Wednesday, 20 July 2016

Divest McGill: Getting McGill to Follow Through on Its Commitment to Sustainability

By Morganne Blais-McPherson

Earlier this spring, the Sustainability Project team members convened around cold coffee and leftover conference cookies to discuss, what else, sustainability at McGill. At some point, the conversation veered away from workshop dates and AV reservations and onto the subject of the impromptu campsite that had emerged in front of the James Administration building. The obvious question arose – so, what do we think about this Divest McGill business? Well, it didn’t take much debate before we all arrived at the same conclusion – we like it. We like it a lot.

And so, I was sent off, wide-eyed, camera in hand, to the famous tents, hoping to set up times for interviews. Alas, it wasn’t meant to be. When I finally arrived to the location, the tents were gone, the banners blown away, the electrifying spirit of a university occupation now only surviving in our memories… What I’m trying to get at here is that you're going to have to try and picture a bunch of tents with people in front of a big stone building, because we don’t have any pictures.

Instead, I set up meetings with two members of Divest McGill, Kristen (U3 Environmental Sciences) and Guillaume (U3 Economics and Political Sciences), to talk about the campaign, as well as their thoughts on sustainability in the classroom.

Born out of the more broadly-oriented “Decorporatize McGill”, the campaign has one clear demand: McGill must divest from tar sands and fossil fuel companies. Kristen, who just graduated this spring, has been involved with Divest McGill since it was created in the fall of 2012. For Kristen, focusing on divestment was a way towards a wide and concrete change within an institution for which students, faculty, staff, and alumni alike could work together. 

However, concrete change wasn’t as simple as Kristen had anticipated. Three years into the campaign and divestment has yet to happen. Even after going through the CAMSR (Committee to Advise on Matters of Social Responsibility) twice, McGill’s $1.3-billion endowment fund is still have between 5% and 8% invested in fossil fuel companies.

As an McGill alumna, it is disheartening, not to mention unacceptable, that such a top institution continues to throw money into an industry that has repeatedly been shown to cause grave social injury. In fact, it was on this point that Divest McGill’s last 150-page research submission to CAMSR relied on.

This negative sentiment is shared with both Guillaume and Kristen, who expressed their personal disappointment at having a principal and a Board of Governors so disconnected from the rest of the McGill community. That the students had to stage a sit-in in order to meet Principal Suzanne Fortier on such a pressing issue leads one to question the principal’s commitment to sustainability. As Guillaume said, some things are important, and “sitting down and talking about things would probably be a good way to get things going”.

But McGill is doing a lot towards sustainability, which is what makes their recent refusal to divest so confusing. Just the other day, I was reading McGill’s beautifully drafted Vision 2020 and its most recent progress report. It is clear when reading the reports that the university is making a laudable effort at finding long-term solutions by funding sustainability research, educating its community, and altering the university’s operations. In fact, both Kristen and Guillaume made a point of crediting McGill for these efforts.

For some reason, when it comes to investments in fossil fuels, McGill is lagging behind the many other institutions (such as the University of Ottawa) that have divested, “acting like a blockade to change rather than as a supportive body”, as Guillaume put it. Over 3.4 trillion dollars have already been divested from this destructive industry. Thankfully, people like Guillaume and Kristen are making sure that McGill follows through on its commitments to sustainability.

Wishing there were more people like Guillaume and Kristen, I thought it wise to ask them about their own ideas on Education for Sustainable Development. Some responses came from other members of Divest McGill, who have allowed us to include their ideas in the following poster.

Before, signing off, we would like to thank Divest McGill for all their work in making McGill the sustainable institution it has committed itself to being. Divest NOW!

Monday, 20 June 2016

What's the Dirt on Dishware? Biodegradable VS Compostable Dishware

Author: Morganne Blais-McPherson

I love food. I love it so much that when I’m eating food, I’m still talking about food. It’s really all just food, food, food.

In fact, there’s little I love more about my job here with the McGill Sustainability Project than eating the food we get catered for our professional development workshops. My colleague Harley, a forager of gustatory satisfaction for all of us, has an unparalleled palate when it comes to finding the best catering services for our events.

On top of considering our culinary needs, Harley has made the effort to find a caterer that can provide biodegradable dishware with its deliveries. After all, we are spending over two hours at each conference preaching sustainability. As consistent individuals, it was with great comfort and pride that we threw out the plates and cups at the end of each workshop, believing that we were doing our (small, but commendable) part in considering waste management at our university.

