Green Means Go: Creating a Sustainable World

Written by Edward Carpenter

green_lauraLAURA WAINER, MSEM ’06, is boot high in the San Francisco Bay mud again. The musky smell of peat permeates her hair, skin, and nostrils as she leads volunteers planting pickleweed. She absorbs it all with a sense of purpose, and a touch of humor. She’s there so often that she worries it may only be a matter of time before the Discovery Channel’s Mike Rowe, host of the television show “Dirty Jobs,” comes knocking at her office door.

“You have to love the smell of wetlands in order to have this intense relationship with mud and plants,” said Wainer, a graduate of the University of San Francisco’s Master of Science in Environmental Management (MSEM) program with an emphasis in wetlands.

Tidal wetlands are brackish, with a pungent aroma and a silty earthiness, Wainer said. It’s not a glamorous ecosystem, she admits, but wetlands’ importance as wildlife incubators connects with a sense of accomplishment she feels as the number of restoration projects increases around the bay.

As the restoration projects manager for Oakland-based Save The Bay, Wainer designed the restoration of seven wetland sites in 2007-08 alone, and oversaw 5,000 volunteers as they planted 25,000 native species. Wetlands are vital to fish, wildlife, and people, helping to clean the water, curb global warming, and protect against floods and erosion. Wainer’s effort, along with numerous staff and volunteers over the years, has nearly doubled the amount of wetlands being restored in the bay since 1999, from 40,000 acres to about 76,000 acres, on the way to a goal of 100,000 acres.

Wainer credits USF’s underlying foundation of community activism for leading her into the field and she’s hardly alone in her aspirations for a healthier environment. Her devotion to teaching sustainable living to a new generation is multiplied by a growing number of USF alums working at leading eco-friendly employers in the region, from wetland restoration to air quality control, from waste recycling to environmental justice.

linkbox_sustain  She’s just one of a bumper crop of recent USF graduates finding jobs in the Bay Area’s burgeoning “green” economy, a trend that is likely to continue as more of USF’s incoming students choose to pursue degrees with an environmental focus, said Stephen Zavestoski, associate professor and chair of the undergraduate environmental studies program.

Enrollment is up at both the undergraduate and graduate levels, sometimes dramatically. The number of undergraduate environmental studies majors soared 371 percent to 33, between fall 2002 and fall 2007. During the same period, the number of undergraduate environmental science majors grew by 19 percent to 25, and majors in the MSEM program climbed 25 percent to 81, university enrollment figures show.

“I think students, if they are at all connected to the media, can’t help but be aware of the profound changes already happening in our world,” said Zavestoski, citing examples of higher oil prices, hotter summers, and the increased frequency of severe weather. He believes many students are looking for a major that will allow them to make a difference.

Nationwide, students and parents appear to be prodding universities toward a greener future, as more insist that the schools they attend take their environmental responsibilities seriously, said Julian Dautremont-Smith, associate director of the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education. Half of the 200 colleges and universities with the largest endowments in the U.S. and Canada have begun to cut carbon emissions, one-quarter have pledged to attain carbon neutrality, while more than two-thirds have instituted green building policies, and almost one-third have investments in renewable energy or similar funds, according to the College Sustainability Report Card 2008.

At USF, student groups Back to da Roots, EnVision, the Garden Project, and the Trust the Tap campaign have pushed university administrators to support a number of green initiatives in recent years, including purchasing fair trade coffee for on-campus sales, conducting a waste stream analysis resulting in a commitment to boost recycling efforts, setting aside a plot of land for organic gardening and composting, and reducing plastic water bottle sales.
From Campus Clubs to Careers

green_farmers A member of the environmental club EnVision during her sophomore year, environmental studies major and politics minor Alexandra Agajanian ’05 recalled the group’s fight to reduce and/or eliminate the use of carryout lunch containers at USF’s cafeterias. “For that campaign, students were stationed to sort through a day’s worth of trash inside the cafeteria and we collected and cleaned the to-go containers,” Agajanian said. “We then assembled a large tower of the containers in the cafeteria to exhibit the overuse.”

After a sustained campaign over several semesters, USF’s cafeterias made a change, switching to compostable corn, sugarcane, and potato starch containers and utensils.

Following graduation, Agajanian studied techniques for leading a sustainable lifestyle and growing organic vegetables at an intensive permaculture certification program in Santa Fe, N.M. Now with the nonprofit Sustainable Economic Enterprise – Los Angeles (SEE-LA), she manages three farmers markets, including one in East Hollywood dedicated to providing fresh, local produce to low-income families. The East Hollywood market, one of seven operated by SEE-LA, is among several subsidized by the organization’s better-known Sunday Hollywood Farmers Market, allowing it to accept food stamps and other federal assistance food vouchers.

