Skip to content

McGill’s green progress

After years of inconsistent administrative support, a breadth of student environmental projects are breaking new ground

Plans for Sustainability Centre materialize

Support from faculty and staff has helped students pushing for the creation of a Sustainability Centre on campus come one step closer to its realization.

Members of Sustainable McGill Project (SMP), the student-led initiative that proposed the idea two years ago, emphasized that the Centre will limit the waste of resources on campus through student research at an informational meeting Wednesday.

Nadya Wilkinson, SMP co-chairperson and SSMU VP University Affairs-elect, explained that the Centre will provide a link between the administration and students’ sustainability initiatives.

“The Centre will enable McGill University to strive towards institutional leadership in environmental, social, and economic sustainability,” Wilkinson said at the meeting.

She explained that the Sustainability Centre will allow students to get course credit for conducting environmental research at the University and identifying ways to improve its resource efficiency.

“It will be less of a place or a person – and more of a process,” she said.

McGill Sustainability Director Dennis Fortune has supported the project since he came to McGill in January. At the meeting he suggested that the University include a proposal about the Sustainability Centre in the Strategic Plan for Sustainable Development that McGill must submit to the provincial government next March.

“The Centre can be a focal point in what our plan is,” Fortune said.

Yet Wilkinson noted that the project still has a long way to go and worried that the administration is not making it a priority.

“Fortune has the enthusiasm necessary to create the Centre, but enthusiasm isn’t everything,” Wilkinson said.

“He’s not the one with the budget,” she added.

One staff member commented that the Sustainability Centre’s success will depend on administrative support.

SMP members hoped that Jim Nicell, Associate Vice-Principal (University Services), and the administrator who will oversee the Centre’s operations, would attend the meeting as a demonstration of the administration’s support.

Despite notification of the meeting, Nicell was unable to attend.

Some members noted that the University’s support may influence the Sustainability Centre’s funding.

“We hope the administration will value this enough to find funding for it,” said Jonathan Glencroft, incoming SMP chairperson.

According to Fortune, McGill wastes money and resources on facilities that are neither efficient nor environmentally sustainable. He said that that by maximizing sustainable energy resources, the Sustainability Centre would save the University money.

For instance, he explained that letting more sunlight into McGill buildings would cut down on heating and electricity costs.

But Garry Peterson, a Geography professor who helped organize the student project that launched discussions of the Sustainability Centre four years ago, thought the benefits of the Centre will be more environmental and academic than financial.

“McGill gets no benefit from saving money on sustainable buildings,” Peterson said.

“There is no incentive.”

– Emily Gennis

Gorilla to research large-scale composting possibilities

Gorilla Composting is drawing up plans to purchase an industrial composter for the downtown campus in the near future.

Volunteers with Gorilla Composting – a student-run initiative that collects organic waste on campus – will spend much of the summer compiling an extensive report for the McGill administration on the financial considerations, as well as the creation and elimination of greenhouse gas emissions at every level of the operation.

“Absolutely everything will be taken into consideration,” said Gorilla Composting coordinator David Gray-Donald.

“[If the report reveals a] win-win, or at least a win on greenhouse gas emissions they will likely support it more than anything we’ve proposed before.”

The industrial composter will be able to handle 100 kilograms a day of organic waste, quickly turning it into humus-rich soil. Since the machine was originally designed to compost pig carcasses, it can handle greasy dairy and meat waste on top of the coffee grinds and raw fruits and vegetables Gorilla now collects.

Concordia University’s R4 initiative will be purchasing the same composter to expand its Loyola campus composting operations in May. Testing will take place all summer, allowing Gorilla volunteers to observe the machine in operation, noting operational details and monitoring electricity use.

Currently, Gorilla transports the organic wastes off campus, but an on-campus system would cut down on the greenhouse gas emissions resulting from travel – a concern Principal Heather Munroe-Blum cited in an interview with The Daily last month.

“What I understand is that…the environmental damage done by the trucks picking up the compost here and trucking it to Macdonald campus would offset totally the environmental benefit,” Munroe-Blum said.

Throughout its short existence, unstable funding and volunteer turnover has hindered Gorilla’s ability to increase its collection efforts. Last fall, it was forced to scale down from its campus-wide operations, and now maintains a popular student drop-off site that recently moved from the Organic Corner on the second floor of Shatner to the building’s sub-basement.

