- Libby Ballengee, Contributing Writer
Earth Day is celebrated today, April 22, around the world as a day to demonstrate support for environmental protection. It’s a time to reflect upon ways to leave less of a carbon footprint on an increasingly warming planet.
Helping people in Dayton with such things will be the job of Mark Charles, Dayton’s first ever sustainability manager. He brings nearly 40 years of environmental and sustainability experience to this new position. In a recent interview, Charles explained the development of the city’s sustainability strategy and how residents can help in the effort (and save some money while they’re at it).
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The following is a shortened and edited version of a full audio interview that aired on The Gem City Podcast on March 23, 2020.
Q: From your understanding, what was the impetus for the city of Dayton to hire a sustainability manager?
A: There are a lot of communities across the nation that have some kind of environmental staff and capability, as does Dayton. Most of Dayton’s historic environmental interest has been limited to the water pollution arena, and they do a good job in the water area.
They have other things that need to be worked into the equation including energy, recycling, resilience to the increasing frequency and severity of storms, the planning area for zoning and the quality of buildings, environmental awareness, community gardens — lots of things that don’t really implicate the water programs. They felt like they needed a broader approach, and a presence in each of those programs, that would elevate the entire city to a more sustainable position.
Q: What is the end goal? Is it generally for the city to be more sustainable, or are there any long-term metrics to achieve? Or are you figuring it out this first year?
A: The agenda … does seek to make the city’s operations, buildings and assets as environmentally sensitive and as sustainable as possible. Sustainable in this case, meaning to make their footprint as light as possible. Basically, to use less. We do have a goal of getting to 100% green energy within a certain period of time. We want to recycle the maximum extent possible, getting to 90 or 100% is a long term goal. We want our buildings to be green and use less energy.
The initiative which I expect to take off in the next few years is dealing with the implications of climate change, and a national, if not international effort to reduce the amount of carbon that we’re emitting into the atmosphere.
People don’t need to go very far to see that here in southwest Ohio we have had a whole lot less snow than we usually do. Historically, it’s usually snow covered from December to March, and we only had something like four days where we had two inches on the ground. We had 60-degree days in January in February. That’s not supposed to happen. So for those people thinking climate change is always off yet, it’s right around the corner and the tornadoes we experienced were just the beginning, I believe.
Q: Were the tornadoes the reason you were hired?
A: The City Commission had already authorized the position when the tornadoes struck, but they hadn’t actually hired anyone yet. It’s a symptom of the greater agenda here that the city is trying to follow.
Our biggest problem is actually not going to be wind, it’s going to be water, at least as the scientists are predicting. We’re going to have really, really wet winters and springs, and which may threaten the planting season and then we’re going to have drought, dry summers. That’s going to be our biggest problem, with every now and then a big windstorm to just mix things up. That’s the implication for the area.
Q: It sounds like you have a big job.
A: They’re all factors in what we decide to do going forward. The city is a big, complex operation with 2,000 city employees if you go all the way down to the laborers. I’m clearly not going to implement everything, but I can help influence what they do in their day-to-day professional lives that will make the city a more effective and sustainable place.
Q: So is part of your role making sure that the other departments are thinking mindfully about sustainability?
A: That’s exactly right. In fact, what I’m working on right now, really the first major project that I’ve had, is I’m looking across the entire city and all the activities that we do, and try to come up with a strategy that will make the city more sustainable. I’m identifying very specific projects that each department can do, and I’ve identified over 70 of them. The next step will be to expose that to a limited public review. Then finally to take it before the City Commission, and have them adopt it, and therefore work it into future budgets, policies and direction to the city staff.
Q: Can you give us an example of one of these strategies?
A: Well, the one that everybody talks about is green energy. When I arrived five months ago, we were buying all of our electricity from fossil fuel-based producers. That’s the power that runs the lights in City Hall, it runs the streetlights and traffic signals, the airport and the water plants. So one of the goals is to move away from fossil fuels and toward renewable green energy, and we’ve already done a large portion of that.
