Step by step, York reduces its carbon footprint

York University is the first Canadian postsecondary institution to make its course kits part of a carbon offset program. Now each one of the thousands of course kits created annually by the York University Bookstore is "carbon neutral".

This means that kits are produced using environmentally responsible printing practices that include incorporating locally produced papers manufactured using sound forestry practices and increased recycled fibre content. York is also contributing approximately 10 cents per kit to the not-for-profit organization Zerofootprint, to purchase local renewable energy and support other projects such as tree planting. When factored together, the changes effectively bring the net carbon footprint of each course kit to zero, making the course kit program carbon neutral.

"While the best footprint is no footprint," says Steve Glassman, director of the York University Bookstore, Mailing & Printing Services, "making the course kit production at York carbon neutral is a very important step forward for the University.

"The University is leading the way in Canada in this area. Making the course kits carbon neutral is just the beginning of a University-wide effort to reduce its carbon footprint," says Glassman. "Furthermore, students will not pay a cent more for carbon neutral course kits as the University will contribute the funds to offset the carbon produced by the production of the course kits to Zerofootprint."

Working with Glassman on the project is York biology Professor Dawn Bazely. Annette Dubreuil (MBA ’07), a graduate of the Schulich School of Business, and MBA student Alexis Morgan, created the business case for a carbon offset program at the University.

Right: York’s carbon offset crew. From the left, front row, Alexis Morgan, Professor Dawn Bazely and Annette Dubreuil. Back row, from left, Steve Glassman, MES student Tony Morris and IRIS coordinator Melissa Leithwood (MES ’07).

York, says Dubreuil, is the only Canadian postsecondary institution beginning to institutionalize a carbon offset program. "Creating this program is the first step in evolving a mechanism that will allow other business processes within the University to be carbon offset," explains Dubreuil. "Other universities have created links on Web sites to show you where you can go to offset your carbon footprint, but it is a complicated and challenging process to incorporate the idea of being carbon neutral into their financial, administrative, legal and purchasing processes."

The term "carbon neutral" was the New Oxford American Dictionary’s Word of the Year in 2006, highlighting its importance in global warming. It is brought about by balancing the amount of carbon released with the amount of carbon offset. By purchasing carbon offsets, York University is able to mitigate some of the carbon produced that can not be avoided, says Glassman. While carbon offsets and renewable energy certificates do not actually remove carbon from the atmosphere, they prevent further carbon emissions from a particluar activity or process by supporting renewable energy, research and other activities that reduce carbon production.

Course kits, that provide access to course material, are used by students and are an essential part of the University’s teaching environment. Developed by the University’s professors, the content of each kit is customized to a particular course and may include the course syllabus, original material, course and lab notes, review questions, journal articles, chapters from books, or even an out-of-print book. The kits are produced through quick copying and are spiral bound, usually with a durable cover.

The idea to create carbon neutral course kits started with Bazely, who is also the director of the York Institute for Research & Innovation in Sustainability (IRIS), a University-wide interdisciplinary centre dedicated towards the pursuit of multifaceted approaches to the contemporary challenges of sustainability. "It was Professor Bazely’s idea," says Glassman. "She contacted me a little over two years ago and after some fundamental points were sorted out, we set out to establish what the impact on global warming of printing York’s course kits was and to review the production processes we use at the York University Bookstore.

"We then looked into different organizations who could help us offset the impact on the environment of what we do to produce these course kits and settled on the Canadian organization Zerofootprint," says Glassman. "Zerofootprint follows international standards and ensures that every dollar they receive to offset so many tonnes of carbon emitted into the atmosphere is spent on local green initiatives."

The carbon footprint of course kits was calculated by Zerofootprint according to how the paper is made, the percentage of recycled content in the paper, the processes used by the paper mill and the transportation of the paper to York University. Glassman and Bazely then examined the impact of the actual printing process. "We came up with pennies per course kit that would offset the environmental damage imposed by the production of the kits."

Left: York students Tony Morris (standing), IRIS graduate assistant, and Melissa Leithwood (right), IRIS coordinator, conduct a carbon offset survey in Central Square

"The course kit program is an example for the University," says Glassman. "We do about 2,000 titles per year for various courses. Some courses may have only 20 or 30 students enrolled in them; others have upwards of 500 students. There is quite a substantial volume. The cost runs anywhere from $60 to more than $100 per kit, most of which is related to copyright fees for the material reprinted in each kit. For example, the carbon offset contribution is 10 cents for every $110 course kit."

The next step is a University-wide carbon offset survey. Dubreuil and her colleagues at IRIS are currently conducting an online survey to gauge student attitudes to carbon offset programs.  "The survey asks students if they know what a carbon footprint is and what carbon offsetting involves. We are asking them if they want an expanded carbon offset program at the University. The survey also measures the attitudes of students," says Dubreuil. "Are they willing to pay more for various goods and how much more? Some of the people we have spoken to have expressed a concern. They don’t necessarily have the vocabulary. Many students want more information and have an interest."

To facilitate students’ knowledge, the back of each course kit contains an information page to tell students about carbon offsetting. The program falls under the umbrella of the Yorkwise program, a University-wide initiative to reduce York’s ecological footprint and improve life on the University’s Keele and Glendon campuses.

Visit the IRIS Web site for more information on the carbon offset survey and sustainability research currently underway at York. To learn more about York’s efforts to reduce its ecological footprint, visit the Yorkwise Web site. 

The York community can keep informed on sustainability through the new IRIS blog. Input is welcome.

Story by Jenny Pitt-Clark, YFile editor.