working group of the Council for Sustainable Development together with the Council’s deputy chair Dr. -Ing. André Baier. The working group was responsible for editing the Sustainability Report.

TU Berlin’s first Environmental Report was published in November 2020. What can its readers expect?

In September 2015, the United Nations passed a set of goals to achieve sustainable development by 2030. In our report, we present the entire spectrum of measures based on these 17 Sustainable Development Goals undertaken at TU Berlin in the areas of research, teaching and operations. We report on courses and project labs as well as sustainable planning, construction measures and management. We update you on energy saving projects and the development of an LED lab for children and young adults, present the University’s maker spaces for ecological products and report on a climate-friendly ground water management project in Israel and the Palestinian Territories. The report also features bio textiles made from algae, bamboo and fungi, and provides information on green delivery chains.

The Sustainability Report replaces the environmental reports published by the University over a number of years. Why was this decision taken?

TU Berlin began publishing environmental reports in 1995. Beginning 2002, these reports also started addressing issues relevant to sustainability. The reason for this was the University’s decision to introduce an integrated management system for occupational health and safety and environmental protection. However, the University did not seek to impose its views “from above” as it were, but rather sought to involve research and teaching in the process and invited all members of the University to contribute their ideas.

Our decision to rename the reports is based on the incredible strides made in the area of sustainability at TU Berlin over the past four or five years. This has been due in particular to the work of the Council for Sustainable Development, which was established in 2016 to serve as direct advisor to the Executive Board. Professors, research associates and teaching assistants, and students as well as office and technical staff enjoy equal representation on the Council. In 2018, TU Berlin became a member of “Hoch-N”, the national university sustainability network. These initiatives have led to a stronger desire for real action and the decision to create a more extensive Sustainability Report to replace the environmental reports.

Is it just the name that has changed or are there real differences?

When taking the decision to expand the focus of the reports, we also decided to open up the process to all members of the University. This is the real difference to the environmental reports. We were now able to put together a working group made up of all status groups. The members of the working group not only took part in meetings, they also contributed actively to the report by assuming responsibility for individual sections. The Sustainability Report also focuses more closely on themes such as sustainability policy, governance, organizational structure, participation and knowledge transfer.

What are the main areas of focus and how is the report structured?

The call for all status groups at the University to contribute to the report proved so successful that we have ended up with a very extensive report. We wanted to do justice to this commitment to the issue of sustainability and let everyone have their say. So, we didn’t make any cuts from the contributions we received. Instead we just organized them clearly under the topics “participation and organization”, “studying and teaching”, “research and development”, “living and working”, and “planning and construction”. This was another way in which we extended the reach of the report. The environmental reports only had two areas of focus: teaching and research on the one side, and operation and infrastructure on the other. We have now taken the conscious decision to include all the University’s support processes as well as its core areas of teaching and research. In the past, teaching and research have so often led the way in issues affecting the environment and sustainability, while university operations have lagged far behind, like a “dirty little brother” so to speak.  This is also the case at TU Berlin. We have always wanted to draw attention to this discrepancy and to show that operations really need to develop.

Do you think there are also limits to how far University operations can become sustainable?

Greenhouse gas emissions have not sunk as a result of less energy consumption but rather through an increase in the use of renewable energies. This is of course not the best option as, put simply, it means that our purchase of green energy impacts negatively on the energy mix of other consumers. But it is not possible to pursue an absolute policy of energy saving as we as a scientific institution have to ensure operational safety and this includes having a reliable energy supply.

What surprised you most personally?

What always strikes me is the fact that energy consumption levels at TU Berlin remain fairly constant at a time when you would expect to see a fall in energy consumption. But we need to remember that we are a technical university conducting highly technical research requiring at times very high levels of energy consumption. Increases in third-party funding for research projects mean we now have many semi-industrial plants, such as the mini plant used by environmental engineers. As a scaled-down facility, this enables the development of production plants from the laboratory to large-scale facilities. Then there is our computer technology: With the back-up center, we now have two computer centers that are tied into energy-intensive cooling circuits. Given all this, it can perhaps be seen as something of a success that we have maintained our energy consumption at a steady level.

What has given you most pleasure?

Getting approval a few years back from the Berlin Senate to construct our new buildings in accordance with federal sustainability standards was something of a breakthrough. Berlin is seeking to attain the silver standard in the sustainability construction evaluation system. We are slightly disappointed that the city is not setting its sights higher, but it is a first step.

Where do you see room for improvement?

I think in infrastructure and construction. For instance, one contribution to the Sustainability Report is very critical of the design of open spaces on the campus. One of the most striking features of one area of our campus is its location on the sunny side of the Landwehkanal. However, its function as a green corridor is hugely hampered by the extensive use of areas near the banks by traffic and parked vehicles. As part of the creation of Campus Salzufer, the linking of the canal space and its urban surrounds could help to ensure that its function as a supra-regional green corridor as envisaged in the open space concept for Charlottenburg-Wilmersdorf can take full effect. In addition, Nicholas Kerz from the Federal Institute for Research on Building, Urban Affairs and Spatial Development and external member of the Council for Sustainable Development raised critical questions which led us to conclude that the University’s strategy for sustainability does not really make the goals of its sustainable building program clear to those beyond TU Berlin.

And is there anything that particularly concerns you?

The difficulties caused by rigid administrative processes are highlighted by a fairly prosaic issue: waste prevention! This was really demonstrated by the dramatic fall-off in the re-use of furniture between 2013 and 2014. When the person in charge retired, it took some time to find someone to replace them. This led to a temporary cessation of operations, with valuable and useful furniture disposed of as bulk waste. Then starting 2018, the re-use of furniture was hampered again, this time as a result of a failure to carry out maintenance work on the elevator - the furniture storage depot is in the second floor! The separation of recyclable materials represents a general and considerable problem. You would think that this “old” issue would be second nature by now. In reality, this isn’t always the case. For example, the blue waste bins for paper are often not provided in the academic chairs. This leads to paper ending up in the black bins and being lost as recyclable material. Overall, the recycling rate remains at a fairly good and constant level, albeit with a slight downward trend - but we have to intervene again and again in an advisory and supportive capacity.

Where can we find the Sustainability Report?

The report can be found on the website of the Council for Sustainable Development. We also have a new sustainability portal, which is based on the structure of the report and reflects much of its content. The portal went live at the same time as the report was published. It was one of the winning projects in TU Berlin’s sustainability competition and was developed under the guidance of André Baier The portal is the meeting point of all sustainable projects and measures at the University and seeks to inform and inspire members of TU Berlin, social actors and members of the public to get involved. A resource like this is also incredibly useful for connecting all the projects which until now have largely been running parallel to each other, such as cargo bikes or beekeeping offers.

Interviewer: Christina Camier

About Jörg Romanski

Jörg Romanski completed his doctorate in biological waste water treatment in 1999 at TU Berlin under Professor Dr. Udo Wiesmann. He had previously also completed his degree specializing in environmental process engineering at TU Berlin. Until 2010, he worked in the research and clinical services industry on waste and hazardous materials. Since 2011, he has been deputy head of Occupational Health and Safety Services and Environmental Protection at TU Berlin. He is founder and member of the steering committee of the environmental network for universities and research institutions for eastern Germany. Since 2016, he has also been deputy head of the Office of the Council for Sustainable Development at TU Berlin. He is one of the signatories of the declaration of Scientists for Future.