UBC green roof by Don Earhardt in A\J AlternativesJournal.ca UBC's green roof. Photo © Don Earhardt

There are SOME things you will find on almost every university campus in Canada. There are the chants of orientation week, quiet corners in libraries, goofy mascots and long lines for coffee in the mornings.

But the postsecondary landscape is always changing. One trend is the push to reduce the ecological footprints of campuses and their student bodies. In the last decade, many Canadian universities have made the jump from small standalone initiatives to integrated campus-wide plans that touch on everything from energy use to community gardens to end-of-term furniture swaps.

Holistic Infrastructure

Integrating food, waste, energy and water systems for a more efficient campus requires universities to move far beyond retrofitting old buildings with more energy efficient windows and light bulbs. New buildings have gone up that were designed right from the start to have the smallest footprint possible. The mix of futuristic and ancient technology is really ingenious.

For example, the Social Sciences Building at the University of Ottawa takes a high-tech problem – the vast amount of heat produced by servers in its data centre – and routes it back through the building to meet 80 per cent of its heating needs. The simplest and most beautiful feature of the building is a green wall, where five stories of living plants filter the air.

The Centre for Interactive Research on Sustainability (CIRS) at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver also uses waste heat to generate warmth. It has a green wall too, but the chocolate vines (aka Akebia quinata) that grow outside the building provide shade and cooling in the summer. In the fall and winter, they lose leaves to let in more sunlight.

Green roofs are a popular concept. Of course the presence of plants can help lower any building’s carbon footprint by taking a little CO2 out of the air. Green roofs also counter the “heat island” effect – the raised temperatures in urban spaces that come from all the heat-generating activities and devices of humans.

The soil and plants filter and slow rainwater to reduce runoff and make it easier to use as well. The Canal Building at Carleton University in Ottawa, the University of Windsor’s Centre for Engineering Innovation in Southwestern Ontario and the CIRS at UBC all have green roofs that are used to capture rainwater. These buildings are also fitted with sensors to let students see the difference between how green and conventional roofs impact each building’s energy, heat and water balance.

Sustainable Strategy

Of course, big-picture systems thinking considers more than the physical buildings. Progress can be made with activities as well, from expensive programs and technology to student-led education campaigns aimed at changing the culture on campus.

Whether to follow provincial emissions rules or to show environmental leadership, universities are getting serious about shrinking their greenhouse gas footprint. Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops, BC, spent $1.5-million in 2011 on energy efficient retrofits. They recover more than 10 per cent of that investment each year in reduced energy needs, and those annual savings are used to do more retrofits, saving even more.

Cape Breton University is aiming to get in line with Nova Scotia’s target of 40 per cent renewable energy by 2020 with two big projects supported by a partnership with Cape Breton Explorations Ltd. and a $36-million private infrastructure fund. A 5.4-Megawatt wind turbine farm has almost been completed, and in March 2012 CBU began the process of switching its main energy source from coal to cleaner-burning biomass. The biomass will come from municipal green waste and local wood  suppliers, and it’s expected to produce energy not just for the campus, but it could also provide 20 per cent of the town of Sydney’s power needs.

This is a great example of how sustainable energy and sustainable economics can go hand in hand. By providing local suppliers with steady revenue and helping to power the municipality, the project exemplifies what a new postgraduate course at Ryerson University in Toronto calls the triple bottom line – people, planet and profit. That course, Capstone Experiential Learning, is required for a certificate in Sustainability Management.

Engineers Without Borders at the University of Ottawa has an interesting approach to making the first “P” in the triple bottom line a priority. The university already had an ethical purchasing policy, but the EWB are trying to get Fair Trade Campus certification by increasing the amount and visibility of fair trade products and educating the community about how those differ from conventional consumer goods.

Local Food

There are about a million students enrolled in Canadian universities. When feeding such a huge number of people, it matters a great deal whether the food was produced, processed, packaged and transported sustainably. Sourcing food locally makes it possible to know what agriculture practices were used and reduces the transportation footprint. Both coffee growers in South America and the farmers down the highway can intimately and immediately feel the impact of those choices, as does the planet.

