So, You Want Your Town to Be Green?
Over the last 20 years, localities have come a long way in terms of sustainability. For example, in the late 80s, Seattle was the first major metropolitan community to address issues of sustainability on a large scale, thanks, in part, to local activists working with elected officials. Ten years later perhaps a half dozen such action groups existed in major metropolitan areas, creating "sustainable cities" through their nonprofit efforts. Now, most major metropolitan areas have sustainability forums or action groups of varying size and scope. Even at the beginning of this decade, a city that was recognized for its work in sustainability got the equivalent of a pat on the back. Today, localities are proud of their acknowledgments for their contributions to the environment. Going green attracts businesses and new residents. Though we have seen tremendous strides in the last two decades, we still have a lot to accomplish. Taking the first step toward sustainability can start with small actions and end with substantial results.
We have several reasons for the increased awareness about our environment. First, there are many pro environment employees at all levels of government, and they realize that they can make a positive impact in terms of creating a sustainable economy. This type of government employee is setting an example that both corporations and consumers should follow. If our largest corporations, medium and small businesses, as well as consumers shared the same concern for our environment that our leading green cities have, we would be well on our way to achieving sustainability.
In the media, we frequently read about two areas in the arena of sustainability- the improved design of buildings and recycling programs. And perhaps rightfully so-buildings are perhaps the most apparent area that sustainable practices and initiatives can improve the bottom line. Well designed buildings can also decrease our consumption of energy, and therefore, fossil fuels. Further, citizens, government employees and large corporations all see firsthand how much material we throw away on a daily basis. Armed with the awareness of the waste created by our ever increasing consumption, it makes sense that tax supported entities can make huge strides in achieving sustainability through successful recycling and waste reduction programs.
You might have seen the acronym LEED. It stands for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, and surfaces time and time again in regards to sustainability. The US Green Building Council (USGBC) is the organization that created and maintains LEED standards. The LEED Green Building Rating System ™ is the nationally accepted benchmark for the design, construction, and operation of high performance green buildings. Some cities require new city-built buildings to follow LEED certifications.
If you check the USGBC's website, you will see several case studies. One of the more impressive case studies documents the building of Sidwell Friends Middle School in Washington DC. The school received a Platinum rating-the highest possible rating awarded by LEED. Among the many other features and benefits of the facility, The $28 million project was commended for the following:
- 90 percent reduced municipal water use;
- 60 percent less energy demand than a conventional school; and
- 80 percent native plant species planted on site.
The school uses treated waste water for toilets and for cooling towers. Students grow vegetables on the green roofs. These specially designed roofs capture rainwater and reduce stormwater runoff. The school is located near public transportation and has extra space dedicated to bicycles ridden to school by both students and faculty.
However, to move toward sustainability, one does not need to think in terms of multimillion dollar projects. Look no further than the use of paper in your department. In spite of widespread adoption of recycling programs in corporations, cities and schools, filling bins with paper and plastic disposables does little good because the demand for post consumer recycled content products is still relatively low. The recycling program your city just started provides journalists with that wonderful "feel good" story. What journalists seldom report is that up to 80 percent of recycled material is either burned for its BTU value or taken to a landfill to add to that ever growing mountain of slow to decay human generated waste.
Why? The demand for products made from recycled content simply has not come close to meeting the supply of available material. Many cities and other organizations have taken the first step by recognizing the problems associated with waste. Paper and paper packaging are the number one volume commodity entering the waste stream. By using products made from recycled content, we save energy, reduce emissions and preserve our forests. These tremendous benefits accrue from the use of recycled content papers and other office supply items when used in place of virgin material products. It makes sense for not only those of us now living, but also for future generations, our progeny.
Therefore, we must create economic pull through for the recovered materials collected via recycling programs. Buying products made of recycled materials creates that economic pullthrough, closing the loop. In the long run, adopting green policies can save money.
The US Postal Service, for example, understands the concept of closing the loop. It faces the challenge of dealing with thousands of tons of "undeliverable bulk business mail" or UBBM. Disposing of that much waste paper has a high cost, especially if waste hauling fees are calculated on those many hundreds of thousands of tons. Recycling this relatively clean source of fiber for paper production makes sense economically and ecologically. To gain maximum value for the recyclable UBBM, it makes economic sense as well to purchase paper made from recovered/recycled fibers so that the recoverable UBBM fibers have greater value. Waste equals feedstock, just like in nature.
Further, most people do not realize that buying products made from virgin pulp has unseen costs. For example, taxpayers subsidize the forest industry to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars each year to build access roads and cut down trees in our national forests. If chlorine used to bleach paper contaminates our water supply, taxpayers, both corporate and individual, pick up the tab to clean up the contaminants, or we pay the price for chlorine's effects on humans through poor health, associated healthcare costs and higher insurance premiums.
Consider your newly adopted green policies as a way to strengthen the "brand" of your city, town or county. Corporations like Bank of America, Starbucks, Monsanto, Goldman Sachs and a host of other recognizable companies enjoy the benefits of espousing green practices. Your locality can as well. Not only will you help create a cleaner, healthier environment, you can leverage your green initiatives in terms of marketing your city to tourists, potential new businesses and potential new residents, as well as improve staff morale.
