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Environment and Engineering

Just Do Something

Monsoon Roastery owner Tim Monson

It’s no secret that the call to action to find more ways to go green is growing every day. With eco-friendly movements like plastic-bag bans and solar panels on the rise, it is easier than ever to find ways to help the environment — and it isn’t just individuals who are making this effort. Small businesses in Western Mass. are doing their part to reduce their carbon footprint — and also saving a little money in the process.

Try to think of a restaurant or business that produces only one 13-gallon trash bag at the end of each week.

Impossible? Not quite. For Tim Monson, owner of Monsoon Roastery in Springfield, this is a regular occurrence.

Admittedly, this is an impressive feat for a roastery that pumps out coffee on a daily basis. One of the first things he and wife, Andrea, started doing when they opened their roastery on Gasoline Alley in September 2018 was collecting coffee compost.

“It’s a great way to reduce waste, because all of a sudden you’re taking 50 or 60 pounds a week and removing that from the trash system and turning that into a renewable resource,” he said.

Food waste can be a difficult process to navigate, but Monson isn’t the only local business owner doing his best to reduce his carbon footprint through methods like composting.

“In this day and age, there’s just no reason not to be making that slight extra effort to do things the right way. It’s also smart from a business sense. You’re going to be a more profitable business if you have less waste. It might be slightly harder in some respects, but only from a logistical point of view.”

For Aimee Francaes, co-owner of Belly of the Beast in Northampton, just one five-gallon bag of trash is produced at the end of each night. With two composting bins in the back of the restaurant, this small business is producing astonishingly low amounts of food waste.

“We try to have as little waste as humanly possible,” she said, adding that part of the business model is not leaving much waste to dispose of in the first place. “Really, getting every little tiny bit we can out of the wonderful animals that come to our doors, and produce as well, that’s a big part of how we go about our business.”

In the U.S., it is estimated that between 30% and 40% of the food supply is wasted. According to the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), in Massachusetts alone, food waste and other organic material made up about 25% of the total waste stream in 2016.

In addition to composting, Francaes and Monson use other methods to try to reduce this number. For example, Monson says each hot coffee cup sold is compostable. On the restaurant side, Francaes tries to cut down on the number of cups and side plates she serves customers at the restaurant and doesn’t sell bottles of water.

“In this day and age, there’s just no reason not to be making that slight extra effort to do things the right way,” she continued. “It’s also smart from a business sense. You’re going to be a more profitable business if you have less waste. It might be slightly harder in some respects, but only from a logistical point of view.”

Right up the street from Belly of the Beast, the owners and managers of Ode Boutique make decisions that are both business- and environment-smart every day, from where they get their clothes to how they sell them.

Aimee Francaes says her restaurant produces just one five-gallon bag of trash each night.

Manager Jenessa Cintron knows how difficult it is to be environmentally friendly in the retail industry. From the plastic packaging clothing comes in to the plastic hangers on which clothes are displayed, it’s not exactly easy to be green. But the boutique still finds ways to do everything it can to help the environment. This includes looking at the designers it buys from to determine what efforts they are making up the chain.

“It’s so important to so many of our designers and makers — that’s a plus,” she said. “Especially if they’re using natural fibers, biodegradable fabrics, that kind of thing.”

What these small businesses are selling may be different, but they say their desire to do anything they can to help the environment is one that should be adopted by many more companies.

Resourcefully Responsible

For Cintron, this means setting an example for her children (ages 13 and 4, with another on the way).

“I want to try to have the smallest carbon footprint possible, and I want to be an example for my kids,” she said. “Being an example for the community is important, too. I think it’s important as a business to set an example and use your platform in a positive way.”

Jenessa Cintron not only strives to promote sustainable practices, but also looks for that quality in the designers she buys from.

Alison Annes, stylist at Ode Boutique, emphasized the importance of encouraging customers and buyers to know who’s using recyclable materials and why it’s important.

“One of the biggest things is being conscious of it and shopping more and more of the ones that are, and maybe less often of the others until they change their platform on how they recycle their packaging,” she said.

Cintron echoed that packaging is a huge part of the problem, and something she wishes would change.

“A lot of our clothing comes in plastic packaging, and we can’t recycle it,” she said. “We try to recycle as much as we can, all of our boxes and paper and everything, and we encourage our customers to use our reusable bags.”

