Serving local food? Screwing in CFLs? Tapping into wind power? Composting? The U.S. House of Representatives proves that change really does begin at home.
At 9:30 a.m. on an unseasonably warm morning in early spring, the Longworth Café in the U.S. House of Representatives is already buzzing with activity: elder statesmen grabbing that first coffee of the day; earnest young interns snagging bagels and muffins before saving the world; families and schoolkids on vacation. Each year three million visitors drop by the House’s cafeterias, consuming about 2.8 million meals—but today something feels different. Ask Nick Klein, from Naples, Florida, who has been sightseeing with his wife and son. “I was just reading this,” says Klein, fingering the sleeve around his coffee cup. The wrapper lists all sorts of information about the coffee, including the fact that it’s from Pura Vida of Seattle, and that it’s shade-grown, organic, and fair trade-certified. “I’m impressed,” says Klein. “I think it’s cool that they’re doing fair trade.”
He didn’t know that fair trade products benefit workers who are often underpaid and exploited. Nor was he aware that shade-grown coffee aids migratory birds whose populations have declined dramatically in the past 25 years, largely as a result of habitat destruction from such human developments as full-sun coffee plantations. Klein is also impressed by the cafe’s plethora of recycling bins, the signs advocating an environmentally friendly lifestyle, and the extensive menu with plenty of healthy and eco-friendly options.
These changes have all come about courtesy of Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, who in June 2007 implemented an initiative called Green the Capitol (GTC). The program’s original goal was rather straightforward, though not necessarily easy to reach: to make the House of Representatives “carbon neutral” by the end of the 110th Congress (this past January 4). The plan was to offset the approximately 91,000 metric tons of greenhouse gases generated by the House each year, and to reduce its energy consumption by half over the next decade. Those targets would be met by installing more efficient technology, composting, recycling, and buying local and organic foods.
The program has been a roaring success. Recently the target of carbon neutrality has been revisited to allow for changing emissions over time. “We decided carbon neutrality as a goal is sort of lip service,” says Jeff Ventura, director of communications for the office of the chief administrative officer of the House. “There is no absolute zero when it comes to carbon neutrality. It’s a moving target, and there are always more ways to reduce.” Daniel P. Beard, Pelosi’s chief administrative officer in charge of GTC, looks at it this way: “If you can’t demonstrate that your own house is in order, you can’t ask the public to do the same.”
The silver-haired, suspenders-wearing Beard has taken to his task like, well, bees to organic honey. Since the program began, Beard—who once served as chief operating officer and senior vice president for public policy for National Audubon—has eliminated the entire 91,000 metric tons of House emissions: 57,000 metric tons by purchasing electricity generated by wind energy; 10,000 metric tons by using natural gas instead of coal to heat and cool the House, since gas creates fewer carbon, sulfur, and nitrogen emissions; and 24,000 metric tons by purchasing offset credits on the Chicago Climate Exchange. Combined, these steps are equal to taking about 17,200 cars off the nation’s highways.
Beard also calculated that the House complex produces about 250 metric tons of garbage every year, half of which is cafeteria waste. So he called for some changes in the food service. Under a new, $17 million contract awarded last August to New York City–based Restaurant Associates, the House would switch to more environmentally friendly food containers and adjust the menus in all of its nine eateries, beginning with Longworth, the largest.
Now almost all of the food is cooked with fresh ingredients; about 80 percent is locally sourced when produce is in season. Customers can dine on stir-fry and seafood that meets “sustainable” standards set by the Monterey Bay Aquarium in California. Healthy items are affixed with a FIT sticker, and trans fats simply don’t exist.
Even so, diners can still get as much junk food—hot dogs, French fries, onion rings—as their hearts desire, although with a small twist. “If you want barbecue, you can get it,” says Perry Plumart, director of special projects. “The difference is that the pork and chicken are hormone-free. The milk is rGBH-free, too,” he adds, referring to recombinant bovine growth hormone, which is injected into dairy cows to increase their milk production.
In addition, Styrofoam and plastic have been pretty much eliminated. Everything from forks to straws is biodegradable; food containers are made of cornstarch and are compostable; and soda cups come from corn resin, not cardboard. The coffee is all fair trade and organic. Napkins pop out of their dispensers individually, so it actually takes an effort to waste endless numbers of them. Beard also invested in a $75,000 pulper. Before, he says, in a given month the House sent between 37 and 45 tons of paper waste to landfills. But now that waste is essentially turned into a wet confetti (then sent to a U.S. Department of Agriculture research facility or a commercial composter). So far the amount of monthly waste has dropped to an estimated 11 tons, saving money on tipping and transportation fees.
Meanwhile, the House recycling process has been improved. Since half the staff eat at their desks, and since they were simply tossing the remains in the garbage, Beard installed four recycling bins in every office: one for paper, one for compost, one for landfill waste, and one for bottles and cans. There are detailed instructions on proper sorting techniques, although things can get tricky in the cafeterias, where each bin has a different geometrically shaped slot. Soup containers, for instance, land in the square-shaped “compostable” slot, but soup lids go in the round “landfill waste” area. (Some might say it’s a little reminiscent of Sesame Street: “One of these shapes doesn’t belong.”)
