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Tackling the question of sustainability

Tim Lang is the Sustainability Coordinator at U of T Scarborough. (Photo by Ken Jones.)

by Tim Lang

"It would be great to pay women as much as men, but can we afford it?"

"I like the idea of wheelchair access, but will it be expensive?"

Today these seem like absurd questions, but not too long ago people may have asked them. Most public institutions, including the University of Toronto Scarborough, now embrace such concepts as pay equity and accessibility for the disabled.

Environmental sustainability – the endeavour to meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs – is currently at the centre of debate in many organizations. Questions about how to implement sustainable practices are being discussed, just as pay equity and accessibility for the disabled were examined not so long ago. Sustainability is beginning to receive a similar level of acceptance and support.

Society as a whole is now grappling with issues around the best way to proceed with work or activities while at the same time minimizing our environmental footprint. Questions about the environment and our human impact on the planet are hot topics around water coolers, dinner tables, and just about everywhere that people gather.

Whenever there are advances in collective thinking and changes in attitude, questions about the costs of implementing these values are asked. Many organizations today are looking at costs versus benefits, and working to determine the extent to which sustainable practices can be implemented.

Cost is not the only factor in the debate. The concepts are ethical and important, and although publicly-funded institutions aim to implement these ideas in a cost-efficient manner, in the end, it often comes down to a question of the right thing to do. Costs are seen as short term, whereas benefits are long term. The benefits seem to be swaying the debate in the favor of sustainability in more and more institutions.

Like many other organizations, the University of Toronto Scarborough is dealing with these complex questions. We are evaluating both the costs and benefits of making operations more sustainable. This past May, a Sustainability Office was established on campus, and I was hired to head it. I was charged with the task of enhancing sustainability, working it into the daily operations of the campus. There were many examples of sustainable practices here before I arrived, and so my role is to help advance this culture of sustainability in concert with the rest of the campus community. I have been pleased to observe that so many of my colleagues view sustainability as a central operating principle rather than as a one-time activity or special project. The administration has shown an understanding that in many situations, doing the right thing will involve added costs. However, there also seems to be a realization that the long-term savings or benefits will outweigh the costs.

Changes have already started taking place on campus. We have upgraded the lighting in the Recreation Centre, a project that is expected to save 172,500 kilowatt-hours per year. As well, Bluff's Restaurant and Aramark food service facilities have begun to recycle their organic waste. Funding has been committed for an organic de-icer to be used on walkways and terraces this winter, instead of the previously-used calcium chloride, a blue pebble mixture that was less environment-friendly.

These are just a few examples of what has been happening already, and more changes will come. These initiatives demonstrate the commitment of the U of T Scarborough community to move towards a more sustainable approach for the future. As with pay equity and accessibility, belief in the value of sustainability existed long before it became a common practice, and I have been struck by the enthusiasm of the campus community for sustainability and by the strength of belief in its importance.

A question that often comes up now in the public domain is: "We really ought to drastically reduce our carbon emissions, but is it financially viable?" It would not surprise me if this also were to become an absurd question before too long.

Tim Lang is the Sustainability Coordinator at U of T Scarborough. He can be reached by email at: For more details, visit the office web site at:

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