Earth Day Retrospective

Sustainability leaders reflect on Green achievements for the year 2013–2014

EarthDay2014jGjI’m beyond happy and proud to introduce jennyGREENjeans on Earth Day ’14! And what better way to celebrate than chatting with a few of my heroes in the Sustainability field?

I asked Ron Gonen, Emily Fano, and Robbie Lock the same 5 questions, and those questions inspired insightful and thought-provoking reflections. The fact that each person had a similar response to my last question—Do you have a favorite global, national, and citywide or community achievement that represents Earth Day 2014 for you? (with each distinguishing New York City’s organics collection for composting as one of the most important eco-initiatives of the last year)—is telling and very encouraging.

(Read more about the D3 Green Schools Compost pilot on my Be the Change! page.)

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Q&A with Ron Gonen

Ron Gonen1Ron Gonen is the Deputy Commissioner of Sanitation, Recycling and Sustainability for New York City. He is responsible for New York’s recycling programs, which include paper, metal, glass, plastic, organics, textiles, electronics, hazardous waste and related legislation. Ron is an Adjunct Professor at Columbia Business School and was the 2012 recipient of the Social Enterprise Teaching Award for Excellence in Teaching.  Ron was the Co-Founder and CEO of RecycleBank (2004–2012).  His many environmental awards include the United Nation’s “Champion of the Earth” award and the Medal of Excellence from Columbia University.  Ron received an MBA from Columbia Business School.

Jennifer Prescott: What propelled you into the field of Sustainability?

Ron Gonen: First, I’ve always had a passion for nature and the environment.  Second, I grew up working for one of the first Green Architects while I was in High School (Philadelphia architect Paul Macht; www.machtarchitects.com).  I learned a lot about environmental design and sustainability through Paul in the late ’80s – early ’90s and felt I wanted to follow a similar path.

JP: Did you ever feel that you wanted to go into design?

RG:  I have a passion for design.  In fact, I’m a partner in a sustainable jewelry company, Linhardt Design, www.linhardtdesign.com, where we only use recycled metals and ethically sourced stone.  So, I’ve always had a great appreciation for design and the aesthetic but my real skill is developing systems and operations to solve problems to help protect our environment.

JP: What is most satisfying to you about your current position as NYC’s Deputy Commissioner of Recycling  & Sustainability?

RG: To help and improve the city I love.

JP: What is your most satisfying achievement in regards to Earth Day over the last Earth Year (2013-2014)?

RG: I would say the thing I’m most proud of – and have a lot of respect for – is the Department of Sanitation and the excellent people that work for the agency.  I like to think that over the past couple of years I have been able to get the people there excited about the opportunities in the sustainability space, what it means for them personally and what it means for agency.  There are over 6000 people that work for the Department of Sanitation and if I can get them excited about sustainability and recycling, that’s about the most important thing that I can do as just one individual.

JP: How does your training as an entrepreneur influence your daily walk in your position with the DSNY and in all of your Sustainability efforts?

RG: I assume that there are no limits and that everything is possible.  It’s just the way that I’m wired.  That isn’t always the case of course.  There are certain limitations that are very difficult to overcome and there are sometimes reasons that things won’t change for a long time.  But it never gets in my way of trying.  I’m wired in such a way where I believe that you always must try.  Failure is as much a part of success as anything.  You don’t get to be successful and build lasting programs if you’re not willing to try different things till you find the thing that works.

JP: Do you have a favorite global, national, citywide or community achievement that represents Earth Day 2014 for you?

RG: I think that it would have to be what we are doing to convert organic and paper collections in NYC schools because that’s something that got started with parents* driving the change and then I was able to come in and push the program forward and grow it.  It’s a great example of people wanting to see something change in their city and not waiting for the city to move first but taking the initiative on their own.  I know that challenges and change is daunting for individuals and small groups but once those initiatives get off the ground, agencies and government institutions can run with it and make it much larger because much of the risk and opposition gets wiped off the table once a group of citizens have already got the program launched.

