Grace Maves traces her passion for environmental issues to a childhood spent outdoors, though her vision for how she wanted to make a difference has always been people-focused too. In fact, when she started college, she was initially interested in a career in healthcare. She only later turned to environmental science after an urban studies course helped her see how she could stitch together her interests in helping both people and the environment heal. For Maves, humans are not only critical to the process of safeguarding the living world, we also stand to benefit from learning to live more sustainability. That’s a perspective that’s serving her well in her new role as our campus’ sustainability programs coordinator, where she’s wasted no time spearheading efforts like Zero Waste events. Recently we chatted with Maves about her vision for promoting sustainability on campus and why she’s not giving up on humanity getting its act together.
So what brought you to UM-Dearborn?
I was working at Wayne State’s Office of Campus Sustainability, and I loved that job, but it was a temporary position. So when this position came up at UM-Dearborn that felt like a carbon copy, it felt like a no brainer. The thing about having an environmental science degree is you’re a jack of all trades, but kind of a master of none. You take a hodgepodge of courses in urban studies and biology and geology, and you don’t have a specialty. But that’s kind of what sustainability is all about: You have to have a broad understanding of a lot of things to be able to analyze complexity and come up with interesting solutions.
What kinds of projects did you do when you were at Wayne State?
The biggest project I worked on was the composting program. Right off the bat, I was tasked with working with three “compost warriors” and launching the actual physical operations of the composting program. It was a great project because I’ve always been interested in working with the community very closely, and we had this partnership with this farm/community center called Georgia Street Community Collective. We would collect compostable materials from the cafeterias and all the restaurants on campus, and then we would deliver them three times a week to their urban farm. We also collected all the leaves from campus, and the farm would do the processing so we could use the finished compost in garden beds across campus. So it was this really awesome demonstration of a circular economy and partnering with the community. If we can figure out a way to do something similar here, that would be really exciting.
So here on our campus, what would you say we’re doing well, and where do you see opportunities for improvement?
A big part of my job is creating this cultural change through the Planet Blue Ambassador program so people are more focused on their environmental impacts, and I’d say compared to Wayne State, the culture for caring about sustainability is already here. The challenges mostly seem to have to do with staffing and coordination, which is what my position is supposed to help with. But the interest is already there. I mean, I have people coming to me rather than feeling like I have to pitch it to everybody else. In terms of opportunities, I’d say the Environmental Interpretive Center does amazing work and we could do a better job of connecting what they’re already doing with the larger university community. Another thing we’re starting to work on is improving our recycling program. This is something that all large institutions have struggled with due to some shocks in the recycling system dating back to around 2018, when China stopped taking recycling from the U.S. In many ways, the recycling processing infrastructure in the U.S. is still being built. So we’re trying to take steps to reduce contamination and track how much we’re recycling. In fact, I’m applying for a grant that I got when I was at Wayne State to improve the recycling program, which can help us standardize the bins and signage.
And any news you can share on the carbon neutrality front? I know we have some active projects, like the LED lighting retrofit. But can we look forward to some bigger strategy decisions and tracking off our carbon neutrality goals?
The Facilities Operations team will be working with ITS to develop a public display of UM-Dearborn’s progress towards carbon neutrality. The idea is to display this information in a way that anyone can follow and make sense of. We’re also planning to provide options to click on specific metrics that will lead to more technical details for those who are interested in learning more. As far as projects, in addition to replacing older lighting with LEDs, we’re also looking at ways to reduce energy use, like adaptive lighting that can change in response to daylight or room occupancy and adjusting HVAC sequencing. And for the Scope 2 emissions, where our commitment is to achieve carbon neutrality for purchased electricity, there was recently an RFP out for all three campuses to help us achieve that goal. Across all three U-M campuses, we are also planning to install on-campus solar to help eliminate Scope 1 emissions by 2040.
It’s easy to get pretty gloomy about this stuff, especially when it comes to climate change and personally wanting to do more, but feeling like you have limited options. Do you have any advice or perspective you can share for keeping the dark thoughts at bay?
First off, I think it’s natural for people to struggle with this, especially when you’re wrestling with how much each person’s individual actions actually make a difference. I don't remember the exact source of the quote, but the idea that often brings me hope is that we don’t need a handful of people doing sustainability perfectly, we need a lot of people doing it imperfectly. And I think that’s true. Even if some of the people I interact with end up taking action, then they’re going to bring that same enthusiasm to their families and friends, and you get that waterfall effect that can lead to broader change.
Have a sustainability question for Grace Maves? You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Interview by Lou Blouin.