The Greening of Canadian Campuses

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TORONTO -- Athletes at the University of Toronto shower with water heated by solar panels. Hundreds of elderly Montreal residents eat meals prepared from food grown by students on a McGill University campus.

Sustainability has become more than a fashionable buzzword on Canadian campuses; it has become enshrined both in university policy and in daily student life.

McGill's Sustainability Projects Fund, for example, imposes a student fee of 50 Canadian cents per credit that is matched by the university.

"That's an amazing level of support at a time of economic hardship when everyone is cutting back," said Martin Krayer von Krauss, manager of the McGill Office of Sustainability. "Students stepped up and put their own money into it."

"There is a general sense that as one of Canada's leading universities, we have a responsibility," he said. "Manifesting excellence means finding solutions to Canada's most pressing problems."

McGill Feeding McGill has responded to student demand for more organic, locally sourced food by bringing together dormitory cafeteria services and the Plant Science Department.

The agriculture program, based at the Macdonald campus in Sainte-Anne-de-Bellevue, about 40 minutes outside the city of Montreal, produces 40,000 kilograms, or more than 88,000 pounds, of vegetables annually for student dining halls downtown. Meanwhile, downtown students taking part in the Edible Campus project grow vegetables that are used by a Meals on Wheels program that serves mobility-impaired residents in a low-income neighborhood.

At the McGill Life Sciences Complex, students spearheaded a Shut Your Sash program, which encouraged lab users to close their fume hoods when they were not in use.

"The students set out to create behavior change in one campus building and they reduced energy consumption per hood by 80 percent," said Dr. Krayer von Krauss, adding that the change saved 77,000 Canadian dollars, or $75,800, a year.

Students are now considering how the project can be rolled out in other laboratories, with the potential for another 1.3 million dollars in savings if they achieve the same rate of success.

Susanna Klassen, a fourth-year environmental science student, has been involved with sustainability projects since her freshman year, when she became one of the coordinators of the McGill Farmers' Market, which is held on campus during the autumn. It offers a program in which shareholders preorder a weekly box of food before the harvest, with the funds going to farmers during the time of year when their expenses are the highest.

"You share in the risks of agriculture," she said. "Some crops aren't as available in some years, depending on the weather. But you always get your money's worth, are introduced to new varieties and eat more seasonally."

The program also helped broaden the appeal of the market. "It has been a way to reach out to professionals in the city," Ms. Klassen said.

Neil Connelly, director of the Office of Campus Planning and Sustainability at the University of Victoria in British Columbia, said he saw increased interest in environmental matters among young people. "We were the first in Western Canada to offer a transit pass for all students, and we've seen a major shift in travel patterns and a reduction of cars on campus," he said. In 1996, about 75 percent of the faculty, staff and students arrived on campus by car; today 50 percent do, according to campus transit surveys. Now, former parking lots are being transformed into new buildings.

"We have 1,000 fewer parking spaces than a decade ago, and new buildings have shower facilities for cyclists," Mr. Connelly said. "There's more awareness at the high-school level, and students coming onto campus have higher expectations of how the campus operates."

At the University of Toronto, students are encouraged to take simple energy-saving measures, like turning off the lights when they leave a room.

"The projects we lead are on the behavioral and cultural side of sustainability," said Tyler Hunt, a project coordinator at the university's Sustainability Office.

The university is celebrating 25 years of sustainability initiatives. But Paul Leitch, director of sustainability for the facilities and services department at the central St. George campus, says that energy conservation on campus dates back a century.

"In 1977, the university brought on board its first energy manager, which was way ahead of its time," Mr. Leitch said. "But 100 years ago, the university converted its coal-fired energy system to a district heating-cooling loop, which was leading edge at the time and still is."

The university created an automated system to control building temperatures. It also has one of the highest recycling rates -- 74 percent -- of any institution in Canada.

"We recycle paper, glass and metals and it's very successful all across campus," Mr. Leitch said. "When you conserve resources, you have to sustain that."

Sustainability has gone beyond ad hoc student projects to become a part of official university policy.

At McGill, there is a 2010 sustainability policy, with work under way on Vision 2020: Creating a Sustainable McGill.

It is a core element of the 2007 strategic plan at the University of Victoria, whose president was one of the original signatories to the University and College Presidents' Climate Change Statement of Action for Canada in 2008.

Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia, which signed on in 2010, will issue a president's sustainability plan every five years. The University of Alberta has created a sustainability commitment and guiding principles.

The focus is on encouraging a new generation to think about the environment before they hit the workplace.

"Why education, when it includes only 3 percent or so of environmental users in the world?" said Niles Barnes, senior programs coordinator for the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education, which counts 61 Canadian colleges and universities among its 892 members.

"We may have a small energy footprint, but we have a 100 percent educational footprint. All of our future teachers, doctors and other professionals pass through the educational system."

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This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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