Monson said he has a similar problem with the plastic packaging coffee comes in, but has not yet found a way to make use of it.

However, Monson and his wife and friends did find a way to use several other materials to create the coffee shop’s decidedly quirky vibe.

“The retail area of our place is mostly made out of repurposed materials, from the barn doors that you walk through when you come in down to the paint on the walls and the floor,” he said. “Even our espresso bar is put together from a used door.”

The desire to be a business that produces as little waste as possible started in college, where Monson earned a bachelor’s degree in business administration with a concentration in green and sustainable business practices.

“Part of our mission from the get-go was, how can we do what normally happens in a business, but a little cleaner and a little better in all areas?” he said. “For us, reducing what we throw in landfills is a no-brainer.”

One Step at a Time

What might be a no-brainer for business owners like Monson, Francaes, and Cintron might not be quite so easy for others to grasp. Luckily, each offered suggestions as to how people can do their part to help reduce their carbon footprint.

Francaes says she used to offer a side dish with cole slaw with every meal, but noticed it ended up in the bus bin because some people didn’t want it. She didn’t want to waste the food or spend the time putting another dish through the washer, so she lowered the prices slightly and added the side dishes as an option on the menu.

“It’s looking at your habits and movements each day and seeing what you can do differently,” she said. “From a personal standpoint, I think it’s a lot about changing habits.”

A habit Cintron and other employees at Ode Boutique adopted is using stuffing from other products when packaging bags for customers instead of buying more paper.

“We also ask customers first if they want all the paper to go along with it,” she said.

Another simple thing to consider is using something old and turning it into something new. At Monsoon Roastery, the entire ceiling is made up of an old fence that was dumped on the property.

“Part of our mission from the get-go was, how can we do what normally happens in a business, but a little cleaner and a little better in all areas? For us, reducing what we throw in landfills is a no-brainer.”

“We broke down the fence, stripped it, stained it, and sealed it, then we covered the whole ceiling with it,” said Monson. “It’s awesome to take a look around you and say, ‘can we give something new life?’”

The overarching lesson emerging from each of these three business owners is that there really are no excuses when it comes to being environmentally friendly, and that, while waste challenges vary from company to company, everyone can find some room for improvement — and those small steps add up.

“There are always little things you can do,” Monson said. “I think, if more people would make a small effort, together it would go a long way. We can all do our part in our own ways. We can’t all do everything, but we can all do something.”

Kayla Ebner can be reached at [email protected]

Cover Story

Lean and Green

solar canopies

These solar canopies over a parking lot are part of a massive, campus-wide photovoltaic project.

Because its region is so environmentally conscious, UMass Amherst would appear to be fertile ground for sustainable practices like green energy, eco-friendly buildings, and a buy-local ethos in food service. But it’s still remarkable how broadly — and effectively — the university has cast its net when it comes to sustainability. A national report placing the campus ninth in the nation for such efforts is the latest accolade, but UMass isn’t about to rest on its laurels.

Call it a reward for a decade of work.

When the Assoc. for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education released the three-year results of its Sustainability Tracking, Assessment and Rating System (STARS), UMass Amherst earned placed ninth in the nation — a leap of 20 places from its previous rating in 2015.

That’s gratifying, said Steve Goodwin, deputy chancellor and professor of Microbiology at UMass, who has been heavily involved in efforts to make the state’s flagship campus more green. And it’s not a recognition that was earned overnight.

“Sustainability has been a focus for the campus for about 10 years,” he told BusinessWest. “There were some efforts even before that, but it really started about 10 years ago.”

When Kumble Subbaswamy became chancellor in 2012, Goodwin said, he ramped up those efforts by forming an advisory committee specifically around sustainability, which helped to raise the awareness of green issues around campus.

“Sustainability has been a focus for the campus for about 10 years,” he told BusinessWest. “There were some efforts even before that, but it really started about 10 years ago.”

“This new STARS score reflects the university’s continuing commitment to excellence in sustainability,” Subbaswamy said when the ranking was announced. “UMass Amherst is a leader in best practices for energy-efficient construction and sustainable food use, conducting world-class research, and preparing a new generation of students to be inspired stewards of our planet.”

But before any of that could be accomplished — through innovative food-service changes, solar projects, green-building techniques, and a host of other initiatives (more on them later) — there had to be buy-in from both the university’s leaders and its students.