Gray-Donald emphasized that this summer’s report, which will make the ambiguities of environmental and financial impact clear to the administration, will be the key to acquiring funding from McGill.

“They want to have a composting system that works. But there is nobody at McGill that will take the time to sort out all the data to make it work,” he said.

– Sam Neylon

Campus Crops to feed hungry students in groundbreaking program

An eclectic group of ten environmental students gathered in the garden behind the McGill School of Environment (MSE) on University Wednesday to plant lettuce seeds for students to eat in the fall.

Campus Crops, an environmental student group that aims to increase urban gardening on campus, transplanted the seeds from a greenhouse to the soil underneath cold frames – wood boxes with glass tops that warm the soil by channelling sunlight to the seeds – that they installed behind the MSE on March 6.

“We plan to expand the garden, and grow more crops once the warm weather comes,” Campus Crops member and U3 Environment student Gillian Jackson said.

The group chose lettuce as the first crop due to its ability to grow in colder climates, but has not yet decided what else to plant.

Campus Crops has discussed helping out Midnight Kitchen next semester, and the group has planned to open volunteer opportunities for students interested in gardening and receiving produce.

Group member and U3 Anthropology student Rafael Wolman explained that the group hopes to bridge the gap between agriculture and urban living.

“It’s about staying connected to the earth, even in a busy city like Montreal – realizing that food does not just come from a grocery store, and being reminded of the process involved,” Wolman said.

“This misconception is often reinforced when friends of mine will decide against buying milk on the basis of whether it comes in a bag/carton rather than its contents and effect,” he added.

Jackson agreed that students should be conscious of more than simply the origin of their food.

“It probably tastes a lot better when you are conscious that you just ate a tomato rather than that you just ate a ‘piece of food,’” she said.

Campus Crops made sure to have fun during the seed planting, and at one point sang its own theme song.

To learn about volunteering opportunities over the summer and next year, students can contact

– Mikey Opatowski

Students brave the rain on Fossil Fools Day

About 75 students dropped by the Sustainable McGill Project’s (SMP) Fossil Fools Day table at the Y-intersection Tuesday afternoon to enjoy free hot chocolate and discuss misguided uses of fossil fuels at McGill.

Despite the steady rainfall, SMP members gathered 50 signatures in support of a new bike and pedestrian path in front of the Macdonald-Harrington Building – an idea that member and U0 Arts student Nathan DeBono said was included in the University’s Physical Master Plan.

“It’s actually happening,” DeBono said.

Although the current version of McGill’s Master Plan does not indicate specific areas that will be changed, it includes many broad design and planning objectives to improve the sustainability of McGill’s downtown and Macdonald campuses.

Section Eight aims to improve accessibility to and safety within the two campuses, in part by restricting automobile traffic to service and emergency vehicles, and those for disabled persons. The section also aims to link McGill to nearby metro stations – an oft-repeated promise – and provide parking, showers, and locker rooms for cyclists.

DeBono added that SMP had originally planned to have bike mechanics from the SSMU Bike Collective and a bike-powered smoothie maker stationed beside their information table, but that the rain prevented them from setting up.

“This weather makes us look like fools,” SMP member and U1 Arts student Katrina Topping said jokingly – but DeBono disagreed.

“No, we look tough and dedicated,” he said, adding, “Rain never hurt no one.”

Jenna Desormeaux, U0 Environment, said that she was happy with the Fossil Fools event, but indicated students could better devote their time to similar environmental events.

“We could have a buttload of environment students out here, but we’re too busy in our 200-whatever environment classes reading texts of what old guys said and not doing anything,” Desormeaux said.

Since 2005, the international Fossil Fools Day has called attention to the world’s addiction to fossil fuels while promoting alternative energy sources. In early February, at the fifth annual Quebec Sustainable Campuses Conference, students chose transportation as this year’s Quebec Fossil Fools Day theme.

SMP chairperson and SSMU VP Internal-elect Nadya Wilkinson said that students interested in signing the petition online can do so on the Sustainable McGill Project’s Facebook group.

For more on the Master Plan, see page 18.

