Conserving water at McGill

What is McGill doing to conserve water? Quite a bit!

Renovating bathrooms

The university has been busy installing low-flow toilets and showerheads, as well as automatic faucets in many of the bathrooms on the downtown campus. Low-flow showerheads have also been installed in the residences, which has decreased water usage by an estimated 58,000 L per day. The university is making such water-saving fixtures standard in renovations and new construction. The university has also experimented with waterless urinals, but without much success — issues included corrosion and blockages.



McGill is replacing some traditional lawns with other types of ground-covering plants that need less water, such as common snowdrops (Jalanthus nicalis) and Glory of the Snow (Cheonodoxa luciliae). For example, the lawn in front of Chancellor Day Hall has been replaced with the perennial Siberian Squill.

Other areas that are under consideration for turflawn conversion include the border of Three Bares Park and the retaining wall facing the Macdonald Engineering Building.

Working to eliminate the sale of bottled water

McGill has eliminated the sale of bottled water in residence dining halls and SSMU has eliminated it in the University Center. The university is also encouraging caterers and food services to move away from bottled water and to provide tap water instead.

The Class Action 2011 Bring Your Own Bottle campaign has already purchased a mobile water kiosk that provides free, filtered water to anyone with a refillable container. This is the first mobile water kiosk of its kind in Quebec. Look for it outside the Redpath Library, in the Currie Gym, and at large events on campus. The university will be installing four more of these BYOBs in high-traffic areas this summer/fall.

In its first year on campus, the BYOB water dispenser has filled the equivalent of 54,453 (500 ml) bottles of water.

Why say "No" to bottled water?

  • “Bottled water isn’t a better product than tap water.“ and it is much more expensive. In North America, bottled water costs more than gas.
  • “Some people think that bottled water is safer than tap water, but there is no evidence to support this.” – Health Canada Website, 2010. Bottled water is not “purer” or “cleaner” than tap water: some studies have shown that many major water bottle brands have bacterial contaminants and pollutants. In Canada, over 25% of bottled water is tap water; it has just been packaged in a plastic container.
  • Bottled water wastes energy and, ironically, water. It takes an incredible amount of energy to produce and ship bottled water, and to dispose of its plastic waste. Not only is bottled water more energy- intensive then tap water, it is also more water intensive — it is estimated each litre of bottled water that is sold actually represents 3 litres of water used. 
  • Bottled water creates enormous amounts of waste. Canadians buy around 2.25 billion liters of bottled water each year. The plastic used to produce those bottles weighs more than 1328 empty Boeing 747’s — about 215.68 million kilograms — and ends up as waste. It is estimated that about half of those bottles are recycled, however the other half ends up in the garbage.
  • Bottled water increases dependence on fossil fuels — plastic bottles are made from petroleum products
  • Bottled water contributes greenhouse gas emissions to the environment because it is often transported long distances during shipping and distribution.
  • Bottled water privatizes a public resource by making water a profitable commodity controlled by corporations.
  • “Bottled water is an unessential use of an essential resource.”

High-volume filling stations

The university is also making it easier to choose tap water. Look for new high-volume filling stations around campus that make it easier to fill reusable containers: there's one in the Bronfman building, one at Leacock, and three in the Redpath Library. More filling stations will be added soon and McGill is also committed to retrofitting high-priority drinking fountains to make it easier to fill water containers.

IMAGES: Jacky Farrell, Redpath Museum

Learn More

Saying “No” to bottled water

Bottled Water Free Day takes place each year in March. For more information visit:

Learn more about the impacts of bottled water:

Getting the Genie Back into the Water Bottle

The Story of Stuff: Bottled Water

AASHE: university efforts to reduce bottled water on campus (McGill ID sign-in required)

Rainwater and grey water systems

McGill is also evaluating alternatives to using drinking water to flush our toilets. The new Life Sciences Complex is taking advantage of rainwater harvesting and grey water technologies to divert roof water and other clean water waste (e.g. from the ventilation system) into a 50,000 L cistern. As much as possible, it is this diverted water that is then used to flush the toilets and urinals in the buildings. This reduces the amount of clean drinking water being used. It also reduces the amount of storm water running off the roof, entering the sewer system, and needing to be treated at Montreal’s wastewater treatment plant.



Green roof

The Life Sciences Complex (LSC) also has a green roof on the top of the |Goodman Cancer Research wing, as does the Macdonald Engineering building. Instead of a traditional roof covering such as shingles or tar and gravel, a large section of the roof is divided into raised beds containing plants. These plants are either self-seeding annuals or perennials such as sedum, chives, iris, blue fescue, and others. In each bed on the LSC, the plants form a letter, spelling out “VIE” (Life) when viewed from above.

Green rooftops help to absorb rain and melt water so that less water is running off the roof, entering the sewer system, and needing to be treated at the city’s wastewater treatment station. Green rooftops also absorb less heat than a traditional roof, reducing the amount of energy needed to cool a building throughout the summer.

So far, the LSC roof is faring well but it does require weeding. A lot of seeds blow down from plants and trees on the Mountain, settle in the beds, and need to be removed so that their root systems don’t damage the waterproof membrane underneath. The roof on the Macdonald Engineering building was installed in September 2011 and is being monitored as well.

Operations and Services

McGill is ensuring that sustainable water practices are standard in renovations and new construction of university-owned buildings. New buildings are also built according to LEED standards wherever possible.

The university is also working on a large-scale project to measure our current water consumption and to evaluate how to reduce it. The initial target is to meet the province’s Stratégie québécoise d’économie d’eau potable goals of reducing consumption by 20% by 2017.

In addition, McGill is updating the steam systems that heat many of our buildings. These updates will save energy, reduce water losses, and minimize the use of “make-up” water needed to replace any water lost due to evaporation. The university is also working to eliminate the use of water as a coolant from building support systems.

 Awareness campaigns

In addition to Saying “No” to bottled water, the university is carrying out a campaign in the residences to help decrease water consumption by urging students to take shorter showers.

The university is funding projects such as this one, which is raising awareness about water issues on campus through this website and the travelling Water is Life! exhibit — look for it in the Stewart Biology Building until March 31st, 2013. You can also take the Water is Life! audio walking tour, available on CKUT's Ecolibrium Radio Residency blog.

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