Books in blue bins are a bad look

Examining the importance of a student campaign that’s striving to save books and improve sustainability on campus

Books in blue bins are a bad look

Books have a special place in my heart, especially as a student. They are more than just pieces of paper  they are vehicles for knowledge, creativity, and truth.

So last month, when a photo of hundreds of books in blue bins appeared on one of the U of T meme pages, I couldn’t believe that discarding books was something that would happen at our university. The books could be donated to charities, local libraries, public schools or literally, as the meme suggested, “anything other than throwing away hundreds of books for no discernible reason.”

Please come to Russel and Spadina and help us save these books!!

Posted by Aliki Bitsakakis on Friday, October 19, 2018

“Undesirable”

I reached out to Aliki Bitsakakis, the student who posted the photo, and she recounted the frantic day when she came across the books.

The administrative office informed Bitsakakis that they were “undesirable” leftovers from the University College Book Sale. Told that they had until the end of the day Friday to take the books if they wanted them, Bitsakakis, along with other students, including Marley Greenberg, Robin Medd, Grusha Singh, and Jaylen Stark, “flew into panic mode” to save the books from being discarded.

They began sharing the story on social media to find homes for the books, urging students to go to the alley near Russell Street and Spadina Avenue where the books had been transported for recycling collection. Second Life, an organization that collects and donates books, was contacted and picked up about half of them. The students transported the remainder to the lounge in Sidney Smith Hall.

Remarkably, Bitsakakis estimates that the group saved about 1,000 books overall from destruction. But she says it “shouldn’t have been something we had to do.” She described the experience, though successful, as upsetting, as reading and learning are integral to students’ lives. It is difficult to imagine why these books were deemed undesirable in the first place. All the books were in good condition and some contained personal notes from past readers. One had a letter from the author, expressing thanks for a positive review.

To understand the situation, Bitsakakis and Stark returned to the UC administrative office and were put into contact with Deborah Tam, chair of the UC Book Sale, who confirmed that she had requested the recycling receptacles to dispose of the books. Tam did not respond to my request for comment.

Tam’s email reply to Bitsakakis says that every year the book sale faces the issues of excess books and limited storage space. This year, over 250 boxes of books were left over after the sale, and the organizers were given a single day to vacate UC’s Laidlaw Library.

“The other colleges that have sales, Trinity, Victoria and St. Mike’s, all have similar issues, of leftover books, that we do,” Tam wrote to Bitsakakis, “none of us like to see books sent to recycling if there are homes for them.”

The problem with this answer is that there were homes for the books the UC sale discarded. After Bitsakakis and her friends brought them to Sidney Smith, students were ecstatic to get them for free. There’s really no excuse for recycling books in good condition  and the Victoria College and Trinity College book sales both recognize this. Both sales have explicit policies to donate excess books.

“All of our leftover books find good homes through various local and international initiatives,” Victoria College Book Sale Chair Nancy Ruhnke wrote. “Every year, we send books to a library programme in the Philippines, and for a number of years, books were sent to help build a Canadian library centre in China… No good book is ever wasted!”

Nancy Graham, President of Trinity College Friends of the Library, explained that the Trinity College Book Sale has “a number of partners, including Second Life Books and other charities” to “ensure that as many books as possible stay out of landfills and recycling centres, and are instead placed into the hands of new readers.”

A troubling pattern

Given the practices at Victoria College and Trinity College, I wanted to believe that the UC Book Sale was simply careless in this instance. But Bitsakakis identified red flags that point to the concerning possibility that discarding books is a regular phenomenon at U of T. The university staff responsible for transporting the receptacles told her that books being thrown away “happens all the time.”

The day she went to rescue the books, a man came to the alley and looked through the bins, sharing with Bitsakakis that he regularly comes to this spot to get books for his wife. Waste Management Supervisor and Recycling Coordinator Reno Strano confirmed that people do sort through the recycling for books, and he lets them do so, “as long as they don’t create trouble.” If people are looking through the recycling for these books, clearly they still have value and could be donated.