Localities can use recycled paper for its marketing collateral. Like many corporations do, make certain that your audience knows that you are contributing to a more sustainable planet by using recycled paper. A simple acknowledgment, printed on the marketing piece, envelope or city letterhead, is all it takes. Consider that much of the paper a municipality uses travels a very short distance and is only used internally.
Also remember that recycled products have come a long way in the last 20 years. Paper made from 100 percent post consumer recycled paper is indistinguishable from paper made from virgin material-in performance, brightness and in texture. What's better than using recycled paper? Using no paper at all. Encourage your department to use electronic correspondence when possible. Many other functions like billing and ticketing can be performed electronically.
The Green Office Guide, a booklet originally published by the city of Portland, is an excellent publication for any organization wanting to implement green policies. It points to a school in Florida that installed sensor monitors to replace traditional light switches. The monitors paid for themselves in five years, and yielded an energy savings of ten percent (the study in Florida now being several years ago, when energy costs were much less than today), more if you count the reduced load on the air conditioner. The Green Office Guide also suggests that significant savings can be realized by turning off computers, photocopiers, fax machines and other hardware when not in use (something we ALL so willingly did in the 1970s). Fortunately, many electronic devices and printers today are being manufactured under EPA Energy Star standards.
Other ideas to create a sustainable organization include:
- Encouraging employees to carpool, buy a hybrid vehicle, ride a bicycle to work, or to use public transit;
- If possible, implementing a flex time policy for employees, or allowing them to work from home;
- Drink tap water rather than bottled water (last year alone, according to research by The Pacific Institute, it took 16 billion gallons of water to manufacture the plastic bottles used in holding four billion gallons of bottled water);
- Using environmentally friendly cleaning products;
- Installing low volume flush toilets;
- Using recycled paper for business cards;
- Using a printing utility such as FinePrint that allows for the management of printing jobs;
- Encouraging employee involvement in environmental activities;
- Monitoring what other environmentally responsible cities are doing (the "Green Playbook"- a Web based resource to provide strategies, tips, and tools for cities and counties to take immediate action on climate change. Check it out at http://www. greenplaybook.org/. The North Texas Chapter of the USGBC wrote a great summary of the playbook and its resources. Learn more at http://www. usgbcnorthtexas.org/articles/ General/playbook.html; and
- Working with environmentally concerned citizens and sustainability action groups
In the big picture, sustainability reduces waste and ultimately cuts costs. Form a sustainability committee within your department to identify wasteful practices and determine a course of action to address these issues. Once you have identified how and where your locality can save money (at this time of ever increasing fuel and energy costs, it may be feasible to begin introducing hybrid vehicles into your automotive fleet) create a set of policies and procedures. Set attainable goals in terms of savings and monitor those savings and other achievements. Most importantly, communicate your sustainability efforts to your employees, potential employees, current residents, potential residents and businesses that are considering your city as a site for new developments or expanded development.
Though community sustainability groups are not in their infancy anymore, they are far from mature. Indeed, much work needs to be done. People need to look at everything that is happening or needs to happen in their local community that promotes sustainability on an individual or a municipal level. Nearly every area of our great country has citizens who want to do their part in creating a sustainable community. Sustainability is no longer the buzzword of eccentric environmentalists. Rather, sustainability has become part of our business and economic vocabulary.
As a responsible society we must look at our environment from this perspective: Can we continue consuming at our current pace and leave a planet worth having, to those generations not yet born? Can we honestly retain our current levels of consumption and know that we have left enough for future generations to meet their needs? It might not be easy; in fact, it might be downright difficult. However, the most difficult things to accomplish are often the most rewarding and often pay the greatest dividends. Remember that sustainability consists of social, economic and environmental components. Without any of these legs on this stool, you can't milk the cow.
Social sustainability-that which is good for our society, our local community, and, good for the children and grandchildren of our community in the years to come.
Economic sustainability-that which is good for our economy, our local economy, and, good for the economic well-being of our children and grandchildren in the years to come.
Environmental sustainability- that which is good for the health of our natural world-so nature can retain the productivity needed to sustain human life and provide resources for our children and grandchildren in the years to come.
We can debate all we want whether climate change is caused by humans. The data overwhelmingly indicates that it is happening. Instead, we should consider that we have a population of six and one half billion that is expected to double in 50 years. We have a finite amount of resources that we are already depleting to unsustainable levels-clean air, water, forest resources, fertile soil, ocean fish stocks, and oil-among the many other, earth-provided and lifesustaining resources without which we will find human existence difficult, if not impossible.
Your locality does not have to be as large as Dallas, Seattle or Denver to have an impact on the environment, positive or negative, and you don't have to start a multimillion initiative to enjoy the benefits of living in a sustainable community. Remember, sustainability isn't about philanthropy or doing the usual "feel good" things associated with the environment.
Sustainability is about enhancing the livability and reputation of your city, by optimizing energy efficiency, resource efficiency and reducing waste. Sustainability is about creating a healthy, more productive environment for your employees, your community, our planet and ultimately future generations. And those, my friends, pay BIG dividends!
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