Of course, this all requires some energy. “The garbage can be annoying because you have to think about what goes where,” says Garret Maki, an audio and video systems design consultant who works at the Capitol. “You think the forks are plastic and can be thrown out, but they’re not—they’re compostable. So you have to think about it, and things get backed up.”
Other staffers grumble—off the record—about increased prices and the quality of the food: Too many vegetables! Not enough old-school offerings! And then there’s the matter of the cutlery. “A reporter called and said, ‘I heard the spoons melt in the soup,’ ” Plumart recalls. “They don’t.” (It’s true, they don’t—though the forks do bend rather easily.) “People imagine things,” he continues. “They say, ‘Where are the toothpicks?’ Well, we didn’t have them before! Why would we have them now?”
Beard and company are accustomed to catching flak. “It doesn’t bother me, and the Speaker’s very supportive,” says Beard, who is known as “Captain Greenbeard” around his offices. This is Washington, after all, and much of the squabbling is political. For instance, politico.com reported that Republican aides suggested a decision to replace the existing yogurt with Stonyfield was politically motivated because Stonyfield’s CEO, Gary Hirshberg, is a big player in the Democratic Party. Restaurant Associates, for its part, says the yogurt was selected “based on price, quality, and consumer satisfaction.”
Ventura defends the higher prices for some items on the menu. “We offered a host of new foods that are made with fresh ingredients and are prepared by chefs. Because they’re using fresh ingredients, it’s more expensive; asparagus is more expensive than iceberg lettuce. It really is apples and oranges.” (Organic, of course.)
Although the changes in cafeteria offerings have garnered perhaps the most attention from staffers, there are plenty of changes elsewhere, too. For instance, the House office supply store now buys 100 percent post-consumer recycled paper from a company called New Leaf. Beard reports that the switch from conventional paper saves 29,000 trees, three and a half million gallons of water, five billion BTUs of electricity, 400,000 pounds of solid waste, and the release of nearly 775,000 pounds of greenhouse gases annually. To help cut back on paper waste, the number of printed receipts has been halved. There are bins in common areas where users can recycle toner cartridges, cell phones, blackberries, dry cell phone batteries, and compact fluorescent lights (CFLs).
When it comes to promoting energy-saving measures, Beard wants to help his colleagues and fellow citizens see the light—literally. One of his major goals, which is not scheduled and still awaiting Senate approval, is to install energy-efficient lights to illuminate the Capitol Dome. Conventional bulbs are “outdated” and “use a considerable amount of energy, need to be changed frequently, and get extremely hot,” he says. Beard hopes the dome will shine as a beacon of “environmental responsibility” and not just a symbol of democracy. He expects the entire process to cost $940,000.
Not surprisingly, his lighting plan has been met with partisan backbiting. House Minority Leader John Boehner calls it “a ridiculous boondoggle,” reported The Washington Post. Not so, says Beard, who has already replaced 7,000 of the 30,000 conventional lights in the House with CFLs. “One lightbulb pays for itself in energy savings,” he says. “It would be irresponsible on my part not to replace every one.”
It would be equally irresponsible not to cut back on electricity bills generated by computers and other technologies, he says. It makes a lot of sense, when you think about it: Nearly 1.1 million e-mails pass through the House servers every day, and there are 900 websites, 9,000 BlackBerries, and 25,000 telephone lines. Beard wants to reduce the amount of computer-generated electricity by about two-thirds—to do that, he’s consolidating the computer servers in fewer locations, which will help reduce energy consumption.
Then there are the low-VOC (volatile organic compounds) carpets, used to reduce exposure to chemical toxins that have been linked to eye and respiratory irritation, headaches, and fatigue. Beard is installing them in all of the representatives’ offices. “It’ll be so environmentally friendly that if you spill coffee on it, trees will grow,” he jokes.
He’s even tackling one of the most talked about problems inside the Beltway: traffic. Recently he launched a bicycle-sharing program called Wheels4Wellness so employees could tool around town on House-owned bikes rather than in cars. As a backup plan, Beard has also started a car-sharing program, making it possible for staffers to rent a hybrid car on an hourly basis from the House parking garage. He acknowledges that it might be tough to get employees to adopt these last two initiatives, especially since the House offers free parking. “That’s a third rail,” he admits. “Most people don’t want to give that up.”
All House employees are entitled to either one of the free parking spaces or a transportation benefit of up to $115 per month. Beard has proposed that employees who opt to cut down on driving (and forfeit their parking space) by traveling part of the way by car and parking in a commuter lot should be eligible for additional benefits (over and above the $115) to defray parking costs, which average $85 a month. Those commuters could also use a “smart card,” which would have their benefits automatically loaded onto it every month.
Signs indicate that the House’s emissions-saving efforts are gaining traction elsewhere. So far members of the CIA, the World Bank, and the Department of the Interior have dropped by to research the progress Beard has made in the House, and there has been talk of the Senate adopting similar measures. As for the naysayers, Beard is philosophical. “A lot of people oppose you just because,” he says. “A lot of people are afraid of change. We just keep moving ahead.”
Based in New York City, Abby Ellin is a frequent contributor to The New York Times and author of the book Teenage Waistland (Public Affairs).
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