Exactly what “local” means will depend on the university, the individual outlets and the specific food being sold to students, faculty and staff. For example, Mount Allison University in Sackville, NB, gets about 40 per cent of what it serves in its University Dining Hall from the maritime region. The University of Victoria in the BC capital breaks it down a bit more: 30 to 40 per cent of its produce is grown on Vancouver Island, all of its chicken comes from the island or Lower Mainland, and all pizza, bread, cakes and other baked goods come from local suppliers. Bishop’s University in Sherbrooke, Québec, simply gets all of its food from suppliers within the province, and half of it from within 100 kilometres.

University of Waterloo, where A\J is headquartered, collaborates with student volunteers to buy its produce – all of it traceable to within 100 km and picked on the day of purchase – from a local auction to either resell it at the UW Farm Market or supply university kitchens for making seasonal meals. This approach has allowed uWaterloo to put pressure on its distribution channels to supply more local products on campus.

Ontario’s University of Guelph gets just under half of its in-season produce from local farmers, which the university defines as being grown or processed within 200 km. The university has plans to build a food processing facility that will allow it to buy vegetables in bulk and store some for use during the off-season. U of G also houses the Honey Bee Research Centre. This apiary produces over 8,000kg of honey each year and U of G students get to enjoy 120 cases of it annually. Many universities also promote local eating by hosting events and farmers’ markets, and a few actually grow a little food of their own. The University of Alberta in Edmonton, for example, has a 300-square-metre garden run by volunteers that supplies the campus food bank. The Canadian Mennonite University has a one-acre community shared farm that sells $450 shares for a portion of the produce grown during a 12-week season.

Waste Diversion

Another common characteristic of universities is their high population densities. Schools in large urban centres can house tens of thousands of students in a handful of city blocks. There are malls, power plants, office buildings and stadiums that all produce waste. Reducing the amount of trash that ends up in landfills by deploying smarter and more sophisticated recycling and composting programs is helping many Canadian universities save money and shrink their ecological footprint.

Just about every Canadian university has a comprehensive recycling program and various initiatives to get greater participation. For example, Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ontario, removed all solitary trash bins from its eating areas and main administrative building. Solitary bins generally encourage people to toss whatever they’re holding, even if it’s recyclable. Instead, recycling stations containing five differently coloured bins have been installed to make it easy for people to dispose of any kind of waste material.

WLU and nearly all other Canadian universities have e-waste collection programs as well. Preventing all those broken or obsolete devices like computers and TVs from ending up in a landfill is important because they don’t break down, and the heavy metals in their electronic components can leach into groundwater.

To deal with big furniture items that get left behind or discarded at the end of term because students can’t transport them, Wilfrid Laurier has stuff-swaps and donation drives to reduce the amount that gets thrown out. With all of these measures in place – and more, including water bottle filling stations and discounts on reusable containers for food and drink – WLU has been able to divert more than 60 per cent of its waste from landfills.

There aren’t as many universities with composting programs, but the number is increasing. With a good system, more than just organic food waste can be composted, including dryer lint, sawdust and pine needles. Alberta’s University of Lethbridge has worked out the logistics of collecting and handling food waste and coffee grounds from a variety of vendors on campus, allowing them to compost more than 3,000 litres of waste every month. The University of Northern British Columbia in Prince George puts its compost into an organic garden.

All of these programs, big and small, help to make Canadian university campuses more integrated, efficient and sustainable. And it’s those qualities that are perhaps most essential to ensuring that future generations of students can apply, deploy and inspire even more ingenuity.

Get a bird’s-eye view of environmental education in Canada with the 2013 Environmental Education Guide, a special publication from A\J listing over 600 degree opportunities at more than 50 universities, plus a new, at-a-glance chart for comparing local and on-campus amenities, living and transportation costs, and outdoor recreation options at school across Canada. Purchase the full guide or view the online version.

Ben is a former A\J editorial intern. He's currently a freelance writer based in Ottawa. He tells stories about nature, science and policy. 

If you liked this article, please subscribe or donate today to support our work.

A\J moderates comments to maintain a respectful and thoughtful discussion.
Comments may be considered for publication in the magazine.