Environmental progress

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McGill Reporter
March 21, 2002 - Volume 34 Number 13
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Home > McGill Reporter > Volume 34: 2001-2002 > March 21, 2002 > Environmental progress

Environmental progress

Despite rumblings to the contrary, the Senate Subcommittee on the Environment is adamant that "green" means go.

The subcommittee (part of the Senate Committee on Physical Development) has been under fire from some student groups - most noticeably during Students For An Environmental Policy's recent high-profile campus camp-out - for a perceived lack of action following Senate's approval of an environmental policy last April.

The approved policy establishes McGill's "commitment to raising environmental awareness and acting on it," without getting into many specifics about how this commitment will be manifested.

The subcommittee also drafted a related series of six principles, but chose not to insist on Senate approval at that time.

Critics believe the principles are the teeth behind the policy (principle number three, for example, states "The McGill University community shall minimize the over-consumption of energy and other resources, the production of waste, and the release of substances harmful to the biosphere"), and accuse the administration of stalling on implementing real environmental change.

Civil engineering and applied mechanics professor Saeed Mirza, chair of the subcommittee, maintains that much headway has in fact been made during the last year, and the administration-student clashes are largely due to "a lack of communication."

Mirza says the subcommittee has busied itself with an extensive study of McGill's environmental strengths and weaknesses.

The results, presented in a public forum yesterday, will be used to form an action plan "to help implement the environmental policy as passed by Senate, and the six principles."

Wayne Wood, manager of the Environmental Safety Office, oversaw the summer study. Although his office is traditionally concerned with occupational health and safety (including hazardous waste disposal in McGill labs), he says environmental management has been formally added to his mandate as a direct result of last year's Environmental Policy.

Wood now has "a modest budget" to develop environmental protection services, used to fund the study as a way to "give us a snapshot of what's happening out there."

Through a comprehensive series of interviews, audits, surveys, and firsthand observations, the students working on the environmental review examined all aspects of McGill's highly decentralized operations - ranging from labs to residences to offices to farms - thereby identifying 10 main areas of concern: non-hazardous waste management, hazardous waste management, recycling, energy and water conservation, habitat protection, air/soil/water emissions, water consumption, construction and renovation, purchasing, transportation, and curriculum development.

Wood next retained a consultant, Derek Blay, to process this data for presentation at the forum yesterday.

"If I had to give a general overall analysis," says Blay, who is the managing director of Environmental Standards Inc., a firm specializing in implementing environmental management systems for businesses, "I'd say there are some very good systems in place right now that are capable of making McGill a very environmentally friendly university."

One goal of his presentation was to highlight the many existent environmental activities which, because such actions are largely the result of informal individual initiatives, go largely unreported.

"McGill has got this archipelago of environmental programs," he says, citing examples such as the Macdonald Campus farm's extensive composting program, and the building standards code requiring contractors to install energy-conscious outlets and light fixtures.

"But there's nothing really linking it all together. The motivation is within these little groups, but the communication among them has not been established."

Other systems, however, "need some tweaking and improvement to achieve higher results. For example, the present paper recycling program at the downtown campus is only capturing 25 percent of the paper, so there's another 75 percent that could be diverted from the landfills into the recycling program."

The subcommittee's next step is to combine the 2001 summer review with public recommendations from yesterday's forum.

Mirza estimates it will take three or four weeks to integrate the various ideas into an action plan. He is optimistic that the University will begin to implement concrete initiatives by the summer.

Vice-Principal (Administration and Finance) Morty Yalovsky is chair of the Senate Committee on Physical Development. He says he understands student frustration with the pace of progress, but maintains that the wheels are very much in motion.

"The University works at a methodical pace - because of our structure and [methods of] consultation - which is too, too slow for some students," he acknowledges.

"They want instantaneous action and I can't fault them. They're here for only a few years; they see they're about to graduate and they haven't achieved their objectives.

"On the other hand," he adds, "the principles we adopt are going to stick to the University for a long time... meaning they can't be entered into without close consideration. Based on the year's findings, the subcommittee is fine-tuning the principles to protect them from potential misreadings." A mandate to "minimize energy consumption," for example, could be misinterpreted as license for not heating classrooms during winter.

He says Senate can be "very combative," and believes the decision to wait on presenting the principles until they were refined will help guarantee their success.

"You might take a great set of ideas to Senate, but if you haven't defined one of the things very well, people will fixate on it - they will defeat a whole proposal because of that. The committee felt that we should be prepared to defend ourselves when we do go in, so we don't get shot down. There were just too many areas of misinterpretation that could crop up."

Waiting on principle approval, Yalovsky stresses, does not mean McGill must wait on environmental reform.

"What is important to know is that we've already started applying some of the principles. We're operating as if the Senate changes have already taken place. We're not letting the political process retard our agenda."

Further information and updates can be found on the Senate Subcommittee on the Environment's web site.

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