Entre Nous with Dennis Fortune

Entre Nous with Dennis Fortune McGill University

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McGill Reporter
January 24, 2008 - Volume 40 Number 10
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Home > McGill Reporter > Volume 40: 2007-2008 > January 24, 2008 > Entre Nous with Dennis Fortune


Entre nous with Dennis Fortune, Sustainability Director, University Services

Making every choice count

Caption follows

Discussing the institutions' move toward greening, Dennis Fortune says "It's gone from 'how must I comply or to regulations' to 'how can I install this as one of my core business values?'
Owen Egan

Just two months into his freshly minted job as Sustainability Director, University Services, Dennis Fortune already has a clear idea of what he wants to accomplish and what challenges he faces. With a mandate to develop and implement sound practices at McGill that will enhance the sustainability of the university’s operations with an emphasis on energy, Fortune’s reach will extend to just about every aspect of McGill life. Fortune has come to McGill with a wealth of expertise in various aspects of environmental risk management at such places as CP Ships, SNC-Lavalin and Ontario Hydro. Harkening back to his first job as a 16-year-old doing janitorial duties at a school, Fortune smiles. “I guess I’ve been dealing with light bulbs right from the very beginning.”

It’s only been two months, but what are your immediate goals?

First and foremost, I want to raise awareness of McGill’s Environmental Policy [see box]. We’ve had this policy in place for five years and, in fact, we’ve made commitments since the 1990s in terms of our impact on the biosphere, but a lot of people just don’t know about these things. Now we’re in a position to really begin implanting it.

Even more importantly, people must ask how they can contribute as individuals. What can you do to improve your energy efficiency? How are you reducing and reusing? When you put in a request for project funds or renovations, can you purchase something that is an environmentally better choice?

Is this just a question of having an up-to-date list of green products?

The problem is that list is always evolving. For example, yesterday we were looking to buy floor tiles and we came across a great product by description but one that had only been on the market for a couple of years. We don’t know how it performs. If we have to scrape these tiles off every five years, rather than the standard tile that lasts ten years, we’re using more resources and contributing to landfill. But, with proper planning, we can go back to the manufacturer and ask them to put us in contact with someone who has installed these tiles so we can benefit from their firsthand experience.

Isn’t this a bit of a departure from the traditional purchaser/supplier relationship that was often premised on getting me what I need—now—and at the best price?

It’s really about looking beyond the here and now to lifecycle costs. Often a piece of equipment may be cheaper up front, but if it uses more energy or is more expensive to dispose of, it’s going to cost somebody else down the line.

But the type of equipment needed for a lot of McGill research must require huge amounts of energy.

On the front end, if we need to acquire special energy intensive equipment for a leading-edge researcher, we’re not going to cut corners. We’ll get exactly what is required. But many of these pieces are one-offs, so we have the opportunity to request special design features. While the researcher wants design features to meet his research objectives, we might simply want an on/off switch so the equipment can be powered down when no one is using it. Any time you are building or renovating, it should be regarded as an opportunity to reassess the situation and current practices.

But won’t we pay a premium for some of these alternative materials and equipment?

Everything costs money. Our job is to figure out the payback. Many times with grants, you can build some of the costs of materials up front by saying “This is the cost of energy efficient equipment.” The federal government is going through a greening process, so it would be intuitive that you would get some credit for including this in your proposal.

How difficult is it going to be to get people to buy-in to this mindset?

Given that our graduates are going to be required to demonstrate sustainable practices that are integrated into their own activities, it’s incumbent upon us at McGill to demonstrate that we live the model. We as a school, we as a faculty, we as a department, we as a service provider—we have to demonstrate to our students that we take issues of sustainability just as seriously as they do.

Are you looking for more student involvement?

Absolutely. There are all kinds of opportunities for them to work with us while gaining practical experience. We need people to do studies. Just yesterday, I was talking to a student about Food Services providing both plastic cups and cups made of coated paper. Both hold liquids. Which one is better? Why do we need plastic if we have paper? Does the coating present a problem? Tell me about the lifecycle of those two items and we’ll be able to make an informed decision.

With the news about the environment getting worse each day, why shouldn’t people just roll over and say “Why bother? My little contribution doesn’t matter.”

But it does matter. Everything you do makes a difference. But if you wait for that one big fix, it may never come. Instead, you have to continually try taking on little things—some will work and some won’t. If you do that, I promise you’ll have an impact.

OK, so give me one “little thing” that will make the biggest impact.

Here’s a huge one that is incredibly simple. If you’re going to leave your work area for even 15 minutes, turn off your lights.

Fifteen minutes? I’ve always heard turning a light bulb off and then on again like that burns more energy than it saves.

No, the power surge decreases the life of the ballast in a florescent bulb, because they were meant to stay on for at least three hours at a time. But the energy savings will offset the cost of buying a new ballast a couple of times over.

Another thing we can do is reduce light. Lighting was over-designed for a long time because of the way we work. We have ultra-bright paper now that we didn’t have a few years ago. We’re getting a lot of extra light off our paper so we don’t need that much overhead. Could you ask to remove two of the four bulbs in your area? For new buildings or renovations, these are the kind of questions we should be asking in the planning stages.

Do you practice what you preach at home?

I certainly do—the whole family does. Before we moved to Montreal, we lived in a cedar log home with a large composter and our own septic system, tile bed and well. [Laughing] Believe me, from a wastewater management perspective, after your first backup you think about it all the time.

So you moved from a cedar log home to downtown Montreal?

We made a concerted decision to move as close to downtown Montreal as we could afford so we wouldn’t have to use a car. Before, we had huge commutes, a lot of time away from the family.

Of course now we live in an 80-year-old house that just leaks energy. So I went through it and put foam around all the windows and re-caulked around all the windows.

A former Canadian champion rower, what do you do to stay in shape?

I still have my own boat and get out on the water during the summer. In the winter, we’re always skiing. I’m from Windsor, the flatlands—flatter than the Prairies. When I used to go skiing it was like skiing on a highway overpass. It’s just a thrill to be here so close to so many real ski hills.

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McGill's Environmental Policy

On April 18, 2001, and on motion by Vice-Principal (Administration and Finance) Morty Yalovsky, Chair of the Senate Committee on Physical Development, McGill’s Senate approved the following Environmental Policy for the University:

We at McGill University are committed to fulfilling our academic mission and managing all resources in harmony with our natural environment. We are committed to meeting our social, scientific, ethical and educational leadership responsibility in actively promoting the restoration and preservation of a healthy environment for the future and in contributing to building an equitable world.

Our commitment to raising environmental awareness and acting on it is manifested in our teaching and research activities, in other services which we provide to the McGill community and society at large, and in the individual and collective decisions which we take to offset the negative impact of the University’s operation and activities on the Environment.

We are committed to increasing the University community’s awareness of environmental issues, by fostering the appropriate values, knowledge, and skills to enable us to work towards the restoration and preservation of the Environment.