A Local Celebration of Sustainability

by by Erin Schikowski

illustration by by Becca Levinson

Imagine it: Rhode Island as the first completely sustainable state in the country. Businesses, individuals, families, and communities would use resources no faster than Earth could renew them, and every tool and product of daily life would be designed to end its term of use in ways not harmful to the natural environment.

Full sustainability for Rhode Island is the goal of the Apeiron Institute, a nonprofit which hosted the Providence Sustainability Festival last Saturday. Designed to attract a diverse crowd of Rhode Islanders, the festival included free workshops on RI transit, local food systems, green architecture, environmental justice, public health, and more. The event also served as a venue where businesses could showcase environmentally friendly products.

Sustainability is a prominent state concern—especially now that Lil’ Rhody’s been awarded a significant amount of money for environmental programs. The federal government has provided $90 million in stimulus money to Rhode Island environmental projects including sewer construction, improvements in drinking water, and updating households’ heating and cooling systems.

Additionally, the US Conference of Mayors and the Wal-Mart Foundation in June granted the city $372,500 to be used for a green jobs training program. The city has joined forces with the Apeiron Institute and the Cranston Workforce Investment Board to begin work on the program, set to run classes out of CCRI. Through this project, these organizations hope to make green jobs available to adults with literacy below the high school level.

Local politicians are serious about advancing ‘green collar’ employment in the state. Governor Carcieri told the Providence Journal in 2008—before any of the stimulus money had even come in—that “We don’t lack the resources to do what we need to do to create green jobs today. The training resources exist, the money exists… the bottom line is we’ve got the resources. We’ve got to find the will to make everything work together.” In light of the push for green jobs in Rhode Island, it was not surprising to see so many environmentally friendly businesses and experts in sustainability at the festival this weekend.

Makin’ that green
Brad Hyson, executive director and founder of the Apeiron Institute, said sustainability must be framed in economic terms if it is to take hold across the state. He explained that ideally, the business sector will integrate the idea of a closed loop system into its production practices; that is, they will endeavor to operate as everything in nature does—with no waste or unaccounted-for excesses.

Hyson said, “[T]his is a model businesses are starting to use in redesigning the way that they operate. A carpet manufacturer, for instance, would try to find safe, non-toxic, benign substitutions for [his raw materials]. When the carpet has ended its useful life, he knows it can either be completely recycled or taken apart and safely reenter the earth’s ecosystem. But the loop is closed, and there’s no waste generated.” As a business sector of the local economy, environmentally friendly enterprises are rapidly expanding. According to the US Census Bureau, employment in “revenue-generating environmental activities” increased from about 1.4 million in 2000 to 1.7 million in 2007, an approximately 120 percent increase.

At the festival this weekend, many local businesses showed they were dedicated to the idea of creating products that could safely reenter the environment at the end of their useful lives. From compact fluorescent light bulbs to green cleaning products, environmentally-friendly home insulation, and even an interior design studio providing the area with sustainable home furnishings, local businesses—most of them small—made quite a showing.

Four-wheeled biodiesel beauties
Mark Therrien, Assistant General Manager of Transit Development, Planning and Grants for RIPTA, conducted a workshop on current plans he hopes will increase the efficiency and economy of the RIPTA transportation system. One program that has finally been approved by the state legislature (after three years of bargaining over safety issues and logistics) deals with modifying traffic lights to allow buses extra time to pass through green lights.

Therrien said a sensor on the light would communicate with a sensor on the bus, thereby holding the light green when a bus is approaching. The idea here is to increase efficiency by letting say, forty people pass through a light as opposed to one or two. Moreover, the program will decrease the time buses take to get from place to place and make public transit more appealing and convenient.

The festival showcased advancements in private transportation vehicles, as well. On the sidewalk surrounding Burnside Park were several examples of cars that run on biodiesel fuel. One white 1997 GMC truck had made it 3,000 miles from Rhode Island to California using only the biodiesel it had on board at the beginning of the trip. Driven by a group of three Ponaganset High School students and their science teacher, the truck originally belonged ConEdison and was used as a utility truck. A sign on the passenger side window explained, “As long as the vehicle has a diesel engine, all a person has to do to use it is pull up to a biodiesel pump and fill it up just like regular fuel, no modifications necessary.”

All Rhode Islanders, everywhere
In another workshop down the road at 121 Westminster Street, two representatives from the Southside Community Land Trust spoke on the question of “Who’s Served by Local Food?” Jessica Knapp and Leo Pollock explained that the distribution of supermarkets and farmers’ markets is highly influenced by the income-level of a given community, and that when there aren’t as many supermarkets in a certain area, residents resort to shopping at corner stores.

Knapp showed that on the East Side of Providence—which is significantly wealthier than the city’s south and west sides—has 36 corner stores in approximately four square miles. The south and west sides, in comparison, have 66 corner stores in an area of approximately two square miles. Knapp explained corner stores simply do not have the infrastructure to accommodate fresh local produce, which often requires refrigeration. Thus people who live in lowerincome areas have more difficulty obtaining fresh, local produce.

Hyson emphasized that his organization is dedicated to spreading the word about sustainability to all Rhode Islanders—to the young and old, to families and schools, to the government, to those who own or run a business. And it truly was a community affair this past Saturday at the Providence Sustainability Festival in and around Kennedy Plaza. Friends lounged on the stone fountain in Burnside Park, children with painted faces tugged their parents from one activity to
another, and plenty found spots on the grass for relaxed picnicing in the sun.

This was the first Sustainability Festival held in Providence—the institute has put on eight sustainability festivals in Coventry—but hopefully not the last. The Apeiron Institute hopes the Providence festival will be an annual affiar; perhaps this way, the message about sustainability will get to a wider range of people from more varied backgrounds and socioeconomic strata.

Broadly, the Apeiron Institute focuses on five major programs: education programs—including field trips, teacher trainings, and study circles; the festival; the Center for Sustainable Living—an education facility and model structure that itself uses 70 percent less energy than a typical building of the same size; the Sustainable Rhode Island Directory—a website which directs people to local sustainability resources; and Sustainable Rhode Island.

Sustainable Rhode Island is an initiative that brings together a coalition of more than 50 partners to work on research, passage of legislation, and other projects with the goal of transforming Rhode Island into the first fully sustainable state. In working to gather a leadership network of sustainability organizations, the Apeiron Institute helps foster the “will to make everything work together,” which Mayor Carcieri spoke of last year.

Apeiron: infinite spatial existence of substance
A Rhode Island native, Hyson believes there are many advantages to working in the Ocean State. Its size, he said, is one of the state’s strongest points. “In bigger bureaucracies like California,” he said, “someone like the governor or the leadership in the legislature may be more difficult to reach, whereas in Rhode Island we actually can reach those people and develop a kind of coordination and united commitment to sustainability.”

As just one example of environmentally-minded projects that are gaining concrete ground in the state, the first offshore wind project in the U.S. has recently been approved to operate off of Block Island. With its size in mind, as well as the recent grants, the political and NGO push for more green jobs, and the rising number of green businesses, it seems Rhode Island has a lot to work with, and the showing at the festival on Saturday spoke well of the city’s interest in environmental issues and diversely creative green businesses.

ERIN SCHIKOWSKI B’11 sees you throwing that bottle in the trash.