Students around the world are asking themselves: how green is my campus? If they go to U of T, the answer is “getting greener.” What’s most remarkable is that students themselves are leading the charge for sustainability.
Over the past decade, students have started, fostered and helped carry out programs as creative as they are helpful to the world around them − covering everything from organic waste collection to bicycle repair, and paper reduction to energy conservation. For the next generation, “it’s become clear that this isn’t a frill,” says Beth Savan, director of the St. George Campus Sustainability Office. “Sustainability is really core to the survival of the species, as well as the quality of life.”
Apart from the obvious benefit to forests, air and water, student-led projects are saving money for the university (research by the Sustainability Office shows that every dollar put into sustainability programs generates several dollars in savings). The projects also help participants form meaningful connections at school. These days, the easiest way to make friends and gain work experience may be at a community garden or a meeting about electricity use.
Naturally, students are ably abetted by staff, faculty and the university administration. “Other schools have recently climbed on the sustainability bandwagon, but there’s been a long-term commitment on the part of our facilities and services department to improving things,” says Savan, an environmental studies professor. As one example, she points to the school’s trigeneration turbine, which resulted in energy savings last year worth $1.5 million. In fact, environmental measures of one type or another have been in place at the University of Toronto for some 35 years, and herbicides have been banned since 1994, when today’s students were toddlers.
Savan initiates and collaborates on many sustainability projects, and has employed recent graduates since her office’s inception in 2004. She also makes it easy for students to get involved through work-study programs and volunteer opportunities. “This office is a place where we can harness student enthusiasm, energy and ideas,” she says. “We’ve been like that from the start.”
In recent years, the Sustainability Office has also benefited from the input of students from outside the environmental studies realm. Aspiring economists, engineers and foresters have all left their footprints on the university’s ecological landscape. Students from a variety of disciplines have also shown a willingness to put their own money into programs: Bikechain, a bicycle repair and resource program, is funded by undergraduate student levies and donations. In 2008, it received a Bicycle-Friendly Business Award from the City of Toronto. Other measures, such as the campus-wide Eco-Challenge to reduce energy consumption, have also succeeded.
This year, the University of Toronto received an overall B grade from the Sustainable Endowments Institute, which annually evaluates universities on how well they’ve integrated sustainable practices into campus life. The institute cited student involvement and administrative commitment as U of T’s major strengths in 2010. Savan says that in future, the school can raise its grade even higher by focusing on physical renovation. “I’m hoping that the buildings of the future will incorporate a sustainability component that they haven’t in the past,” she says. Savan needn’t worry: by cultivating a new generation of green-conscious citizens from all walks of life, she and her colleagues have ensured that the environment will figure prominently in decisions affecting the university for years to come.
Many environmentalists believe that locally grown food tastes better, reduces environmental strain and creates economic and social benefits for the community. That’s why a group devoted to campus agriculture is currently creating its own version of the zero-mile diet − proving good food can be grown just about anywhere.
In front of Hart House, the aesthetically minded Ornamental Garden shows that peppers, tomatoes and eggplants can be just as beautiful as flowers. The Galbraith Building is home to one of the city’s biggest rooftop gardens, a semi-hydroponic wonder. The Students’ Union Building has boasted a Food for All Equity Garden for eight years, supplying local food banks.
That’s not all. Hart House Farm in Caledon, Ontario, is home to orchards and a maple syrup operation, as well as an expanding variety of homegrown vegetables. And at the student-run plot at U of T Scarborough, local children are being brought in to learn how food grows. “One of the driving forces behind urban gardens is to reconnect people with their food systems,” says David Berliner, an environmental studies graduate who, until recently, managed the University of Toronto Campus Agriculture Project.
Education is one of the project’s most important objectives, says Berliner, looking out on the Kahonitake Kitikan garden situated on the east side of Hart House. Run in conjunction with First Nations House and the Native Students Association, the small plot abounds with, among other things, sage, cedar, sweetgrass and tobacco – the four traditional medicinal plants. “It provides a first introduction to aboriginal studies,” he says. “And what a great opportunity to do that right here on campus.”
The gardens also engage students in planning, tending and harvesting. Right now, most of the bounty is shared among campus chefs, food banks, volunteers and the students who run Hot Yam, a weekly vegan lunch collective. The project dovetails nicely with other initiatives around the university, such as Jaco Lokker’s promotion of local food in his capacity as director of food services for the St. George Campus. Berliner has also established ties to urban growers, with whom he shares seeds (for ideas as well as plants). “We’re all trying to scale up urban agriculture in this city, so that it’s not just pockets of places,” he says. “We really want to feed a substantial number of people.”
The Campus Agriculture Project plans to grow food in a small plot near Robarts Library, with a view to testing the harvest for pollutants. “The group is looking at whether food in high traffic areas is contaminated,” says Berliner. If not, “it could help make a public policy case to change the flower gardening this city does; boulevards could instead be used to grow food.”
The potential for expansion seems limitless: Berliner is inspired by the example of growers in such congested urban areas as Detroit and New York. “They say, maybe we’ll use a window or a rooftop. Or maybe the sides of buildings! What’s really interesting about this in the broader sense is how we reimagine the built environment – how we reimagine cities and our relationship to food systems.”
Jai Inder Sangha may one day save his university a great deal of money − and it all started with a high school experiment in his native India.
Sangha, a second-year student in economics and statistics, was volunteering at U of T Mississauga’s Environmental Affairs Office when a geography professor happened to stop by. “He talked about a glass hallway between two buildings where the lights stay on throughout the day,” says Sangha. “I was shocked because I’d never noticed it.”
