What does sustainability look like?

(Edmonton) Beyond the colourful recycling stations, sustainability at the University of Alberta hides in plain sight.

Thus, in an effort to cast some natural light on some of the sustainable deeds being undertaken at the U of A, the Office of Sustainability has been holding Campus Sustainability tours.

“When it comes to campus sustainability, there is more going on than the eye reveals, but until somebody points it out you would never know,” said Remi Charron, a Campus Sustainability tour guide. His last tour is on April 29, which is the kick off to the 2011 biweekly tours, which run throughout the summer.

Charron says the main purpose of the tours is to educate staff, students and prospective students about the leadership role the U of A is playing in creating sustainable practices and policies.

“We want to educate the campus community,” said Charron, who is also master’s in education student. “There are a lot of things being done, but students walking through the campus would have no idea what our grass-cutting policy is by just looking at the grass. The tour makes explicit some of the things we are working on.”

The guide says the tour also works as a recruitment tool.

“On one of the first tours I gave, there were two sisters looking to enter into university and actually took the tour to see what the university was doing on the sustainability front. It was something that meant a lot to them and was a determining factor as to what school they were going to attend,” said Charron. “Sustainability on campus is a huge component with respect to prospective students looking for schools that value sustainability.”

The tour starts in room 470 of the General Services, where Charron takes his troops through a virtual tour of the sustainability initiatives too vast to visit on a quick walking tour, including the Campus Community Garden and the East Campus Village Graduate Student Residences, which were awarded silver in the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design Green Building Rating System, presented annually to encourage and promote sustainable, green building and development practices globally.

From there, the tour heads to the Students’ Union Building, home of a number of sustainability initiatives, including Safe Walk, the Campus Food Bank and ECOS, the Environmental Co-ordination Office of Students, to name just a few.

Charron says along the way he likes to point out the nuances of campus sustainability, such as the Connect by Hertz car-share program—the first of its kind in Canada—the anti-idling Care For Our Air initiative, the fleet of zero-emission grounds crew vehicles and even the length of the university keeps its grass.

“The grounds crew raised the blades on their mowers from two inches to three inches, which allows them to cut the grass every seven days instead of every five,” said Charron.

The tour end ups at the Education Building, which features full recycling stations on every floor as well as a naturalization project in the courtyard run by ECOS.

“The naturalization project highlights the benefits of native plants and trees,” said Charron. “We discuss the value of native vegetation as opposed to the maintenance requirements of foreign species. We talk about biodiversity, root systems and even evolution.”

Charron’s gem of the tour, however, is Triffo Hall, the university’s LEED gold building and the most sustainable building on any of the U of A’s five campuses.

“Triffo Hall is not only esthetically pleasing, it has some pretty nifty features,” he said, pointing out the rain collector on the roof, which is used to supplement water use in the building. More than 80 per cent of the spaces in the building are naturally lit. “The building was originally constructed in 1915, so there is always a debate whether it would be better to demolish and reconstruct from nothing, or do what the university did. In terms of the reuse of materials, starting again is quite negative because you are tearing down something that has a lot of value and replacing it with new materials.”

While Triffo Hall is Charron’s favourite stop on the tour, his surprise is the industry-leading sustainability initiatives undertaken by Aramark, the company that has the contracts for most of the U of A’s dining services. In addition to an extensive composting program, Aramark is piloting a reuse program for containers. For Aramark’s sustainability practices, the company was named in 2010 as one of Canada’s top 50 greenest employers.
“Some of their practices and policies are really cool,” said Charron. “They are dedicated to sustainable practices, like the U of A.

“Partnerships like that are why the university is a leader in sustainability.”

For more information on the tours, which are held every second Friday beginning April 29, go to www.sustainability.ualberta.ca and check out the events menu.