Guest post by Julien Malard. Julien will be a sopohomore at McGill University in Montreal, Canada this fall. From 2009-2011, Julien helped establish and lead FIERCE (FremontIans Enabling Real Change in the Environment) a cross-campus environmental student leadership group in Fremont, California.
If there's one major thing that I discovered when working on environmental projects in the Bay Area, it's that any individual's impact is necessarily small, hence the oft-quoted saying "every small action counts." But I found myself not very satisfied with that assertion. True, if everybody did their part, the world would be a much better place, and doing one's part and living sustainably can, I suppose, clean one's conscience of most of the ills of humankind. But it can be discouraging to do one's part and see that, on a large scale, not enough is happening. One answer to that, against which "every little action counts" was formulated, would be to give up entirely. The alternate response, which I prefer, is to take it into one's hands to make sure that something is happening on a large scale. Which necessarily means networking and coalition-forming.
My previous experience with FIERCE, SLWRP, EarthTeam, and all the environmental initiatives I was in contact with in Alameda County have certainly played a great part in shaping my understanding of environmental action and project management. When I first arrived in Montréal, Canada, with the memory of these organisations fresh in my mind, my first impulse was to try to recreate a coalition similar to FIERCE between Montréal's colleges and universities--firstly, because I missed FIERCE so much I wanted to bring it along with me in some form, and secondly, because I itched to take on wide-scale environmental projects that I knew would require an organisation with city-wide standing in order to succeed. People take you more seriously then. If it encourages any outgoing seniors, I might add that being a legally adult college student helps as well.
The inter-university coalition has been quite successful, with members from five university campuses as well as a handful of CÉGEPs (Québec colleges). We called it CENEM (for la Coalition environnementale des étudiants de Montréal, or Montreal Students' Environmental Coalition) and met for the first time in November 2012. Most of the organisation of CENEM is copied directly from FIERCE--little to no formal hierarchy, project-based teams, rotating meeting locations, and membership open to all individuals regardless of their position in their campus' environmental group. Actually, having specific project-based (instead of broad topic-based) teams was our only original difference from FIERCE. Interestingly, a few months later I learned that FIERCE had abolished its subject-based committees and turned to project-based committees as well!
So far we have started several projects, each led by a student whose particular interest it is. Concordia University and l'Université du Québec à Montréal brought us waste-reduction initiatives from their campuses that we have begun to introduce at the other universities, while other members are working on setting up a project for the restoration of unused but degraded urban plots of land. We also have an energy-efficiency programme that offers energy audits and subsequent recommendations to businesses. This summer we obtained city funding for a pilot project (160 hours) and, if all goes well, are planning to expand it to all of Montréal Island next year. Keeping projects moving quickly, I'd learned, keeps members active and interested. In the end I think it's even more important than regular email communication and public relations, although that too of course does pay off. I can usually predict whether we will ever see a new member again just by whether they made a firm commitment to a particular project at their first meeting.
On a separate note, but similar in organisation to the previous projects, is a reforestation and ecological landscaping project I started on my campus to get rid of the ridiculously large amount of grass for an environmental campus. McGill University's environmental sciences campus is a large, open campus with lots of grassy slopes and fields--quite picturesque, but losing part of its appeal when you see a large diesel-driven lawnmower rolling over it. This summer we hired three students to make and implement planting plans to free four pilot regions from the monocot monoculture, and again, if all goes well, we should spread to most of the campus by next year, soccer field excepted.
But my experience with SLWRP and LEAF has recently brought on the possibility of a much larger and exciting initiative. I have had the good fortune to meet several students who have been working on several different aspects of environmental education. One has begun a coalition of secondary and primary school environmental groups in Montréal. A student group at my campus has been dedicating itself to offering environmental education sessions at a local elementary. Still another student is organising a green waste diversion programme for one elementary school, which is quite ambitious as Montréal still does not have composting infrastructure and the school will have to manage the composting system on site. But most of these initiatives have, for now, enjoyed a relatively small reach amongst Montréal Island's 500 or so schools.
And so, remembering SLWRP, EarthTeam, and LEAF and the wonderful encouragement they brought to me during the high school years in which I benefited from their services, I came to think about whether it might not be possible to emulate their organisation by creating a broad, outreach-based organisation of university students that would visit Montréal schools and offer them each of the services that the individual student groups have been providing to a few schools so far. We would also offer general services (grant-application help) and add a few ideas from SLWRP and EarthTeam, notably waste audits and transfer station field trips and perhaps something along the lines of the Green News. We are also toying with the idea of a LEAF-style camp for next spring.
Of course, we have no funding yet, and all we have is a small but very dedicated group of volunteers. Nowhere near enough to reach a sizable portion of Montréal's more than 500 schools yet, but hopefully strong enough to build up a progamme that will. And if we do, it will be hard to imagine how it could have happened without the brilliant vision that Stopwaste and EarthTeam have provided of just how meaningful such a programme can become.
Waste management/waste audit:
Experience with SLWRP and waste reduction initiatives also gave a rather nice perspective of the waste management at McGill University. My first nice surprise when arriving was to see that recycling was managed by custodial staff, something that had been (and, to my knowledge, still is) a far-off vision in my high school. Even composting services were provided, this time by students who pick up the compost at various drop-off locations around the campus and compost it at the community gardens (Montréal, inexplicably, having only recently decided to start planning a city-wide green waste collection service).
Within a few weeks, though, some things began appearing slightly less ideal. Recycling bins, especially in residences, are often located far from garbage containers, and the same goes for compost. Perhaps not unexpectedly, this is perceived by many as more than adequate excuse not to make the· thirty-second trip to the correct bin. Composting services are entirely student-run, and, while the students do manage it quite well, this necessarily means a moratorium over the summer, as well as a general lack of integration with most campus activities organised by other groups. What was my surprise when I found the Dean's cocktail reception for the new students to the Faculty of Agriculture and Environment was only adorned with a large garbage can! Or when student groups go to the trouble of buying compostable dishware and spoons for their events but neglect to bring a composting bin as well!
And so I worked with two environmental clubs on campus to set up a waste audit at the beginning of the semester, for which SLWRP and associated schools kindly provided a wide range of documents and tips. The audit was small but unambiguous--over half of our campus waste by weight could easily be diverted with our existing waste management infrastructure, with up to 75% potential diversion for residences.
So far, the report has led to a waste-reduction campaign in the residences, in which we competed against other Québec Universities in a Sierra Youth Coalition-organised competition. Waste reductions were modest, to be honest, but what I'd learned from my experience with high school waste reduction projects (it must be easy and simple to sort, with clearly identified bins where recycling and composting are at least on equal footing with garbage) was central to all the recommendations we made to the residence committee, some of which were adopted. I will risk a lack of modesty here and hazard to guess that the limited results were due to the failure to adopt our recommendations in their entirety.
Next year I hope for more impressive results; with the waste audit data, as well as having "broken the ice" with the small waste reduction initiatives in residence and with my growing knowledge of university administration organisation, I hope to press for more comprehensive reform and consolidation of the waste management recuperation system at my campus. And if all goes well, you shouldn't be surprised if the proper sorting guides on the bins bear a certain resemblance to the ones offered by StopWaste to its SLWRP schools.