So you can imagine the sinking feeling I had in my stomach when I discovered that biodegradable dishware doesn’t actually decompose into innocent particles of Mother Nature when it is dumped into the municipal landfill. The truth is that eco-friendly plastics aren’t so eco-friendly when they are suffocated in our mounds of trash. To add fuel to the fire, did you know that “biodegradable” doesn’t really mean much at all? I certainly did not.

Spidey senses awakened, I called up Compost Montreal to know more about this biodegradability business. It all has to do with official certification, they explain to me (quite patiently and very enthusiastically, I might add).

In a nutshell, there is a stringent series of hoops for companies to jump through to be allowed to have the word “compostable” on their products. The meaning of biodegradability, on the other hand, is up in the air.

These hoops concern the level and time frame of a product’s biodegradation. In Quebec, these standards are set by the Bureau de Normalisation du Québec (you can view these standards here: For a product to be deemed “compostable”, 60-90% of the product must be broken down into pieces with a maximum size of 2 mm within 180 days of being put into the compost pile. Importantly, when done in a commercial or industrial composting facility, this decomposition process cannot leave any heavy metal traces that would be toxic to the soil.

Biodegradability, well, that’s a whole other story.  Putting the word biodegradability on a product is the equivalent of writing that you know a foreign language on your CV without providing official documentation specifying your level in reading, writing, speaking, or listening. After all, Rebecca Bloomwood in Confessions of a Shopaholic (2009) “knew” Finnish and as far as I recall, this included two or three words and a slap in the face.

The product is biodegradable when it can be broken down by micro-organisms. To what extent? Don’t know. In how long? Don’t know. Will it be toxic? Again, don’t know. So what do we know? Not much.

Even more irksome is the fact that some plastics labeled as “biodegradable” can’t actually be broken down in a landfill. Oxo-degradable plastics, a type of biodegradable plastics, require light or heat exposure to be broken down. Few sunny days are seen 6 feet under trash. The main problem with these, however, is that given the small amount of oxygen deep down in a landfill, these plastics release methane when they biodegrade (if they even biodegrade at all). Methane, if you’ve been following the news recently, makes carbon dioxide look like Febreeze. Irritating, but at least it’s not the smell of a 16-year-old boy’s bedroom.

So next time you and your organization hold an event and want to be environmentally conscious, try avoiding plastics labeled as “biodegradable”. Look for compostable dishware and find a compost facility near you. In Montreal, we have Compost Montreal (, which not only sells compostable dishware but also collects compost (though you will have to check if you are in their collection zone first). If not, many universities and community gardens have composting facilities you could use.

Sustainable living is difficult, and it’s even more difficult at an institutional and commercial level. But the first step to addressing our environmental problems is to be informed of the actual impacts of what we’re doing and be critical of our current practices. The next step is finding ways to change our behaviour and that of the institutions and businesses we find ourselves in.

If you’re interested in learning more about compostable plastics, stay tuned for my next post, in which I will be looking at differences in environmental impacts of compostable and disposable plastics!

Tuesday, 7 June 2016

Why Fort McMurray’s Forest Burns

Author: Francesca Fuoco

The fire raging Fort McMurray in Alberta was the cause of great despair as 90 000 people had to evacuate their homes. The fire has torched over 1000 km2 and is expected to continue to burn over the next weeks. The forest continues to burn because the Boreal forest surrounding Fort McMurray has adapted to depend on fire for growth.

In essence, these trees need to burn to grow. Even the physical characteristics of the trees, such as branching arrangement, are adapted for easy ignition. The spruce and pine trees making up the forest have serotinous cones which open up after a fire to release their seeds. After a fire burns through a forest, the fire removes the competing trees, shrubs, and mosses. The soil is bare and it thus becomes easier for the seeds to thrive. The pine and spruce species then become the pioneers of the new forest and ecological succession brings about new biodiversity. The fire in Fort McMurray, whether caused by humans or nature, is an important part of the forest’s life cycle.

Watch the video by CrashCourse to learn more about ecological succession.

Click here to follow CBC news for the latest on the fire.

Francesca Fuoco is a 4th year undergraduate student in the Faculty of Education at McGill University. She is currently studying with the goal of teaching Science at the High School level. Francesca is interested in promoting the development of scientific literacy skills among her students by engaging them in learning activities which aim to study how Science affects our society and vice-versa.

