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Sustainability Office opens its doors

Showcasing student-administration collaboration, Office is many years in the making

The McGill Office of Sustainability opened yesterday to a full house of administrators, faculty, and students eager to see the long-awaited space in action.

Introductory speeches by Principal Heather Munroe-Blum and Associate Vice-Principal (University Services) Jim Nicell emphasized the importance of environmental, economic, and social sustainability at McGill, as well as the Office’s potential to help students and staff build on previous environmental initiatives and undergraduate research.

“This will remain an individual and collaborative effort on all our parts,” said Nicell, an environmental engineer by training.

SSMU VP University Affairs Nadya Wilkinson acknowledged the amount of progress needed to green McGill, but expressed optimism for the Office to facilitate this progress, likening it to a potluck rather than a sit-down dinner.

“No, we don’t have all the staff some think we need to get things done…. We don’t have a library, or a newsletter. But these aren’t just theoretical questions anymore, they’re questions for today,” said Wilkinson, who has been involved with the Sustainable McGill Project – the student group which originally proposed the office’s concept – since 2005.

Sustainability Director Dennis Fortune explained many features around the Office, located in Ferrier 216, that incorporate some of the tenants of structural sustainability – such as waste diversion, energy reduction, and recycling – that could be implemented around campus.

The furniture was recovered from elsewhere on campus, six of the original 19 light fixtures were removed, and the plywood around windows facing the hall meet Forest Stewardship Council standards. As well, materials such as the tiled floor made from recycled drywall, and the carpet made of 72 per cent recycled material – one-third post-consumer carpet – were donated from various businesses. The Office also has two composters, in which students can place leftovers such as the baked goods and apples served at the event by Organic Campus.

Nicell explained afterwards that none of the Office’s $200,000 budget to support investments and ideas came from the University operating budget; instead, the money was raised through two 15 per cent increases in on-campus parking fees over the past two years. Drivers were both informed and supportive of the reason for the increase.

Nicell also praised the economic viability of sustainability initiatives, such as a $12,000 pilot project with light dimmers in the James Administration Building that will pay for itself in a year and a half.

“It’s not a choice of hard times versus sustainability,” Nicell said, later adding, “We have a moral responsibility not to [delay sustainable initiatives to future generations].”

Powerhouse Supervisor Alain Fournier gave students who attended the opening several tours of McGill’s powerhouse, which supplies the majority of the University’s buildings with heating and electricity, totalling 25 megawatts.

He also showcased a web site that displays and stores real-time data on different types of energy consumption, and easily creates daily, weekly, and monthly consumption profiles.

“I think it’s important for students to have access [to the site], but it’s not my decision,” Fournier said. He said the University has expressed concerns over some sensitive information being available online.

When asked about the future of the Office, many students and administrators focused on the Office’s role as a hub for students interested in environmental projects, to connect them with relevant staff and administrators.

Master’s Geography student Alexandre Poisson – who worked on last year’s Sustainability Report Card and sat on the Office of Sustainability Steering Committee with Wilkinson, Nicell, Fortune, and U2 Environment student Jonathan Glencross – stressed the Office’s place in making undergraduate coursework relevant and useful, and offering adequate guidance to volunteer efforts.

“In the end, students need to assert leadership,” Poisson said. “There’s so much opportunity to use classes to do projects and solve problems.”

During her opening speech, Munroe-Blum recalled the welcoming she received from the SSMU Environment Committee on her first day in office six years ago.

“From the minute I arrived, students were leaders in sustainability,” Munroe-Blum said.

In opening a sustainability centre, McGill follows a long list of other Canadian universities, such as University of British Colombia, the University of Toronto, and Queen’s University.

“It’s a huge step toward our goal as a community to support tangible change,” Wilkinson added.