A green wave is sweeping over Toronto’s academic institutions, as staff, students and faculty collaborate on sustainability projects that could inspire a sea of change across society.

Bike co-ops, compost and recycling programs, rooftop gardens and solar panels are becoming increasingly visible at university and college campuses.

Peel back a layer: Replacing aging furnaces with state-of-the-art HVAC systems, installing better insulation and replacing incandescent lights is saving schools millions of dollars while cutting energy consumption.

York University, for example, saved $2.7 million in 2008 with energy-efficient improvements, and expects to boost that savings to $5 million per year by 2011. Ryerson University estimates it has saved $15 million over the past 17 years thanks to sustainability and conservation initiatives.

But the changes on campus are driven by more than just a desire to save money.

Shareholder obligations may play a big role in driving the business world, but academic institutions — often with substantially smaller budgets — are also driven by the research, activism, and idealism of their students, faculty and staff.

Changes are happening at the grassroots level (student-run compost programs, for example), in the research labs (changing the chemistry of concrete to make it more environmentally friendly) and by administrative edict (ensuring that new campus buildings are certified as Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design green buildings).

Together, they make the GTA’s post-secondary institutions the equivalent of giant green incubators. Ideas can be tested, researched, and implemented on a relatively large scale before leaving the campus.

Whether a sustainable project works on campus can be a litmus test for how it will fare in the “real world,” says Dr. Dawn Bazely, director of York University’s Institute for Research and Innovation in Sustainability.

“Sustainability has to start at universities, where you’ve got people absorbed in issues, thinking critically and engaging in dialogue,” says Bazely, an ecologist by training. “If you can’t do it at universities, many of which are the size of small cities, how are we going to do this on a large scale?”

The future is green. And for university and college campuses across the GTA, the future is now.

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