Wednesday, 25 May 2016

Is Teaching Sustainable?

Author: Francesca Fuoco

During the course of my practicum as a novice teacher, I have met professionals in the field who have been teaching for over 40 years. I find it incredible how some individuals can sustain the same career for decades. What is it about a career that makes it sustainable for so many years? There are many possible definitions for sustainability but for the purpose of this post, I believe that sustainability in the teaching profession requires first a passion for teaching, and second, a balanced work/home lifestyle. If the career path negatively impacts the individual’s well-being, then I would argue that the career path is not sustainable in the long-term.

During my undergraduate studies to become a Science teacher, I took a course on the policies and laws governing the teaching profession in Quebec. On the first day of class, we were told by the professor that 50% of all new teachers drop out of the profession in their first 5 years of teaching. When I first heard this, I did not agree and thought that percentage was way too high and that it did not apply to me in any case because I knew teaching was my calling. Today I now know that my teacher was trying to warn us about the adventure we were about to embark on.
It is a common conception that teachers have the perfect work schedule, with early evenings, Christmas break and peddays at home, and summers off. I used to tell all my friends that the field of teaching is fantastic if you want a family oriented lifestyle, where you have the same schedule as your children and can be around with your family while working a full-time job. Today, I state with confidence that teaching is by far one of the most demanding jobs and the conception of the perfect work schedule is a false dream.

First, to obtain a teaching licence in Quebec, a Bachelors degree is required (or a Masters), which is at least 4 years of University studies. Once you obtain your teaching certificate, you then need to try and find a teaching contract, which are currently very difficult to find. As such, you result to being a substitute teacher for a few years until you find a contract, or if you are lucky, you can find earlier on a 50-70% contract (part-time work load). At this stage in your early career, you are basically hoping a teacher is going to retire, go on sick leave, or go on maternity leave.

Once you do sign a teaching contract, which may or may not be in your field of study, your workload goes above and beyond teaching content to a classroom of students. Apart from teaching your courses, teachers participate in extra-curricular activities which are commonly scheduled after school. Teachers also need to plan their lessons and generate teaching materials which is often done during the evenings at home. They provide remedial help to students during the lunch hour on some days and on the other days they need to supervise the hallways. Teachers need to attend professional development workshops to ensure they stay up-to-date with the most current resources and teaching techniques. Teachers also need to consider each student’s learning style by adapting their teaching methods to accommodate each learner. This part of the job is taken to the next level when Individualized Education Plans (IEPs) need to be considered in which certain students have a legal right to certain accommodations and modifications in the classroom. The biggest component of this job which I think is what affects most teachers’ well-being is the classroom management. I have worked in classrooms which had 7 students and others which had 34 students. Regardless of the numbers, each classroom size comes with its challenges when dealing with children. The teacher is the role model of the classroom and students look up to you and I think this is why the teacher’s emotions can be tugged in all directions. At the end of the day, a teacher does not simply teach. Teachers are also listeners, motivators, leaders, and carers. They play the role of psychologist, doctor, lawyer, and police officer, which is why robots will never put a teacher out of work.

A high school teacher can see on average 100 students in their classroom every day. It can be easy to take home the events that happened in class and it is at this point that the career can impact the teacher’s well-being. During each of my internships, the most honest advice that I received from each of my supervising teachers was to take care of myself first and to not bring the work home. It is OK to have a bad day and to bring your B game to class, teachers cannot always bring their A game. To make it in this career, teachers need to balance what happens in school and what happens outside of school. Exercise, eating-well, and letting go of the day’s events is key to being a sustainable teacher.

You have to love teaching to choose this career. I would like to reiterate that teaching is by far one of the most demanding jobs, but it is also one of the most rewarding careers. Despite the emotional tug-of-war and classroom management horror stories, teachers teach skills that last a life time. Teachers inspire children to learn, to question, and to achieve. There is no better feeling than when you see your students’ eyes light up when they “click” and understand something and say “Oh! I get it!”. That is when I remember why teaching is an amazing career.

Picture taken by Francesca Fuoco at Ste-Agathe Academy, Ste-Agathe Quebec.

Francesca Fuoco is a 4th year undergraduate student in the Faculty of Education at McGill University. She is currently studying with the goal of teaching Science at the High School level. Francesca is interested in promoting the development of scientific literacy skills among her students by engaging them in learning activities which aim to study how Science affects our society and vice-versa.