“It gained a lot of acceptance early on because a lot of sustainability is doing what you do and meeting your mission with very high efficiency,” Goodwin said. “That’s not all of what sustainability is, but that was an appealing piece for us. A campus has a particular mission, and it has a limited set of resources to meet that mission.”

Steve Goodwin

Steve Goodwin says buy-in from students has been key to UMass Amherst’s sustainability successes.

Take, for example, the Central Heating Plant, a project completed in 2009 that replaced the campus’ 80-year-old coal-burning plant with a co-generation facility that provides electricity for 70% of the campus and 100% of the steam needed for heating and cooling buildings across the sprawling grounds — all while reducing greenhouse gases by 27%.

“That was a really big decision for the campus,” Goodwin said. “At the time, it was probably the best co-generation plant in the country. That really worked out well for us because we needed electrical power and we were heating with steam, so to get the efficiencies of co-generation was a really a big deal for the campus.”

Those early years of UMass Amherst’s new sustainability focus also saw a reduction in water use — by using recycled water where appropriate — and partnering with Johnson Controls to incorporate energy-saving devices on much of the campus lighting. And that was just the beginning.

“Since then, the sustainability committee has really taken the lead for the chancellor, and made it more of a campus-wide thing,” Goodwin said — in ways that continue to expand and raise the university’s green profile on the national stage.

Food for Thought

Early in the process, late last decade, UMass officials recognized food service as a prime area to boost efficiency and reduce waste. Not only did the sheer volume of food produced every day offer plenty of opportunity for improvement, but students were beginning to ask questions about waste.

“The initial step was to go trayless,” Goodwin said. “If you have a tray of food, it’s easier to heap a lot of food on the tray and not necessarily eat it all. But if you have to carry it all with your hands, you take less to begin with, and if you want more, you just go back.”

As a formal measure, in 2013, UMass Amherst became the largest food-service provider in the nation to sign on to the Real Food Campus Commitment, which requires participating universities’ food budgets to move away from industrial farms and junk food and toward local and community-based, fair, ecologically sound, and humane food sources by 2020. “For an institution this large,” Goodwin said, “we purchase a very large percentage of local food.”

In 2014, UMass Amherst Dining Services was selected as a gold recipient for procurement practices in the 2014 Sustainability Awards given by the National Assoc. of College and University Food Services — just one way national experts were taking notice. Around the same time, the university’s sustainability staff and faculty team from Environmental Conservation, the Physical Plant, Dining Services, and University Relations won the state Department of Energy Resources’ Leading by Example Award.

The UMass Crop and Animal Research and Education Farm in South Deerfield

The UMass Crop and Animal Research and Education Farm in South Deerfield is home to the Student Farming Enterprise, which allows undergraduates to gain hands-on experience managing a small, organic farm. Produce generated there is sold to local stores and a community-supported agriculture share program.

Building design has been another focus, a recent example being the John W. Olver Design Building, completed last year, which uses a wood-concrete composite flooring product that was developed on the UMass campus. The contemporary wood structure, which houses the Building and Construction Technology program, the Department of Architecture, and the Department of Landscape Architecture and Regional Planning, includes sustainability features such as LED lighting, motion sensors, ample natural light, electro-tinting glass, heat-recovery systems, bioswales, rain gardens, low-flow faucets, and public-transportation access.

Meanwhile, the Integrated Science Building, constructed in 2009, employs cooling systems that reuse rainwater, state-of-the-art heat exchanges and ventilation systems, passive solar collection, and extensive use of eco-friendly materials like bamboo, to name just a few features.

“Obviously building is a big chunk of where our resources go, especially energy and water resources, so building design has a big impact,” Goodwin said, noting that UMass typically aims for some level of LEED certification on new buildings.

“But we’ve also done some things that go above and beyond those certifications to try to make our buildings more suited for their particular uses,” he went on. “There’s a whole variety of passive solar issues, lighting issues, energy and water use around buildings, reclaiming ground water, those sorts of considerations.”

Textbook Examples

On an academic level, Goodwin said, sustainability has made its way into the curriculum of nearly every program on campus. “I don’t think there’s any school or college that doesn’t have something that deals with an aspect of sustainability. They range from the obvious — an environmental science course, for instance — to a social justice course where they’re making connections back into sustainability and how that impacts the way people experience their communities.”