We just recently purchased green energy for all the buildings, and all the streetlights and traffic signals. The only thing that isn’t going to start using green energy is the airport and the water plants, and we are looking at some solar opportunities to provide electricity for those. We haven’t actually procured that yet, but that’s our next goal on the green energy area.
Another item in the strategy is to make new and renovated buildings greener so that they have to build green features in. Ask yourself, why is it that we build any new homes in this country, let alone the city, without solar panels on the roof? You wouldn’t build a house that didn’t have a stove or refrigerator in it? Why do you build a house that doesn’t have solar panels on the roof? So that’s the kind of mentality that I’m hoping to bring to the city itself.
Q: For individual residents, is solar the really the best option for people seeking a green energy option?
A: Yes, that’s probably true because there isn’t a whole lot of wind in the Miami Valley. You can find that in a suitable frequency and magnitude if you go into northern Ohio. Here in the southwest area, wind is not a big supplier of power, and neither is water power because our rivers tend to be large and slow and they don’t fall down waterfalls, which is where one would make a dam to make power from water. Geothermal, on the other hand, is a viable alternative here for heating and cooling purposes of homes. Even if you can’t completely get off the grid with your own solar panels, you can make a big dent in your electric bill, so it may still be worth doing even if you only put it on the garage and not the house.
Q: I would like to clarify how recycling works here in Dayton so people can contribute to the sustainability effort. I’ve heard stories that the recycling just gets dumped in with the trash, or that all plastics with a triangle stamped on it are recyclable? There seems to be some confusion in regard to how to recycle correctly.
A: Yeah, I think we could recycle a lot more than we do. Having said that, it is true that there are some rules one has to follow to maximize the amount of recycling. So here’s the problem: In Dayton we have single stream recycling, which is great because the residents don’t have to sort. When I was coming up in recycling pilot recycling programs, you had to sort everything. You had to have papers separated from your bottles, and even the glass bottles, you had to have different colors sorted separately. So we’re well past that now. We can put all of the things that are recyclable in one container.
Q: Even loose paper?
A: Yes, absolutely, including glossy paper from magazines and, and phone books. But unfortunately, the people who are in the recycling business are in it to sell it. So there are two problems with not paying good attention to what you put in the recycling container: one is that you could gum up the works in the sorting facility and make them have to stop and pull your plastic bag out of the machinery because it’s wound around the gears and brought everything to a crashing halt. The second thing is is it contaminates the commodity that they’re sorting. The people who want to buy it, now don’t want it because it’s got other stuff in it, and they can’t use. They may not be able to use an entire load that for that reason.
The folk wisdom that you’re introducing here, it was actually true at one point, the early triangles were an indication that you could recycle. And there was some suspicion when recycling programs started that they weren’t actually getting recycling recycled, but that’s no longer true. In fact, probably 10 or 15 years ago, communities were making money. We were getting paid back for our recycling from the people who are buying it from the sorter. At one point, there was a growing industry in the United States with re-manufacturers who were building plants that would take paper, plastic or glass and turn it into new paper, plastic and glass and make manufactured products out of it.
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The whole concept of recycling is kind of central to sustainability because you avoid having to continuously mine the earth for new minerals and materials to make into new products. You can reuse the materials over and over again. The U.S. recycling industry almost went away a few years ago because some international markets were actually paying top dollar. They would outbid the American recycling facilities, and so they actually went out of business. So all those paper mills that were only using newspaper shut down.
Fast forward another decade, and all of a sudden China said, “Hey, we’re tired of getting everybody’s trash.” There are no alternatives here in the U.S., so we’re kind of in this valley of recycling at the moment. We’re waiting for the domestic recycling capability to come back, and then things will reach equilibrium again and be a little easier.
