Guilty and Greening
A few years ago, at an inter-agency committee meeting to work on greening state agencies, one of the prominent leaders associated with the work introduced himself, and then told a story. Here it is from my memory:
“Good morning, all. I am your average Joe-in-a-position-of-visible-authority and I am very glad to be here, involved in this exceptionally important work with all of your represented state entities. Your efforts will bring value to the work of the state and help us to become true stewards of our resources and our budgets. We cannot support our employees or the residents of our state if we fail to understand our effect on the environment when creating our policies and when purchasing goods to help us to do our daily work.
I am a bit embarrassed, sitting here with this reusable coffee mug.
I am embarrassed because I was walking here with a cup of Dunkin Donuts coffee in a disposable foam cup, and was stopped by your average-Jane-from-my-agency”, he said, gesturing to average Jane on his left, “who insisted I couldn’t show up at a meeting about green procurement and state sustainability with such an example of waste and toxins. So, she quickly dumped out her coffee, and poured mine into her durable travel mug, which you see here. Thank you, average-Jane-from-my-agency.” He then took a sip. We all chuckled.
The sharing of this story mortified the woman who had schooled this average, yet prominent Joe-in-a-position-of-visible-authority as she felt it defeated her whole objective: to help a leader illustrate that he is taking sustainability seriously. This is, from my perspective, misplaced guilt and embarrassment.
Since that time, my state has made great strides and is working diligently on very many aspects of sustainability in the work of the government, and in ways to support the varied goals of municipalities, school districts, campuses. See this website for inspiration and resources from New York State. There are regional commitments to increase electric vehicle (EV) use. The state university system has a system-wide goal to reduce energy use 30% by 2020. There has been a 35% decrease in paper use by agencies from 2011 to 2016, saving the State $19.6 million. A local municipality (or two) has banned foam take-away containers. Dunkin Donuts is nationally phasing out foam coffee cups.
There is too much we have yet to do. Let’s not waste energy apologizing for things along the way that have not gone perfectly right. And I know no one who is 100% sustainable. We are learning so much as the awareness increases and market opportunities become accessible. The average Joe mentioned above used his simple gaff to lighten the moment and to show how each of us has more to learn.
There are times when I take a fairly long shower, enjoying our on-demand water heater. This heater is vastly more efficient than the old water tank was, but I certainly occasionally negate that efficiency gain.
We are trying very hard to move into an all-electric vehicle, but with our usage patterns and budget we currently have a plug-in EV hybrid that gets only 25 miles electric only. This makes sense for us because most of our daily driving is within 20 miles. But sometimes we drive far and use, gasp, gas. Sometimes we do this with 3 kayaks on the roof, which means we use even more, gasp, gas.
I carry a water bottle and often a durable travel coffee mug when I travel. Occasionally, I get a coffee while at work and sometimes I don’t have a durable mug with me, so I get a paper cup, which is single use, and throw it into the waste bin when the coffee is gone. Am I the devil? No.
Every thought that helps us get to actions that are closer to closed-loop practices is a valuable thought that we should celebrate. Let’s not linger on the stuff that needs improvement any longer than it takes to say “oops” and to think “yeah, I can do that better next time”. There is little benefit in living in the past.
In addition, let’s recognize that occasionally the need for an extra-long shower justifies the added resource use. Truly justifies it, so let the guilt go. Each day we are getting closer to materials with no toxins, and energy use that is clean and green. There will come a day when we can take that shower knowing that the energy to heat the water is from the sun and the earth, the pump energy is from wind turbines, we are capturing heat as the water goes down the drain, the soap we are using is neutral in our water systems, and that our local municipality relies on Green Infrastructure and returns wastewater to the local aquifer with little or no chemical applications. Perhaps someday we will have a truly closed-loop for every manufactured item. We will design all our durable purchases, such as home and car, to last several hundred years and mid-level goods, such as appliances and toys of various sizes will be repairable as a matter of course. Anything past its use life can be returned to a closed-cycle of either feed-stock into the manufacturing cycle, or into food for the earth. Maybe we will also learn to travel and enjoy our shared planet with “soft feet” and via travel methods that also employ renewable energy.
At this point in time we know a lot about how to become more sustainable. It is a process, and each step can be celebrated and can inform our future learning. Now is not the time distract ourselves with self-recriminations.
Go for no-guilt in your greening,