“I think eating seasonally and locally are two of the most important things that people can do for their health and for the environment,” Agajanian said. Eating locally and seasonally helps reduce the carbon footprint required to grow, harvest, and bring to market the food that finally arrives on families’ tables.

Partnering with the Los Angeles Unified School District, SEE-LA also brings farmers into classrooms to speak with students about growing fruits and vegetables and the importance of a balanced diet. Students taste fresh produce, learn where their food comes from, and, hopefully, come to appreciate it. In SEE-LA’s Good Cooking program, which Agajanian has taught, low-income parents learn to use fresh, seasonal produce to prepare easy and healthy meals.

Uncertain of her major when she entered USF, Agajanian signed up for an environmental course, remembering how the subject captivated her during high school. “It was just mind-blowing that all these environment crises were happening but no one was doing anything,” she said. Once she realized the extent of the crisis there was no going back; she felt a responsibility to do something. USF’s intimate department and small class sizes made her feel connected to a community, even part of an environmental movement, she said.

Breathe in the Air

linkbox_teachin  From the bay wetlands that filter the region’s water and provide refuge for thousands of wildlife species, to the vegetables on Californians’ plates, to the air we breathe, USF alums working in the green economy are driven by a desire for results-oriented environmental improvements. For Alona Davis, MSEM ’07, realizing that passion meant walking away from a private sector job in environmental consulting, where she guided clients through environmental regulations, advised them on permits, and oversaw the decontamination of soil and water toxins. Hired by the Bay Area Air Quality Management District (BAAQMD) about a year ago, she saw a chance to work with business owners and the public to improve air quality on a measurable basis.

“I am makinga daily contribution to environmental issues right now, and into the future,”
said Davis, comparing her responsibilities at BAAQMD with those of environmental consulting. “It’s a more rewarding feeling.”

Already working to reduce diesel emissions near ports, wood fire smoke particles during the winter, and overall smog through its Spare the Air campaign, BAAQMD is expected to be on the cutting edge of air quality standards by Bay Area residents, Davis said. To that end, she inspects about 250 Bay Area gas stations a year, looking for gas fume leaks that contribute to the region’s hazy air.

With more than 3,000 gas stations in the Bay Area, even small leaks have a combined impact that can cause smog, making it hazardous for severe asthma sufferers or others with diminished lung capacity to go outside.

Enforcement reminds gas station owners that staying in compliance is not only good for the environment, but also good for the bottom line, especially when a citation may range from hundreds to tens of thousands of dollars, Davis said.

Davis foresees the green economy, from environmental sustainability to resource conservation, expanding across the board into industry, business, research, law, and education in the coming years. “It will extend into homes and businesses and schools like never before,” she said.

The Business of Green

Environmental studies and environmental science experts alone don’t power the green economy, however. A rising number of Bay Area entrepreneurs, including Oren Jaffe, MBA ’05, believe green business is smart business.

Long attracted to the role of entrepreneurial matchmaker, Jaffe’s latest venture is a rapidly expanding sustainable business networking event he co-founded in February 2007 with Nikki Martinez called EcoTuesday. Since its inception, EcoTuesday’s popularity has proved contagious, resulting in franchises sprouting in Minneapolis, Los Angeles, Seattle, Silicon Valley, Marin/North Bay, and New York. “I love bringing people together at EcoTuesday and watching the magic happen,” said Jaffe, who also runs environmental consulting firm BlueMap Inc. “The commonality is that they want to improve the world and make products and deliver services to change the world.”

From his perspective, green business — whether it’s related to a company’s supply chain, human resources, or another sector — is where the market is headed. “Lowering your carbon footprint and being more efficient with your waste and energy output is just smart business,” he said. “Those that embrace it are doing well, and those that don’t aren’t.”

Held the fourth Tuesday of each month in downtown San Francisco, EcoTuesday makes meeting people easy for even the least gregarious among the eco-crowd with a semi-structured mixer that includes a 10- to 15-minute talk by a sustainable business leader, networking over drinks, and a roundtable introduction of each attendee.

As the idea of the so-called triple bottom line—economics, the environment, and social responsibility — spreads into corporate boardrooms across America, Jaffe sees an opportunity for USF’s School of Business and Management to expand its course offerings in sustainability. Already, progress has been made from when he was one of a few voices consistently raising questions in his MBA classes about sustainability, Jaffe said. “I’m just excited that (SOBAM) is moving in that direction,” he said. “Because eventually, it’s not going to be a green thing. It’s just going to be the way business is done.”