For now, we have to reduce the amount of things that are recycling. In my last job, I had a single stream program, about 15 years ago and the instruction to the residents was “if you aren’t certain go ahead and put it in, and our sorter will separate it out and they’ll take care of it.” Well, that turns out to be bad advice 15 years later, because now if you’re not sure, leave it out. It’s trash because it will either harm the sorting process, or it will make the recycling materials less valuable. So now it’s “when in doubt, throw it out” instead of putting it in your recycling.
To answer your question, don’t worry about the triangles. They don’t mean anything for recycling anymore. The manufacturers still use those stamps and they designate different grades of plastic, but it may have nothing to do at all with the ability to recycle. That’s a very local or regional decision that has nothing to do with plastic manufacturer. So really pay attention when the community you’re in, Dayton or Montgomery County, put a list of things you can recycle on the website, that’s what they want you to recycle.
Q: As far as plastic, bottle shapes are the only thing recyclable, anything where the top is the smallest part. Clamshell cases, yogurt cups, or any other plastic that’s not that bottle shape is not recyclable, is that correct?
A: Yeah. What you have to understand is that we’re not talking about the scientific or technical ability to recycle that product. All of those things can be recycled. The real question, though, is not whether it technically could be recycled. Do the markets we’re using have an interest in purchasing those for recycling?
So the yogurt cups were a big wave when they went through originally, and butter tubs were absolutely on the lists. But the industry has said, “we don’t want those anymore, so please take them out.” In fact, there are communities around where you can’t recycle glass much anymore because there’s no market for the glass anymore. That’s one of the pioneering subjects of recycling! Next we’ll hear at some point that nobody wants newspaper. So, glass is still absolutely recyclable in Dayton, and so is newspaper, cardboard, and a lot of things. Pay attention to what is recycling and just put everything else in the trash.
I’d like to make a couple more points on recycling … People should avoid buying products in grocery stores and other places that have styrofoam on them. Styrofoam is not one of those subjects that can be be recycled. So if you have a choice between buying eggs in a styrofoam carton and buying eggs in a cardboard carton, buy the eggs in the cardboard carton first. Same is true with plastic, if you don’t need the plastic, don’t take the plastic.
Q: Those are great tips. Are there other things that individuals can do beyond electric cars, recycling and reducing plastic? I’ve always heard that eating less meat is one of the more important things people can do.
A: It runs out that meat uses a lot of carbon, not so much the animal, but in the husbandry, the raising and transporting of the animal. So a vegetable-based diet is probably preferred from a sustainability point of view, but people don’t have to do all of one or the other. You can, for example, decide that one night a week you’re going to have a vegetable based meal. Then, it’s not very painful.
There are lots of other low or no cost things that will actually save you money. For example, a lot of people don’t turn off their computers when they’re done with them, and not going right back to them. Computers draw quite a bit of power, so if you don’t need to leave it on all night, or all weekend, then just take that extra step and turn it off.
If your light bulb burns out, don’t repack it with an other incandescent bulb, which are almost getting hard to find these days. Don’t buy a florescent either. Buy an LED bulb, which is very efficient. A practice I see is people leave a lot of lights on, outside and inside. You couldn’t possibly be in all those rooms at the same time. As you leave rooms, turn off the light unless you’re coming right back.
If you have a spare bedroom or a child’s room who’s off to college, turn the vents off in there when you are not using them. There’s no point in heating those rooms if you don’t have to. An ideal thing, which doesn’t cost a lot of money, $15-$20, is a programmable thermostat … set it, and you don’t have to think about it anymore, but you’ll save a lot on your heating and cooling bills. You want to replace your furnace filter on a regular basis too. Another thing is to reduce the use of fireplaces. I have a fireplace, I love fireplaces, but is very inefficient. You should use it for very ceremonial occasions, when you really want to have a special night.
They also make insulating blankets for water heaters, and that’s really a cheap way to improve. Your water heater is another place where you lose a lot energy from the heated water dissipates while it’s waiting for you to use it. Those are a lot of green options that don’t cost a lot of money if you can’t afford to put solar panels on your roof or an electric car in your garage.
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