Q&A with Emily “Alix” Fano

EmilyFanoEmily “Alix” Fano has over 20 years of professional advocacy, media, and policy experience in the non-profit sector.  She is a published author whose writing on health, bioethics, and the environment has appeared in national and international forums including The British Medical Journal, The New York Times, and The Ecologist.  She is a co-author and core team member of the District 3 Composing Pilot.  Emily has a Master’s degree in Urban and Environmental Policy from Tufts University.  She is Currently NYC Outreach Manager for Eco-Schools USA and a trained presenter with Al Gore’s Climate Reality Leadership Corps.

Jennifer Prescott:  What propelled you into the field of Sustainability?

Emily Fano: Since I was a very little girl, I loved animals and always felt very connected to nature.  I spent a lot of time outside as a child, exploring different environments.  My father was the Chief of the water resources branch at the United Nations, in charge of water projects in 50 developing countries, primarily Africa, until his passing in 1988.  He was working to provide clean drinking water to people who didn’t have any, and on desertification issues.  That must have infiltrated my consciousness because I grew up knowing that water is a precious resource.  As a teen I was naturally drawn to issues that required me to get involved in making the world a better place.  By the time I was in college I became involved with the movement to end animal testing.  I began to see the connection between animal testing and the environment.  In my book, Lethal Laws, I show how using animals to test chemicals is really an alibi for the continued use and production of toxic chemicals, which are ultimately harming humans and harming the environment.  In the early 90s, I was simultaneously exploring the issues of chemicals vs. organic and sustainable agriculture, which led to an exploration of dangerous genetic technologies. I was just really receptive to all these different BIG issues and so I was naturally drawn to climate change.

JP:  What is most satisfying to you about your current position as NYC Outreach Manager for Eco-Schools USA/Nat’l Wildlife Fed.?

EF: What is most satisfying to me is that I can work directly with teachers who are really excited about implementing sustainability initiatives, and sincerely want to see change inside the school, and want to help students understand that they have the power to change the world.  I’ve worked with teachers and parents that have implemented waste reduction & recycling campaigns and energy & water conservation campaigns. People are really using the Eco-Schools program to empower students to make a difference.  I’m glad about this because it’s really the students that are going to have to confront this BIG mess that grown-ups have created for them.  Because the problems are so immense, many people feel powerless to effect change and they give up, check out, become apathetic; so it’s gratifying to me when students see that they really do have the power to make a difference through their collective actions.

JP:  What is your most satisfying achievement in regards to Earth Day over the last Earth Year (2013-2014)?

EF: The continued expansion of the composting program* in schools city wide, which started in Feb 2012 with us – five committed environmentalists on the Upper West side.  To be able to witness the City’s adoption and continued rollout of the compost program over the last two years – a program that we created – would qualify as the most satisfying personal and professional accomplishment  that I’ve had up to now.

JP:  How does your training as a Climate Reality Presenter influence your daily walk in your position at Eco-Schools USA and in all your Sustainability efforts?

EF: I carry the knowledge about climate change and its current and future impacts with me every day.  It informs all of my work with schools – from trying to help students to save energy by reducing greenhouse gas emissions in their schools, to encouraging schools to compost because every pound of food waste equals two pounds of global warming gases.  For me, it all comes back to climate change because I know what lies before us if we don’t do anything.

JP: Do you have a favorite global, national, citywide or community achievement that represents Earth Day 2014 for you?

EF: It will always be our composting pilot.*  I have visions of truckloads of food waste being collected from our schools and processed into “black gold” for local community gardens and parks, and I think to myself – that’s tons of greenhouse gases that won’t be released into the atmosphere, in small part thanks to what we helped start.  Every now and then I get calls from people outside of the city who read about what we did and want to replicate it in their schools and districts – so it’s reverberating outwards and that’s pretty awesome.

Q&A with Robbie Lock

RobbieLockIn his fifth year at the non-profit GrowNYC, Robbie Lock currently manages the Recycling Champions Program, which develops model recycling programs at 100 NYC schools each year, in partnership with the NYC Departments of Education and Sanitation.  Robbie began his career in sustainability selling and installing solar energy systems, and teaching outdoor environmental education in Massachusetts.  In 2007, he wanted to see a president elected that supported sustainability, so he worked as a full-time field organizer for Senator Obama in Michigan and Colorado. Despite being asked, Robbie doesn’t regret his undergraduate degree in Philosophy and English from Wheaton College (MA), but now also holds a Masters in Sustainability Management from Columbia University. Yes, he’s a Red Sox fan.