He stressed repeatedly, however, that raising up a culture of sustainability has never been a solely top-down effort, and that students have long been engaged on these issues.

“One of the things we did early on was to establish a culture within the dormitories and among the students — in part because the students really want this. They care about these issues a lot,” he said. “So we spend a lot of time building various aspects of sustainability into the curriculum, but also extracurricular activities.”

For example, ‘eco-reps’ are students who are specifically trained around issues of sustainability and are responsible for a floor of a dorm, to help students understand the impact of their day-to-day activities. “We run competitions between the dorms — who’s going to do the most recycling or use the least water this year, those kinds of things.”

Students had a direct impact on one of the university’s most notable green decisions — to divest its endowment from direct holdings in fossil fuels in 2016, becoming the first major public university to do so.

The John W. Olver Design Building

The John W. Olver Design Building is a model for green design and operation.

A year earlier, the board of directors of the UMass Foundation voted to divest from direct holdings in coal companies in response to a petition from the UMass Fossil Fuel Divestment Campaign, a student group. Energized by that decision, the campaign staged a series of demonstrations to call for divestment from all fossil fuels, and the foundation board followed suit.

“Important societal change often begins on college campuses, and it often begins with students,” UMass President Marty Meehan said at the time. “I’m proud of the students and the entire university community for putting UMass at the forefront of a vital movement, one that has been important to me throughout my professional life.”

It’s an example, Goodwin said, of the ways university leadership and the student body are often in alignment on issues of sustainability, both locally and globally. “So it’s been a balance of having sustainability in the curriculum, having demand from the students, and also having the central administration realize the importance of sustainability university-wide.

Numerous people on campus are tasked with making sure UMass continually improves its efforts, including the creation of a new position, sustainability manager, seven years ago.

“We’re having a huge impact in the region, and we’re proud of the impact we’re having — and at the same time, we’re also proud of what the students are experiencing,” Goodwin said. “Not only are they learning about these issues, but they’re living this approach as well. They’re living within an environment in which sustainability has a higher priority, so now we hope that impact will increase as they go out into their communities and spread the impacts of sustainability.”

Green Makes Green

Last year, UMass Amherst made news on the green-energy front again, installing more than 15,000 photovoltaic panels across campus, providing 5.5 megawatts of clean electrical power for the campus to use for a heavily discounted rate. The initiative is expected to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions in the regional grid by the equivalent of 31,000 tons of carbon dioxide and cut the university’s electric bills by $6.2 million over 20 years.

“It’s a situation where doing the right thing is also a very smart business decision as well,” Goodwin said. “As time goes on, some of those challenges will get to be a little trickier. Now we’re trying to make decisions about the need to increase the amount of electricity that we’re currently generating, so we’re going to expand the base, but how, exactly, is the right way to do it that’s efficient, a good financial decision, and also a good decision for the environment? It gets very complex.”

For now, he went on, the campus has a strong foundation in decreasing its carbon footprint and decreasing the amount of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases being emitted — efforts that have run the gamut from large-scale energy production to UMass Amherst’s participation in ValleyBike Share.

“The campus had been trying to run an internal bike-share program with some success, but we were hoping to do better,” he noted. “Now, with ValleyBike Share, the campus is working with other communities to develop a program that will actually bring a little more connectivitity between the university and the surrounding communities. So it has multiple benefits.”

Clearly, the impact of sustainable practices on not only the campus, but potentially the world, through the continued efforts of alumni, is reward enough for the university’s broad sustainability efforts — but the STARS recognition is nice too, Goodwin admitted, as it showcases UMass Amherst in the top 10 among some 600 participating institutions.

“We’re very excited about that, but it’s a huge amount of work, to be perfectly honest, because it’s all self-reporting,” he explained. “It covers so many aspects — the academic side, the financial side and investments, energy use, and the social side of sustainability. So it’s a very wide-ranging analysis. And, of course, after you do all that self-reporting, they go and verify everything as well.”

The end result is certainly a source of pride on campus — and a little more motivation to continue and broaden these efforts. Not that UMass needed any.

“Sustainability means a lot of different things to different people,” Goodwin said. “But to me, it was always a way of thinking: ‘OK, yes, we have a set of decisions to make; let’s make sustainability a part of that decision-making process.’ And I think our students are picking up on that as well.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]