Since the hallway (between the library and the Communication, Culture and Technology building) enjoys plenty of natural light, Sangha and his colleagues figured it didn’t need artificial help during the day. In the midst of brainstorming, Sangha remembered an electronics project he’d worked on years before − a light bulb that turned on in the dark, and shut off in the presence of sunlight. This type of photo sensor is widely used in outdoor lights, much less so within buildings. But it could be the perfect solution.
“We’ll waste $300 a year if those lights stay on, and if we can incorporate this in larger buildings, the savings will be even bigger,” says Sangha.
You don’t have to play sports to know that athletes use a lot of hot water. After an intense workout, who wouldn’t want a long, soothing shower to ease aching muscles?
Well, now a significant amount of the hot water used by U of T athletes will be heated by the sun.
Late last year, the university installed 100 solar collector panels on the roof of the Athletic Centre at Harbord Street and Spadina Avenue. The installation is the biggest of its kind in the Toronto area and possibly the largest system at a Canadian university.
The panels will supply nearly 25 per cent of the heat for the building’s showers and laundry facilities during peak sunshine months, substantially reducing natural gas use − and consequently greenhouse gas emissions − throughout the year.
The initiative first took shape as a student project in 2006, when Ashley Taylor, an undergraduate in the Faculty of Applied Science and Engineering, evaluated the feasibility of installing solar collector panels at the location. She initially imagined that the panels would heat the university’s pool. “It resonated with me because I was a synchronized swimmer for seven years when I was growing up,” she says. The concept later shifted to showers and laundry.
Now employed full time by the university’s Sustainability Office, Taylor (BASc 2006) worked with the facilities and services division on the downtown campus to see the project through to completion. “It has been very fulfilling to see a simple research question become a reality,” says Taylor. “It’s a great example of how U of T can use the campus as a living lab, bridging research and operations.”
Taylor says facilities and services is now working with a consultant to investigate using solar photovoltaics at U of T.
-Althea Blackburn Evans and Scott Anderson
Reducing Paper Use
For most of us, recycling paper has become automatic: we hurl those scrunched-up balls into the recycling bin and not the garbage can. But in doing so, are we really doing enough for the environment?
“Recycling requires energy, and it’s also associated with pollution,” says Elah Feder (MSc 2007), the co-ordinator of a major paper conservation effort at the St. George Campus. “So that’s something that we really want to emphasize – it’s reduce first, recycle after.”
At the Gerstein Science Information Centre, the printers now print on both sides of the page. “Just that will save up to 100,000 sheets a year,” marvels Isaac Muise, a fourth-year environment and resource management student who’s implementing the library component of the paper reduction program by trying out new ideas at Gerstein. “We’re also going to put instructions on photocopiers so that people can print double-sided, and set up paper reuse stations, which is kind of like a ‘take a penny, leave a penny’ situation.”
It’s not only the quantity but the quality of paper used at the university that’s being examined.
Unfortunately, paper derived from sustainable means (instead of a virgin forest) often costs more – though Feder points out that savings from the effort to reduce paper use would make it affordable. “We’re challenging departments to cut their paper consumption by 50 per cent within the next two years,” she says, “and to purchase recycled paper with a sustainable certification wherever possible.”
Changing the culture of paper use is sometimes an uphill battle, Franklin admits. Many instructors will not accept double-sided essays, citing “pedagogical” reasons; essays submitted on scrap paper meet with even greater opposition.
Feder estimates that the U of T community uses some 100 million sheets of paper per year, and produces much unnecessary waste. Thanks in part to her efforts, the school has stopped ordering thousands of phone books it doesn’t need. But she says the aim is not to go completely paperless, since “there are impacts associated with electronics that we need to consider. We’re not saying eliminate paper: we’re saying eliminate waste.”
These wizards may not work magic − but they can certainly make organic waste disappear.
For almost a decade, the Green Wizards have been a fixture in residence at U of T Scarborough. Roughly half the students participate in the wizards’ green bin collection program, which isn’t covered by the city. In addition to collecting compost, they ensure that all interested students receive a Good Food Box every two weeks, full of locally grown, seasonable produce. “They’re a committed and engaged group of students, and they’ve really done a lot to create awareness of green living in residence,” says Michelle Verbrugghe, director of residences.
With four executive members and about 15 casual volunteers, the wizards are few in number but large in ambitions. In addition to the above-mentioned activities, this year the group held an Earth Hour games night, hosted a screening of the Oscar-winning film The Cove, and organized a valley walk and trip to a plant nursery. They also established links with nature buffs in the campus photography club.
The Green Wizards “bring people together who otherwise wouldn’t have met,” says Megan Harris, a journalism major who moderates the club’s Facebook page. Harris admits that continuity is a problem; once students have left residence, their interest in the wizards naturally wanes. But while there, the small community of eco-minded enthusiasts has their needs amply served, particularly by the Good Food Box. “That’s been popular because people have figured out that it’s a really easy way to get groceries every couple of weeks,” she says.
In future, the wizards hope their successors will be able to continue the greening of residence life; past members were able to get energy-efficient lighting installed, and a plan for better heating methods has been on the table for a while. In the meantime, they will do all they can to make it easy − and fun − to be green. “The positive attitudes of the club’s other leaders and all the staff constantly encourage me,” says member Jennifer Gordon. “I feel responsible for trying to open people’s eyes and minds.”
A U of T lab is working with actors, writers and directors on how they could harness AI and other emerging technologies to generate new ideas and – just maybe – reinvent theatre