Jennifer Prescott: What propelled you into the field of Sustainability?

Robbie Lock: Global warming and climate change had started to gain traction in popular culture during my college years and the release of An Inconvenient Truth and the destruction of Hurricane Katrina raised my interest in environmental issues beyond where I thought it would ever be. But it wasn’t until my first job out of college, working for a solar company in Massachusetts that I became really hooked.  We had finished installing a residential PV (photovoltaic aka solar) system, and were commissioning the system.  The sun came out, the PV system came online, and the electric meter started to spin backwards, selling power back to the grid.  Looking up at the roof you could see this beautiful array, silently generating clean electricity. When you see that, the prospect of a sustainable future seems so evident—from then on I knew I was on board for a career in sustainability.

JP: What is most satisfying to you about your current position at GrowNYC?

RL: NYC is a global leader in sustainability, and at GrowNYC, I feel like I’m part of making history in urban sustainability.  GrowNYC’s Recycling Champions Program (RCP) focuses on increasing diversion rates at NYC public schools and there are 1,800 schools, in 1,200 buildings, with 1.1 million students.  I love being a part of this sea-change in NYC sustainability.  Not only do schools generate a lot of waste, but we can also engage and educate a huge population of adults and students – the future of NYC.  Our programmatic impact is increased through the strong leadership of our partners at the NYC DOE Office of Sustainability and Department of Sanitation, which enable us to extend trainings, best practices, and education, throughout the City. I’m also very grateful to be surrounded by such an amazing team in RCP and at GrowNYC, who make change happen every day, block by block, community by community, across all five boroughs.

JP: What is your most satisfying achievement in regards to Earth Day over the last Earth Year (2013-2014)?

RL: Leading up to Earth Day, I’m so proud of the Recycling Champions team at GrowNYC.  We hired five outreach coordinators in March 2013; they hit the ground running and haven’t looked back since, educating and engaging almost 34,000 students and staff through RCP programming and activities.  It’s also been a big year for helping schools that have come on board with DSNY and DOE’s Organics Collection, as they recycle and separate food waste in the cafeteria.  On average, diversion rates have increased 72% at RCP schools, so we’re starting to get a sense of just how much waste a school can reduce and divert.  And throughout these interactions we’re working with more and more folks that are motivated to make their school greener.

JP: How does your training/education influence your daily walk in your position at GrowNYC and in all your Sustainability efforts?

RL: Sustainability is a big tent, and much of what is happening now is just the beginning. My training and education have led me to understand the importance of being able to effectively communicate sustainability as a range of possible benefits that are both personal and social.  For some people, environmental benefits will motivate them to act, for some it’s the economics, and for others it can be an improvement to their quality of life and health. Often times global warming and climate change are at the end of the discussion, which is OK, because the environmental benefits are inherent. But identifying why someone might adopt an action, change a habit, or make a different purchase, is fundamentally important to my work at GrowNYC and sustainability in general.

JP: Do you have a favorite global, national, citywide or community achievement that represents Earth Day 2014 for you?

RL: Earth Day is a great time to look around and appreciate connections between local and global achievements in waste, energy, transportation, and food.  It’s fantastic that NYC is pursing residential and commercial organics diversion, while also building a more resilient, healthy, and livable City in the wake of Sandy.  New Yorkers should also be proud of increased access to green space and a more bike friendly City with the launch of Citi Bike.  Nationally, we should be proud that the U.S. is now host to the largest solar power facility in the world at Ivanpah in California, which went online in February.  I’m also a big fan of the proliferation of Tesla motors as a huge step for electric vehicles.  I took a picture of a Tesla charging station on I-95 a few months ago and my friend thought I was crazy, but it’s an indicator of our changing infrastructure and what we see as normal.

* Read more about the D3 Green Schools Compost pilot on my Be the Change! page.

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What sustainability achievements are you cheering from the past year? Let me know in the comments below….

About the Author

Here at Jenny Green Jeans, by sharing success stories and easy-to- implement tips, I hope to inspire and empower you to continue to make sustainable choices in your life and watch how far the impact goes. Contact me with any questions or suggestions you may have.

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