Recycling History

green_recycling SOBAM accounting graduate Mike Sangiacomo ’71, CEO of Norcal Waste Systems, San Francisco’s trash and recyclables collector, said the trend toward sustainability in his industry—considered by some to be a leading indicator, as an early adopter—is undeniable.

He sees a bright future for eco-friendly trash and recyclables collection, and a major role for companies like his in reversing a decades-old practice of burying truckloads of methane-producing waste in earthen pits. “I’m personally convinced that we’ve done a lot of harm to our environment,” Sangiacomo said.

Landfills are the largest human-related source of methane in the nation, accounting for 34 percent of all methane emissions, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Methane, which is 20 percent more harmful as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, is generated in landfills and open dumps as waste decomposes under anaerobic (without oxygen) conditions.

But, reducing the 3,500 tons of landfill waste collected daily in San Francisco to zero by 2020, the city’s stated goal, will require finding markets for all kinds of plastic, metal, paper, organic material, and just about anything else people drop in their garbage or recycle bins. What’s left could be incinerated, producing heat to light and power Norcal’s facilities, which are spread from Eureka to Gilroy, Sangiacomo said.

San Francisco, one of the country’s leading urban recyclers, already diverts about 70 percent of its waste to recycling and other programs, substantially exceeding the 62 percent reported by San Jose and 59 percent reported by Los Angeles. In fact, San Francisco is on track to top 75 percent diversion by 2010. That’s a far cry from the city’s 25 percent rate in 2001, Sangiacomo said.

Norcal runs 12 distinctive recycling programs in San Francisco alone, including the ubiquitous glass/metal/paper/plastic bins, construction debris, and a highly touted residential and restaurant food scraps service that collects 300 tons of victuals a day. The food scraps are then composted into highly enriched topsoil that Norcal is able to package and sell to Bay Area vintners, farmers, and landscapers.

Additionally, the company converted 335 collection trucks and 37 transfer trucks to biodiesel. Natural gas powers the fleet’s remaining 13 vehicles. The switch reduced the fleet’s greenhouse gas emissions by 5,400 tons a year, or 21 percent, said Robert Reed, Norcal spokesman.

Environmental Justice

But, the green economy has a dark side, too. As standards and regulations at home become more stringent for everyone from automakers to wine producers, some companies continue to operate with one eye on legal loopholes and lax environmental regulations abroad, often to the detriment of the poor and disenfranchised. That was exactly the state of affairs captured on film by photojournalists Lou Dematteis ’70 and Kayana Szymczak in their recently published book, Crude Reflections: Oil, Ruin and Resistance in the Amazon Rainforest.

In 1993, and on several occasions since, Dematteis and Szymczak traveled to the Ecuadorian Amazon to document the damage caused by Texaco (purchased by Chevron in 2001) to Cofan and other indigenous ancestral territory, when the oil giant pulled out of the country leaving gaping pits of crude waste in the earth. The duo’s startling images of burning pools of oil waste, native inhabitants with cancer and other deformities, and contaminated waterways, shot over more than 10 years, contributed to a landmark lawsuit seeking up to $16 billion in cleanup costs from Chevron, and helped spark Ecuador’s emergent environmental movement.

“The scene looked like something out of Dante’s Inferno,” Dematteis said. “We often hear of environmental catastrophes but almost never meet the people who suffer the consequences. In Ecuador’s case, I was determined to give a voice to the people who were living with the impacts of this ecological tragedy.”

As a student, Dematteis’ photojournalism spoke to the artistic impulses he had nurtured growing
up and his desire to make a difference in the world.

It wasn’t long before he was working as a staff photographer for Reuters in Managua, Nicaragua. From the “Contra” war in Nicaragua to the opening of Vietnam following the Vietnam War, Dematteis never lost site of the role of justice as he covered social, political, and economic turmoil around the world before turning his attention to the environment in the 1990s.

“I try to expose injustice,” he said. “I try to put light on the things in society and in the world that need to be changed.”

As a student at USF during an era when the faculty and administration were more conservative, one of the highlights of his education was the university’s proximity to the political and social movements rooted in the Haight and opposition to the Vietnam War, Dematteis said.

“At that time, USF hadn’t made the change to support social justice the way it has now,” he said. “I’m very happy to see that USF has become involved in educating students for progressive, eco-friendly careers.”

Environmental justice is just another manifestation of social justice, and it’s up to the current generation to take it into new areas, Dematteis said.

“I think that everything USF is doing with students in the area of social justice is great,” he said. “The more the university can do to encourage that type of interaction, which involves more than just talking about an issue on campus, but getting involved on the ground, all the better.”

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