By Rosalyn Yake
Somewhere in the dusty basement of a downtown building in Washington D.C., there is a piece of paper with Ryerson’s name on it. It’s yellowed and creased at the corners with its title scrawled in calligraphy: The Talloires Declaration.
Despite the document’s regal appearance, the declaration — meant to guide Ryerson’s and other universities’ approach to environmental issues such as recycling and pollution management — has been forgotten by most at Ryerson.
Ryerson may have been a leader in environmental conservation in 1991 when it signed the declaration, but many believe decision makers on campus have fallen behind other universities in the move towards a more environmentally sustainable campus.
About a week ago, representatives from schools across North America, who still recognize and embrace the agreement, met at the Sierra Club’s Campus Sustainability conference in Waterloo to continue the progression towards sustainability. Ryerson was absent.
The group of nearly 100 students get together once a year, and although Ryerson signed the declaration at the heart of the yearly meetings more than 10 years ago, it has never officially sent a representative to any of the conferences.
“Once signed, the declaration should not become a purely symbolic act. Rather than making piecemeal progress, there should be a long-term plan tailored specifically to your institution,” said Heather Tallent, the outreach coordinator of the Association of University Leaders for a Sustainable Future about the voluntary declaration that was signed by 300 universities around the world in 1991.
“Campuses should strive to be ecologically sound, socially just and economically viable,” she added.
Ron Pushchak, director of the environmental applied science and management program at the Ryerson school of graduate studies, agreed with this, but said Ryerson isn’t generally very open to this kind of approach.
“There isn’t a culture of environmental care here,” he said.
“I think it’s dismaying for students that come here and discover something less than the kind of environmental culture that was established in their high school or public school.”
Despite this lack of a well-developed environmental culture, administrators at Ryerson seem content with what progress has been made.
“We don’t have major announcements, you don’t hear all of the wonderful things we are doing with the environment,” said Linda Grayson, vice president of administration and student affairs. “We just get on and do it, and that’s kind of the Ryerson way.”
But in comparison to other universities, the Ryerson way may not be the best path to follow. According to Nicola Scahill, the president o the Sierra Youth Coalition, Ryerson doesn’t exactly lead the way when it comes to sustainable practices.
“There are plenty of examples out there of campuses who are taking an innovative approach to sustainability,” Scahill said. “Many campuses are forming sustainability committees and environmental auditing has become a very serious thing.”
In 1991, around the same time the declaration was signed, the university had plans to form an environmental steering committee and two student environmental organizations. Plans for the new Student Campus Centre — now under construction — included a proposal for the use of solar power to run the building and improve energy efficiency.
Today, very little remains of those original plans. There is no environmental steering committee and Darren Cooney, president of RyeSAC, has never even heard of the Talloires Declaration, something he said is a good example of how Ryerson’s commitment to sustainability has waned in the past decade.
“In the early ‘90s the environment movement was a lot more popular and had more momentum,” said Cooney. “Now, things like that have faded off.”
Other plans have fallen by the wayside as well. Ian Hamilton, director of facilities and planning at Ryerson, confirmed that the plans to include the use of solar power in the Student Campus Center were dropped years ago.
“Solar panels produce very low amounts of energy,” he said. “I think it will take years until we are fully capable of using some of the alternative energies out there.”
Nevertheless, Waterloo is planning to install solar panels on its campus in the near future. Patti Cook, a faculty member involved with the initiative, said the solar panels are part of a student-led research program composed of students and faculty members in charge of implementing sustainable practices on Waterloo’s campus.
“The desire to do it is tremendous,” Cook said. “There is a lot of enthusiasm among the staff and the students about getting the solar panels on the campus.”
Sir Sandford Fleming College in Lindsay, Ont., is also looking at environmentally-friendly alternatives and is adding a new wing on its campus that will be completely powered by wind energy.
“I feel that we’re setting a good example for other universities and colleges,” said tony Theosidou, a student in environmental studies at the college. “Instead of just talking about something, we’re actually doing it.”
Environmental auditing has been another way in which campuses have been working to improve their sustainability. According to Lindsay Cole, a former student at the university of Victoria and a member of the 2002 Youth Summit Team for Johannesburg’s World Summit on Sustainable Development, auditing provides a university with a means of measuring its sustainability. It requires an extensive amount of data collection and research, and looks at all the ways in which a university’s operations affect the environment.
In terms of an environmental assessment, Ryerson still stands today where it did 11 years ago — nowhere.
According to the Ryerson Rambler, the university’s alumni magazine, there was initial interest in conducting an audit in 1991. Jennifer Welsh, the dean of community services at the time, said there needed to be a thorough examination of the curriculum and day-to-day operations at Ryerson from an environmental perspective. Welsh is quotes as saying:
“I don’t see where anyone at Ryerson has organized around the environment. No one is really taking it on.”
Today, nothing has changed. According to Grayson, the only environmental audit done on Ryerson’s campus involved security and safety, which had nothing to do with sustainability. As a result, all of the university’s policies and practices have been left unexamined.
To Cole, this is a sign of neglect. Despite the amount of time and research an audit requires, she believes an environmental audit should happen at every campus.
“Universities and colleges have a responsibility to assess their sustainability,” Cole said, adding that Mount Allison and Concordia have each conducted an extensive audit.
Ken Marciniec, RyeSAC’s vice-president education, believes Ryerson is in need of an environmental audit. He said Ryerson’s recycling program is inadequate and needs more support from university staff.
“The recycling [bins are] always too full and overflowing. The bins are never located in a regular place and are labelled so poorly that students mix the garbage together,” Marciniec said. “Right now, there are only two staff members in charge of recycling … We’re a growing university. The least we can do is recycle properly.”
So while most student unions in Canada have been striving to achieve the standards set out by the Talloires Declaration, Ryerson continues to sit idly by.
Cooney said Ryerson needs to do its part to catch up. “In terms of getting information out to students, the environment has been off the radar screen for the past couple of years,” he said. “I think it’s a bad thing when the student leader hasn’t heard of something like the Talloires Declaration.