The problem, Strano said, is that while Waste Management has to handle “a steady stream of books,” including from libraries, it is “pressed for space and resources.” For these reasons, Strano doesn’t always have the chance to donate books to local organizations. As long as the books are sent to recycling centres and not landfills, disposing of them actually counts as waste diversion under U of T’s definition.

Some of the books sent to the waste management department are placed in the university’s Swap Shop, where students and faculty can purchase discounted books and furniture. All proceeds go to the United Way.

I met with Strano over reading week for a tour. Descending a narrow staircase into the dark, hot, and dusty basement of the South Borden Building, I surveyed the shop and the books that filled it, stacked in piles, on bookshelves, and in blue bins.

Novels, non-fiction, biographies, textbooks  the little-known shop had just about every type of book. It’s a good deal for books, at $1 for as many as you can carry, but it’s open to U of T students just once a week, and for only two hours. Books that are not picked up from the shop are recycled. It’s a shame to throw books away, Strano said, but he simply doesn’t have the resources to do otherwise.

I was disappointed with what my tour had revealed. Sending books to recycling centres is only marginally better than sending them to landfills. At the end of the day, they are still destroyed, and others, especially those who can’t afford new books, are deprived of the opportunity of reading them. Throwing books away is not just careless  it runs contrary to everything a university is meant to represent. Calling it waste diversion only adds insult to injury.

The policy void

The image of books in blue bins is especially concerning for a university that takes prides in its “culture of sustainability.”

U of T founded an entire office dedicated to this ‘culture’ in 2004. The Sustainability Office wrote in an email that the school has systems in place to reuse excess books, and that book sale organizers are encouraged to donate books to local organizations. Yet, when I asked for details about these systems, the response only noted that the libraries exchange books within their internal network.

The fact that hundreds of books have already ended up in the blue bin tells us that whatever systems U of T does have in place appear to be inadequate. While it’s important to encourage sustainability, without concrete policy there is nothing to prevent every book sale organizer or library from throwing away perfectly good books.

The issue is that the Sustainability Office does not actually create, mandate, or implement policies at U of T, or oversee any other department. Instead, according to an email, the office is merely meant to “connect, inspire and educate.” When I asked what this meant in tangible terms, the response I received was: “a number of engagement programs and communications aimed at promoting a culture of sustainability for the campus community that you can find on our website.”

The structural issues at U of T that allow for books to end up in blue bins need to be addressed. If the Swap Shop is to be a practical solution to the issue of excess books, it needs to be advertised more, and open for more than two hours a week. The university should implement a policy requiring unwanted books to be donated or offered to students in high-traffic areas, instead of recycled.

A lack of tangible university policy is precisely why the actions of students like Bitsakakis, Greenberg, Medd, Singh, and Stark are so important. Not only did they find new homes for close to 1,000 books, they exposed a notable discrepancy between the university’s green image and the reality of its practices.

Now, the students are looking to start a club devoted to ensuring that all books in good condition stay out of the recycling bin. These actions will hopefully have a profound impact, not only in saving hundreds of books, but in showing the university how important books are to students  and compelling change in its practices.

Amelia Eaton is a second-year Political Science and Ethics, Society and Law student at Woodsworth College. She is The Varsity’s Student Life Columnist.

What makes a building sustainable?

Looking into U of T's LEED-certified buildings

What makes a building sustainable?

The University of Toronto plans to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 37 per cent from its 1990 levels by 2030. This is part of the University Climate Change Coalition commitment, which U of T joined in February.

According to Ron Saporta, U of T’s Chief Operations Officer of Facilities and Services, around 50,000 metric tonnes of carbon emissions have been eliminated in the past ten years on the St. George campus alone.

Making changes to existing infrastrcture poses challenges, but according to Saporta, no challenge is insurmountable, and those that arise are expected from a campus of this size and age.

