Abu Dhabi: The winners of the Sustainable Campus Initiative were awarded at an honouring ceremony held in Abu Dhabi on Thursday for their projects that have contributed towards environmental protection.

The initiative was jointly launched by the Emirates Environment Agency — Abu Dhabi (EAD) and Borouge in 2014 with the goal of having university students in the UAE take better responsibility for their ecological footprint on their campuses and extending that into the community. This year’s edition saw more than a dozen universities from across the UAE taking part.

Mahdi Ali Zadeh, from India, along with his team from Manipal University in Dubai won the best sustainable action award for their three projects that replaced plastic bags with more environment-friendly products and their recycling of electronic waste.

“Our team carried out three different projects with each one concentrated towards sustainability. The first project was to replace the use of plastic bags that are used in supermarkets with paper bags which we made from newspapers we collected. After this project, we started our second project in partnership with Aster Pharmacy to replace their existing plastic bags with paper ones,” Zadeh explained.

“The paper bags that we made were tested and were shown to be able to withstand a lot of weight, and as we know the medicines at the pharmacies are not really heavy, so there is no reason we can’t use paper bags instead which happen to be more environment-friendly and sustainable as well,” he added.

The third project was about electronic waste. “Our goal was to initiate this movement where people would recognise the importance of recycling electronic waste instead of sending so much of it to landfills. We were lucky enough to get in contact with a Swedish company that wanted to help us, and so we were able to mobilise and go out to collect the electronic waste for recycling.”

Zadeh also spoke on the importance of having young people involved in helping make a positive difference to the environment.

“As youth, we are really motivated and quite lucky to take part in such an initiative, and so we want to be able to make a difference and a positive change for our planet since this is our home. We believe that small initiatives like the ones we have done can make a big impact in the long run.”

Among the other universities that were awarded at the ceremony was the American University of Sharjah for their project on turning food waste into fertilisers.

“For our project, we went around our campus collecting waste such as banana peels, orange peels, and other food wastes to use as natural fertiliser instead of the produced fertilisers that are normally used,” said Ruiwaida Al Najdawi, from Jordan, and one of the team’s participating members.

“The produced fertilisers that we currently use have a lot of chemicals that are added to them and these in turn can cause harmful effects to the biodiversity such as causing mutations to some organisms. So we thought that using something more natural like food waste — which we put through a compost machine — would be a better alternative from both an environmental and cost-effective standpoint,” she added.

Najdawi said that taking part in the initiative was a good way of doing something practical for the environment instead of simply relying on theories.

“Our team was made up of environmental science students, so whatever we could do to go towards a more sustainable campus and community was something great. It was also an opportunity to put in actual work rather than just learning about theories in our classrooms. As young people we should lead by example, the power lies in the hands of the young people as we are the future,” she said.

The American University of Ras Al Khaimah team was also among the winners for their research and survey on the UAE’s mangroves and its potential contribution in the fight against global warming.

“The project wanted to approach the issue of climate change from a different angle, namely to look at adaptation to global warming rather than just focusing on renewable energies and mitigating the problem, and we found that the country’s mangroves, which are able to absorb carbon dioxide and withstand the effects of climate change, (are a solution) ... we wanted to raise public awareness on that,” said Aktham Al Chaar, from Syria, who helped organise the project.

“We conducted a survey with more than 150 people to see how much public knowledge people had about mangroves, and found that 49 per cent of people were not aware of the fact that mangroves are able to absorb a lot of carbon dioxide. More worrying, 17 per cent of the people we surveyed said they were open to development in the mangrove areas, basically to destroy them and start building things in their place. This shows the vital need for awareness on protecting mangroves because they can provide a lot of useful information on adapting to climate change,” he added.