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Chancellor’s Remarks at Lā Honua Earth Day Symposium: Environmental Sustainability at UH Hilo

Chancellor Bonnie D. Irwin delivered these remarks at today’s Lā Honua Earth Day Virtual Symposium.

Aloha Kākou,

Chancellor Bonnnie Irwin
Bonnie D. Irwin

The University of Hawai‘i at Hilo is honored to once again host the Earth Day Fair with our partners at Hawai‘i Community College. I am pleased to be with you today to share some of what we are doing in the realm of environmental sustainability at UH Hilo. As a university that works to promote both Native Hawaiian and island values, we take our environment very seriously indeed and we do what we can to protect the ‘āina. In addition to our values, our mission, “One learns from many sources,” reminds us that the ‘āina has much to teach us, and if we want future generation to also learn from our environment, we need to do what we can to protect it.

UH Hilo Sustainability Committee

The UH Hilo sustainability committee works across the campus to develop and enact goals, metrics, and plans to increase sustainability in the following areas: Operations, Curriculum, Research and Scholarship, Campus and Community, and Cultural Connections, in order to meet the energy reduction (carbon neutral by 2050) and associated targets set forth in the UH System Sustainability Policy. In addition to the faculty, staff, and student committee members, I am grateful for the support we receive from the UH System Sustainability Office and our VISTA volunteer.


In the area of operations, we have installed LED light fixtures in several of our buildings. We also have increased the number of E-vehicle charging stations on campus to support those members of our ‘ohana who have chosen to drive zero-emissions vehicles. We have installed battery storage in the Science and Technology Building and inverter-style AC systems in several buildings. All of these efforts help us to reduce our carbon footprint. On the horizon will be the installation of more photovoltaic panels on campus.

Local-First Meals

We continue to work with Sodexo to have local-first entrees at least one day a week and are interested in expanding this as we return to more in person operations in the fall. Offering local foods on campus is both good for the environment and our health. This also aligns with the university being a Blue Zones Project approved worksite. I took the #livelongerbetter pledge today—have you?


We have an ambitious composting program that utilizes food waste, yard waste, and shredded paper. This program employs student workers and supplies compost for campus gardens at UH Hilo and Hawaii Community College. This work is also aligned with work in our AG 263 composting course, which allows students in that class to have hands-on experiences.


Which leads me to our curriculum. We have 27 courses that are designated as sustainability courses, and faculty are working toward creating a sustainability certificate. This will be an asset for students wishing to pursue a career related to sustainability and will be an important milestone in our journey to gain recognition for our sustainability efforts through the Sustainability Tracking Assessment & Rating System.


A number of faculty and students are doing research related to sustainability issues. There are really too many to name, but I do want to highlight Professor of Biology Becky Ostertag, whose work in tropical ecology and conservation has recently been recognized with her election as a Fellow of the Ecological Society of America, a high honor for scholars in her field. In our College of Agriculture, Forestry and Natural Resource Management, a senior weed science class recently drafted a research plan for weed suppression, and in another project our agriculture faculty and students are looking into whether we can create jet fuel from sugar cane, a project that could pay both economic and environmental dividends.

Campus Gardens

A number of people on campus are working on the landscape itself. We have recently published an inventory of the gardens at UH Hilo on our website. As the campus reopens to the public in the coming months, we will be able to once again invite back volunteers to help us improve and maintain these beautiful spaces. We seek to remove invasive species and replace them with more native plants.  This is both good for the ‘āina, but also provides a learning opportunity for many of our students as well as our local community. If you follow my posts on Instagram or Twitter, you know that I like to photograph plants and flowers, so the gardens are dear to my heart. Of these many spaces, I want to highlight one in particular, a rather new effort.

Native Forest Restoration Project

On the makai side of Hale‘ōlelo, we have seen many changes in the last year with the creation of the Ululaumāhie Native Forest Restoration Project. Its primary objective is education through the perpetuation of traditional Hawaiian knowledge with an emphasis on cultural benefits and strategies for forging stronger partnerships to increase the public perception of the value and benefits of urban trees through culture-grounded mālama-‘āina -based conservation education. This project also dovetails with and fulfills UH Hilo’s campus-wide plan to further indigenize the university learning environment.


I hope this view into UH Hilo has been enlightening. We are working to partner more with ongoing community efforts as well as with our colleagues at Hawai‘i Community College. This event is an example of that kind of outreach and partnership, and I hope that next year, we will be able to once again host a lot of the earth day celebration in person on our campus. We still have a long way to go, but with the energy and enthusiasm around sustainability that I have witnessed on campus, I am optimistic about the future of this work.


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