People You Should Know: Mat Thijssen, Sustainability Office

Our “People You Should Know” blog series interviews key people and offices at the University of Waterloo so you can make the most of their services. 

Mat Thijssen is the University of Waterloo’s Sustainability Manager. We interviewed him last fall to get to know the Sustainability Office better and talk about how faculty can contribute to sustainability at Waterloo.

Mat, what does the Sustainability Office do?

The Sustainability Office strives to implement Waterloo’s Environmental Sustainability Strategy, working in partnership with offices across campus to build sustainability into how the University operates, our daily actions, and our academic mission. We provide expertise and training, support engagement efforts and collaboration around sustainability, and monitor and report on our progress. As Sustainability Manager, I oversee these efforts.

How do faculty fit in?

I often work with faculty members to give class lectures relevant to a course, provide data to or be interviewed by students for course projects, and even identify large class or group projects through the Living Lab, which is under development. Faculty also often ask us about actions they can take personally and professionally to be more sustainable on a day-to-day basis. Editor’s note: you can find such actions in the Sustainability Guide (PDF) released by the Sustainability Office in 2018.

Faculty also often want to know what and how we are doing (and how we are doing compared to other universities). We report our progress each year through the Sustainability Report, and I am proud of the transparency we include. Comparing against other campuses is difficult given the diversity of institutions, but we have completed our first submission to the Sustainability Tracking, Assessment, and Rating System (STARS)—a standardized reporting framework for the post-secondary sector—to better benchmark ourselves.

“I truly believe that educational institutions play a fundamental role in solving global problems and that we can mobilize solutions.”

What do you bring to your role?

I am proud to be an alumnus of Waterloo, having graduated from the Arts and Business program and subsequently the Master of Global Governance, where I focused on global security and its relationship to environmental change. Prior to joining the University, I was a program manager at Sustainable Waterloo Region, an environmental non-profit, where I worked with over 25 local organizations to strengthen sustainable transportation choices. I serve on multiple local advisory committees for active transportation and climate action, and I served as chair of the City of Waterloo’s inaugural Sustainability Advisory Committee.

What is it about this work that you’re passionate about?

The statistics and rhetoric around big sustainability issues, like climate change, are sometimes paralysing. I enjoy identifying the tangible steps that we can—and need to—take in order to make progress, both on campus and in the community. I truly believe that educational institutions play a fundamental role in solving global problems and that we can mobilize solutions, embody them in our actions, and ensure that our community lives them.

What surprises you in your work?

I am always surprised (and deeply encouraged) by the creative approaches that people have taken across campus to be more sustainable. Across every Faculty, and in every department that I’ve worked with, we have champions who are willing to go above and beyond to shift their personal actions and support others to live and work more sustainably.

Faculty, staff, and students lining up for free bike tuneups at the Bike Month celebration in June, 2018.
Faculty, staff, and students lining up for free bike tuneups at the Bike Month celebration in June, 2018.

What is Waterloo’s approach to sustainability?

The Environmental Sustainability Strategy outlines three broad goals for the University: to be a leader in environmental sustainability education and research, to operate the campus sustainably, and to embed sustainability into campus culture. These are underpinned by 27 specific objectives that we are now reporting on annually.

“As thought leaders on campus and in the community, faculty members can model the choices and practices that will help build a sustainable future.”

What do you want faculty to know about how they can contribute to sustainability at Waterloo?

Our graduates are one of Waterloo’s largest impacts on society. As alumni, they will be challenged to solve or adapt to increasingly complex sustainability issues in their respective fields. Faculty efforts to integrate sustainability into the classroom, in ways that are pertinent for each discipline, are tremendously important.

Similarly, faculty research activities are critical for creating and mobilizing knowledge, and we have substantial efforts underway at Waterloo to tackle global challenges like water, energy, climate change, and health and wellbeing.

Lastly, as thought leaders on campus and in the community, faculty members can model the choices and practices that will help build a sustainable future.

Do you have any upcoming events or initiatives you want faculty to know about?

This year, we are continuing to expand our Zero Waste Action Plan, which will strengthen waste diversion activities across campus. We will also be initiating public consultation on the development of our first Climate and Energy Action Plan.

From an academic perspective, we are fostering development of the Living Lab framework to match classroom projects with on-campus challenges and opportunities. Lastly, we are happy to provide support, where appropriate, for academic departments who are interested in building sustainability into their curriculum.

How do you keep all of this on track? Any tools or tips to share?

We have dozens of active projects at any given time, most of which are completed in collaboration with one or more partners on campus. Our team utilizes asana.com, Outlook, GANTT charts, SharePoint, and regular team check-ins to track and prioritize projects, tasks, and collaborations.


Coming up from the Sustainability Office: Registration is open for Winter 2019 Sustainability Certificate sessions. This set of seven lunch-hour courses covers key local and global sustainability issues, and how you and the University can address them.

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