– Max Halparin

Sustainability report card finds recycled paper on the way up

McGill has dramatically increased the amount of paper made from 100 per cent post-consumer recycled (PCR) content in the last two years, according to data gathered by an undergraduate environment student.

In 2005, none of the paper bought through McGill Purchasing Services was 100 per cent PCR, but by 2007, the proportion jumped to 33 per cent, or about 21-million sheets.

Alexandre Poisson, a U3 Environment student who helped compile the 2006-2007 Sustainability Report Card, said that data transparency is still a major issue when evaluating McGill’s progress toward more sustainable practices.

“Even if we are doing really badly, let’s publish the numbers. McGill has not really been too good at communicating performance and communicating results to the public,” Poisson said, adding that the co-operation from employees at McGill Printing Services made the report possible.

The Sustainability Report Card, supported by the Associate Vice-Principal (University Services) Jim Nicell, showed that 39 per cent of purchased paper in 2007 was made from partially recycled content.

However, since McGill faculty and staff can buy paper from vendors other than McGill Purchasing Services, finding accurate data on the types of paper used at McGill is difficult. Poisson added that the volume of pages has not decreased over the last few years, and that much more should be done to reduce the total amount of paper used per person at McGill.

Poisson emphasized that the lack of accurate data can contribute to misconceptions about McGill’s progress towards environmental sustainability.

“What I find is that we have a situation where often there is a false positive impression – where McGill is a leader in environmental issues – and then you have a false negative impression – that McGill is not doing anything compared to Concordia,” said Poisson. “Instead, we should sit down and look at the actual performance, the evidence, and numbers, and use that to form a strategy.”

Daniel Faucher, Associate Director of Printing and Mail Services, was optimistic about the University’s ability to use less paper and to continue to increase the number of sheets made from recycled content.

“I would say that within the broader unit – within University Services – there’s a firm commitment toward recycled paper, and we are going in that direction,” Faucher said, adding that equipment upgrades in the coming months will allow for easier double-sided printing.

According to Anna Gentile, a buyer for McGill Purchasing Services, clients often choose to purchase paper with non-recycled content because the initial costs are lower.

“Some departments don’t have the budget to say they would like to buy the product,” Gentile said.

“We try to promote it as much as possible to everyone.”

But Faucher suggested that the environmental costs of using non-recycled paper – which costs about 15 per cent less than recycled paper – are greater than the initial monetary savings.

“If you look at the broader picture, it is not a real saving,” he said.

In August 2006, McGill Purchasing Services began to offer buyers 100 per cent post-consumer recycled paper. McGill Printing Services now uses it for all its course packs, and three quarters of its other black and white print jobs.

– Jeffrey Bishku-Aykul

McGill to begin construction on green space

With McGill set to begin major construction on the park outside the James Administration building, students are hoping that the University will use the opportunity to build a bike path in the area.

Earlier this semester, several McGill departments were advised that steam tunnels running underneath the park in front of the James Administration building were in need of maintenance.

The park, a green patch in a heavily paved section of campus, must be torn up to allow the work, but David Covo, a McGill Architecture professor working with McGill’s Parking Services on the project, said that the construction can allow McGill to improve traffic flow in and around the area while preserving the green space.

“We want to keep the best of what’s there, but also take advantage of this opportunity to develop the quality of the area,” he said. “Rather than an island in the middle of two roads, our designers will be able to treat the whole area as a landscape, from the [McConnell] Engineering Building to the Administration Building.”

Nadya Wilkinson, chairperson of the student environmental group Sustainable McGill and SSMU VP University Affairs-elect, said the project’s focus on green space and traffic control were encouraging, but that more efforts to facilitate cyclists on campus were needed.

“There are many students who have been asking for a bike lane to be added to that area for some time now, so I hope that this is something which is being considered,” Wilkinson said.

But according to Covo, the needs of non-automobile traffic would be considered, though not singled out by the project’s designers.

“The intention is to have a system that accommodates bikes, cars, pedestrians, strollers, skateboarders, and whatever else. Everybody should be able to co-exist,” he said.

According to McGill’s Master Plan, a document outlining principles for McGill’s physical development, McGill’s existing roads “will be optimized for pedestrian use.”

The park’s final layout will be decided at an April 15 meeting between the designers and the Parking Services department. Work is slated to begin this summer.

– Tom Cullen