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The Nature of Things: the quest for a greener campus

Throughout the past academic year, McGill students have certainly shown their green thumb: they cultivated 15,721 kg of food to provide fresh and organic produce to local communities; educated 21,000 people about sustainability through presentations, workshops, exhibits, and fairs; created 100 sustainability-related student jobs; and saved the environment from 26,636 plastic water bottles through the setting up of water fountains on campus. This year, hundreds of McGillians have risen to the occasion, reaching for a higher standard of sustainability on campus. The food we eat, the energy we consume, and the research we undertake have all been influenced by these outstanding individuals. Nonetheless, they have not been alone in their ventures. For every ecological solution, there is a vision; and for every vision, there is now a sustainability group sponsored by the Sustainability Projects Fund (SPF).

The Sustainability Projects Fund was established in 2009, when McGill’s three student societies formed a partnership with the administration to create a program that would subsidize sustainability projects on campus. The proposal was submitted to a referendum in November 2009 and, in near-record numbers, 5,300 students turned up to oppose or endorse the creation of the fund. 79 per cent of voters at the downtown campus and 88 per cent at the Macdonald campus voted in favour of the non-opt-out-able student fee of $0.50 per credit to finance the SPF’s existence. Endorsing this support, McGill’s administration rose to the occasion and matched dollar for dollar the funds raised by the fee. This combined effort has provided the Fund with approximately $840,000 annually over the past three years. Now in its third year of operation, the Fund’s continued existence will be submitted to a referendum on March of this year.

According to SPF administrator Lilith Wyatt, “When we ask students about their biggest limitation [to engage in sustainability projects], we usually get two main answers: one is, ‘I have an idea, but no one to help me with it.’ The other one is, ‘I don’t have an idea, but I want to help someone with theirs.’ So I think that connecting those two kinds of people, and expanding the niche of those involved is our main effort.”

As a result, the SPF’s ultimate goal is to ensure that those with outstanding ideas have the tools to succeed, and allow those with the will to help find venues to contribute. That said, financial support has been granted to numerous staff and student initiatives with the potential to generate change.

“There’s been a huge wealth of people who are rising to the challenge, going above and beyond to change how McGill works, and to work together as a community to improve it,”  said Wyatt. “Since the Fund started allocating money in 2010, we’ve funded 93 projects, which amount to about 2.3 million dollars.”

The array of initiatives that has received the Fund’s support is endlessly diverse, ranging from bike racks, waste management, and energy consumption optimization, to curriculum development, research, and symposia.

In an effort to better understand the objective and inspiration behind these enterprises, the Tribune spoke with the organizers of two notable sustainability initiatives on campus. Though dramatically different in their objectives, both projects have one thing in common: their commitment to the creation of a culture of sustainability within the McGill community.

The Famer’s Market provides McGill students the opportunity to purchase fresh, organic and locally cultivated produce during the months of September and October.
The Famer’s Market provides McGill students the opportunity to purchase fresh, organic and locally cultivated produce during the months of September and October.

When sustainability meets gastronomy: McGill’s Farmers’ Market

Founded in 2008, McGill’s Farmers’ Market is perhaps one of the most visible student-run sustainability initiatives on campus. Some students drop by to fill their fridges with a week’s worth of fresh vegetables, while others are simply looking for a healthy snack to munch on between lectures. In either case, the market’s colourful stands invite all to get a taste of fresh and organic products. This eight-week-long event brings seasonal produce cultivated by local farmers and artisans to downtown McGill during the warm months of September and October, bringing an atmosphere of freshness and abundance to Rue McTavish.

To Selina Liu, one of the Market’s organizers, the Market is more than a place of exchange. It is an educational outlet that promotes healthy living.

“We don’t only provide sustainably cultivated produce to the community, we try to promote a culture of sustainability among students on campus, and encourage them to choose a healthy lifestyle,” Liu said.

One of this project’s greatest successes has been its ability to engage in partnerships with other student groups working on sustainability initiatives. One of its providers is the Macdonald Student-Run Ecological Gardens (MSEG), a McGill farming initiative that brings forth ecological and sustainable agriculture by cultivating 1¼ acres of organic vegetables.

Now in its fifth year of operation, the Farmers’ Market has experienced significant growth, and has big plans for the future.

“Our goal is to become financially self-sufficient, and increase our campus presence by having the market work all year long, not just for eight weeks out of the year,” Liu said.

McGill’s food-lovers would certainly not object to that idea.

The Bellair’s Recycling Program contributes to builiding a culture of sustainability by encouraging greener habits.
The Bellair’s Recycling Program contributes to builiding a culture of sustainability by encouraging greener habits.

Bringing sustainability to the classrooms: the Chemical Laboratory Curriculum Development initiative

This staff-coordinated initiative aims at integrating sustainability considerations to the everyday life of chemistry students at McGill. It aims to make laboratory work match the administration’s commitment to create more sustainable and energy efficient chemistry and science departments.

“The Otto Mass building has been completely renovated. It used to be that [it] used 12.5 per cent of all the energy on campus; now it’s down to 5.7 per cent,” said Professor Jean-Phillip Lumb, co-organizer of the Curriculum Development Initiative. “We’ve just received all this money to make the infrastructure of the building better. But what we need to do is reform the curriculum itself. We need to actually see whether or not we can improve sustainability by thinking about the projects that we’re having students work on.”

It was then that professor Lumb turned his attention to undergraduate chemistry labs.

“Especially in the context of [these] labs, there is an enormous opportunity that is currently not being exploited. Our goal is to provide the undergraduate labs with another way of doing research,” he said.

With the SPF’s support, professor Lumb initiated a pilot project that involved six undergraduate summer researchers with the expressed purpose of developing new labs that would address sustainability issues.

“The restrictions that we put on the project were that the [participants] would have to use starting material from a renewable resource [in their experiments],” he said. “The second one was that [the participants] would do several steps in their synthesis, and each one of those steps would have to factor in waste [and] efficiency, so that the process of making the end target would be more sustainable than the experiments that were currently being run [by the department].”

The end objective was to use these new and improved sustainability-conscious laboratories to substitute less environmentally-friendly ones. The project’s success was immediate. Following its pilot experiments, three modules were incorporated into the next academic year’s curriculum for the course CHEM 392.

“We’re 100 per cent certain that the experiments that we’re putting into the labs are more sustainable. They are more efficient,” he said.

Not only were the experiments executed sustainably, but they also reduced waste by generating material for future experiments.

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Click to see the full feature!

“What the undergraduates [makes] at the end of the day ought to be material that we could use for graduate level research, so that not only [do] you improve the sustainability of the synthesis, but at the end of the day, you make material that gets used at the graduate level,” professor Lumb said. “That generates a perfect cycle. It reduces the amounts of reagents that are purchased by the graduate level researchers, and it allows us to capitalize upon the efforts of undergraduates. You save money. You save time. You save energy.”

Professor Lumb has big plans for this project.

“We started this with a small lab. Our dream is to get this to the big chemistry labs. We have some labs where there are at least 1500 students per day going through those labs, and if you think about that, there’s potential to make a massive impact,” he said.

Like many others, these existing initiatives, though different in their approach and mission, are both open invitation for student engagement, and empowerment.  As Professor Lumb rightly asserted, “The most important thing for students to realize is that the Sustainability Fund allows them to get involved in projects that ultimately benefit their own university. The campus will only go as far as their involvement.”

Photos courtesy of The Sustainability Projects Fund

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