A new greenhouse gas project is in the works on all three campuses, part of an overarching project that is anticipated to be completed by the end of next March.

The Athletic Centre at UTSG will also acquire photovoltaic and photothermal panels, and a new 14-storey academic tower made of timber will be built above the Goldring Centre for High Performance Sport.

Already, there are many sustainable buildings at U of T, 12 of which have attained a Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification. The Canadian Green Building Council (CaGBC) awards these ratings based on the type of building being assessed.

The Varsity ranked each of these buildings according to a standardized percentage score, calculated from comparing the points awarded to each building by LEED to a total possible number of points for each criteria.

Among the following buildings, six have Gold certification and four have Silver. Out of all certifications granted by the CaGBC, Platinum is the highest, followed by Gold, Silver, and Credited as the lowest.

Exam Centre (UTSG)

LEED Rating: Gold 63%

Certified in 2009, the Exam Centre uses rainwater to reduce water consumption by 62 per cent. In 2017, the addition of photovoltaic solar panels successfully lowered electricity needs, generating 75,000 kW-hours per year. The green wall on the first floor acts as a natural air cleaner.

Lassonde Mining Building (UTSG)

LEED Rating: Gold 61.4%

The Lassonde Mining Building was renovated in November of 2011, converting unused spaces such as the attic into “student design studios,” teaching spaces, and even a rooftop meeting room. Photovoltaic panels produce energy required for lighting and technology in the Goldcorp Mining Innovation Suite. Other measures such as thermal buffer zones for improved insulation, automated smart blinds, and skylights were also implemented to minimize energy consumption.

Environmental Science and Chemistry Building (UTSC)

LEED Rating: Gold 58.2%

This building houses UTSC’s Department of Physical and Environmental Sciences and features 2,890 square metres of research and teaching labs. An earth tube system ventilates the building while a geothermal pump cools and heats it. Materials with low Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs), such as paint and adhesives, were used in addition to low-flow plumbing and rain water usage to reduce the building’s carbon footprint. Other green features include glazing on the windows to reduce heat transfer, electric vehicle charging stations, and a green roof.

Toronto Pan Am Sports Centre (UTSC)

LEED Rating: Gold 57.3%

This high performance sports facility was built with 30 per cent recyclable material. 95 per cent of all construction waste was diverted from landfills, and instead recycled, reused, or composted. The Sports Centre also uses geothermal heating, which supports 40 per cent of the building’s heating and 99 per cent of cooling demands. Its 1,854 solar panels generate enough energy to power 20 standard homes a year. As well, the building consumes around 37 per cent less water than a standard building of its size, and saves around 1.8 million liters of water per year.

Terrence Donnelly Health Sciences Complex (UTM)

LEED Rating: Gold 57.1%

The Health Sciences Complex was built in 2011 using low-emitting materials, which contribute to better indoor environmental quality. The building’s underground cistern houses rainwater for irrigation that has helped reduce water consumption by 50 per cent. Stainless steel panels were also configured to provide insulation during the winter, and the building’s exterior was designed to prevent heat gain to eliminate the need for cooling systems. The central district energy plant also eliminated the need for independent boilers, chillers, and cooling towers.

Rotman School of Management – South Building (UTSG)

LEED Rating: Gold 55.7%

The building features nine stories connected to existing Victorian era infrastructure, with measures to prevent the heat island effect, such as the rooftop garden, use of 30 per cent less water, and optimized energy performance. The building also diverted 75 per cent of its waste away from landfills, and used 32 per cent locally processed and manufactured materials in its construction.

Instructional Building (UTM)

LEED Rating: Silver 52.9%

The UTM Instructional Building was finalized in 2011, complete with a geothermal heat pump which stores heat in the ground during the summer and uses it in the winter to supply heating and cooling systems. A small amount of electricity is used to run the underground pumps, located in the wells field. A 21 kilowatt solar electric system is also in place, and solar panels reduce the cooling load. Other energy-efficient initiatives in place include using computers, lighting, and tech equipment with minimal waste, as well as using the orientation of the building to maximize on natural light. The building itself is made from local material that is durable, and renewable or recycled.

