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Recycling, road salt, bikes and boilers: environmentalists know that the devil is in the details. In concert with student groups and administration, the Subcommittee on the Environment Working Group (SCE) has been dealing with the brass tacks of recycling, transportation and energy consumption at McGill, among other matters.
There are successes to be celebrated, but Kathleen Ng, McGill's environmental officer, also has some misperceptions to clarify.
There have been complaints that staff members have been seen dumping recycling bins into the garbage, and garbage trucks have been spotted collecting recycling. In the former case, the real culprits may be those who toss garbage in with recyclable materials, spoiling whole bins. In the latter case, there's more to it than meets the eye. "Our [recycling] contractors explained that recycling trucks break down." So the contractor keeps a few garbage trucks in their fleet. It would not be in their interest to dump material, points out Ng. "That metal, especially, is worth a lot."
McGill has made progress with the use of environmentally friendly products. Reduced use of fertilizers, a less damaging road salt, notepads made from once-used paper and biodegradable cleaning products are helping to shrink McGill's ecological footprint.
Transportation issues may be more complex. Carpooling is a potentially important element in the SCE's strategic transportation plan. But a survey of 3,000 students and staff found that many unexpected trips -- when a child or spouse is ill, for example -- make shared rides unfeasible. Taking this into account, the SCE is considering a guaranteed ride-home program (i.e. reimbursement for taxi rides) for carpoolers.
The bike-share program at Macdonald Campus has enjoyed great success. Five bikes are available to students for three-hour stretches. Security staff watch the bikes, and seem to enjoy the interaction with students who sign them out. One of the guards even taught a student how to ride a bike.
But we won't see such a program downtown. Although a proposal to the city for downtown paths is in the works, the difficulty of dealing with insurance and finding a street level location where bikes could be watched and checked make the program unlikely.
Individual monitoring of energy use is also effective. An audit of energy consumption that targeted one administration, one research and one student building showed that people are heeding the message. Once numbers were crunched and compared with a day of similar temperature last year, Ng said they saw reductions in use by up to 10 percent.
"That's something to think about, not only at school, but at home, too. You think that it's not much, but the energy savings that you recuperate could be spent on a movie or something. You could do something more productive with it than just giving it to Hydro or Gaz Métro."
On a larger scale, Alain Fournier, the supervisor of McGill's downtown powerhouse, says that the new electric chillers installed over the past five years are not only CFC-free, they also use 10 times less energy than the old, gas-guzzling chillers.
This should mean savings for McGill but, according to Ng, when McGill lowered its operating costs through its investments in the new, efficient equipment, the Education Ministry of Quebec (MEQ) subsequently allocated a smaller budget to the university. She hastens to add, "The MEQ realizes that the way their funding formula is set up is a problem."
Morty Yalovsky, vice-principal (administration and finance), says that it's true that MEQ funding formulas do not fully take into account the different circumstances universities are in, and what kind of energy strategies they put in place. Still, Yalovsky is confidant that the MEQ will not penalize universities who internally fund the capital costs of energy conservation projects by reducing their energy allocation in the operating budget. The important thing, he says, is that the recent renovation of the power plant will advance efforts in energy conservation and "will result in cost savings in the long run."
Meanwhile, at the Rethink McGill Conference in March, the SCE and student groups working on environmental issues will get to hash out initiatives. Michelle Lee of Greening McGill would like to see a recto-verso paper use policy discussed in Senate. "If they pass it, of course it will be excellent; if not, I will probably take the opportunity to appeal to individual departments to pass paper-use policies."
Ng's optimism should be encouraging to environmentalists like Lee. "At the senior level, people are starting to understand the importance that the environment has for everybody," says Ng.
The Reporter would like to encourage everyone to do their small part. To that end, as of the new year, we've added a recycling logo to our masthead. Please recycle.