Hazel McCallion Academic Learning Centre (UTM)

LEED Rating: Silver 50%

This 24 hour building opened in 2007 on the site of an old parking lot, and is one of the 44 libraries at the university. It is home to an electronic shelving system that allows shelves to move on a track, and maintains a rooftop garden, which helps to counteract the urban heat island effect. It also has low-emitting building materials and low-flow plumbing to improve air quality and reduce water usage. A green cleaning program has been implemented, among other operations that target indoor air quality.

Munk School of Global Affairs (UTSG)

LEED Rating: Silver 47.1%

After renovations in 2012, the building features new green aspects like measures to reduce water use by 30 per cent, contribute to ozone protection, and use innovative designs such as low mercury lamps. The renovation of the building itself used low-emitting material, and diverted at least 75 per cent of water from the landfill. Part of the building was also built with wood, a sustainable resource.

Innovation Complex (UTM)

LEED Rating: Silver 45.5%

The Innovation Complex houses offices, classrooms, and study rooms. There is a green roof, a system of low-flow plumbing fixtures, and ample natural light to enhance energy savings. In addition, a number of exterior “fins” prevent heat retention and reduce the need for cooling energy. The Complex also features efficient lighting fixtures that sense when a room is empty and automatically turn off.

Sustainability in the 6ix

Eco-friendly lifestyles can cut costs that we didn’t know could be cut

Sustainability in the 6ix

The recent influx of attention toward sustainability and environmental awareness has taken social media by storm. Whether it’s Starbucks banning straws — but still wrapping every product in plastic — or Zara deciding to use recycled packaging, everyone seems to be making an effort toward a greener future.

But are they really?

Since the United States pulled out of the Paris Agreement, despite wildfires sweeping the nation and temperatures worldwide standing at a staggering high, the public’s awareness has turned toward climate change.

Those who have been fighting for change for decades finally feel that the urgency of environmental protection is being understood. Yet, regardless of plastic bag bans and boxed water, we have a long way to go before the damage can be stopped and reverted. There are organizations such as Greenpeace Canada, which have been fighting the good fight for years. Their efforts are inarguably genuine, but whether or not all of the corporations that have recently jumped on the green boat have done so selflessly is debatable.

There are a number of companies that have vowed to “go green” and promote eco-friendly practices in a fast-paced capitalist market. For instance, McDonald’s, Coca-Cola, and Tesla are creating conscientious change with energy efficient appliances, reduced carbon emissions, or community recycling.

Often these efforts are still, as other aspects of the companies’ production and distribution are, harmful to the environment. Yet the fact that the urgency of the matter has been instilled in people’s minds, and that people are calling on industries to reduce their carbon footprint and scrutinize their practices, means that the harrowing realization of what we have done is looming.

As bleak as that may sound, it is immensely important for people to, at both a macro and micro level, evaluate their actions. Currently, this wave of environmental awareness has encouraged millennials to make it a point to reduce waste in their homes, buy from sustainable fashion brands, and go vegan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. This is possibly the most promising development for our futures. They have become, as one might call it, ‘woke.’

While it can be argued that survival instinct is at the stem of these actions, human beings still are not fully aware of the gravity of climate change. Regardless of the countless media campaigns, articles, and research, we find comfort in our minute attempts at sustainability and conservation. Claiming that our survival instincts have finally kicked in is giving humanity too much credit. We need to do more. Even living in a location with a high cost of living, such as Toronto, where the rent prices alone are drowning students, there are affordable ways to live an eco-friendly lifestyle.

As students on a budget, being sustainable can be reasonable, but it is not particularly convenient. We would have to go out of our way to reduce our carbon footprint, although these steps are worth the trouble. Recycling is one the easiest ways to do your part. U of T’s campuses, as well as most apartment complexes, have recycling bins. Instead of being negligent with your waste, make it a point to recycle when possible. Reduce your plastic usage by purchasing cloth bags for groceries and keep a reusable water bottle handy. Another convenient modification students can make to their lifestyles is to buy local. Whether it be perishables or furniture, we don’t often realize the environmental impact of shipping.

What individuals don’t often recognize is that eco-friendly lifestyles often cut extraneous costs. We no longer need to stop and buy bottled water, thrift shopping is much cheaper than purchasing brand new products, and opting for used textbooks or library copies can save hundreds of dollars.

These modifications can be made to your lifestyles and homes, such as using biodegradable plates instead of plastic ones and by using energy efficient power bars. Creating green living spaces is easier than most students presume.

While the vegan trend is still met with reluctance, there are ethical, environmental, and physical benefits to the diet itself. Most of us may not be ready to cut out meat altogether, but understanding where the ingredients are sourced from and choosing to dine at restaurants that utilize free-range local products will not only ease your conscience, but can also push other establishments to do the same.

As a student, living in the 6ix can be daunting and expensive, but sustainability is indeed achievable. It all depends on the effort we are willing to exert.

Our minute actions in which we find solace might also be our saving grace. If everyone were to implement these changes in their daily lives, we could make an impact. It solely depends on if we can grasp how important our actions are within the current climate.

A catalyst for sustainable production

U of T research group develops catalyst that turns carbon dioxide into plastic

A catalyst for sustainable production

Mitigating anthropogenic climate change is a significant issue we face in the twenty-first century. Today, through research and innovation, we are inching closer to a solution.

Recently, a group led by Dr. Ted Sargent, a U of T professor in Electrical & Computer Engineering and the Canada Research Chair in Nanotechnology, published a solution to this persistent problem in Nature Catalysis.

The researchers used an electroreduction reaction that converts carbon dioxide (CO₂), the principal greenhouse gas responsible for driving changes in Earth’s climate, into various hydrocarbon products, including ethylene, which is a precursor to most of the plastics omnipresent in our societies today.

The team developed a copper catalyst, which was studied at the Canadian Light Source facility in Saskatchewan.

“Where plants can take carbon dioxide, water, sunlight and make sugars – we take carbon dioxide, water, and renewable energy and make fuels and feedstocks. In this specific project, we found a catalyst that can make ethylene very selectively,” wrote Phil De Luna, U of T PhD student and lead author of the study, in an email to The Varsity.

In this sense, the researchers have developed a method for artificial photosynthesis.

“We were able to track how the material changes during [the] reaction, something that had never been done before with CO2 reduction,” he wrote.

The team’s study is the culmination of a year-long effort to progress research in sustainable materials and long-term energy storage technology and to scale the project from a laboratory setting to a pilot stage.

In fact, the group’s insights and persistence have seen them crowned as one of 23 semi-finalists for the Carbon XPrize — a global competition that rewards $20 million to the team that can best capture and convert CO₂ into a useful product.

There can be potentially huge implications in chemical and manufacturing industries with the adoption of this technology, given that the global demand for polyethylene resins is expected to rise to 99.6 million metric tons in 2018.

According to De Luna, this technology could be used at a commercial scale and aid in sustainable plastic production. Non-biodegradable plastics, like water bottles and packaging, are difficult to recycle, and the only current solution is to burn them, which releases CO₂ into the atmosphere.

“However, [if] we can take waste plastic, burn it, capture the CO2, and then recycle it back into plastics, we can completely close that loop,” wrote De Luna.

Apart from sustainable ethylene production with relatively little waste output, similar technologies can be used to convert CO₂ into a myriad of products based on reaction conditions and the type of catalyst used.

Some of these products include syngas, a precursor to synthetic fuel and biofuels, natural gas, and formic acid that is commonly used in textile manufacturing.

“This is a very active field of research right now,” said De Luna. “Scientists all over the world are trying to find ways to make specific products efficiently, selectively, and cheaply. It’s an incredibly exciting time for this technology.”