On Valentine’s Day in New York, enterprising salespeople have set up tiny pop-up markets all over the city which offer beautiful bouquets of roses. Within two blocks of my office, there are three chocolate shops with windows festooned with red hearts. In Manhattan, at least, there is no excuse for forgetting the occasion and going home empty handed.
Personally, I’m all for chocolate and flowers. They are some of my favorite things. But this year, while on a trip to Arizona, I started thinking about bowling balls and rotting orange peels, which prompted me to look beyond the conventional gifts to honor the occasion.
At the end of January, at the invitation of Eric Myers, one of our Aspen First Mover Fellows and director of organic recycling at Waste Management (WM), I attended the WM Sustainability Forum in Phoenix. (Watch this video to see how WM turns food waste into energy in a plant in Boston.) I am a huge fan of Eric’s work, so I welcomed the chance to hang out with him and to learn more about WM’s commitments to sustainability.
Wise decision. I was riveted by the presentations, humbled by how much I need to learn and encouraged to hear how WM and others are tackling climate change and the challenge of disposing of garbage of all kinds. The speakers were so compelling that I intend to watch some of the content again – and you can too because WM has posted the presentations online.
The magnitude of the environmental challenges we face are enormous – and urgent. I’m not kidding myself. The existential threats caused by climate change certainly won’t be countered by whatever small steps I take in my personal life to address these challenges. Still, this year I decided that in honor of Valentine’s Day, I’m going to complement the chocolate and flowers by selecting five gifts for the planet.
Planet gift # 1 – I’m taking an inventory of what is in my refrigerator and cupboard and will plan meals that use up these items. Thereafter, I’m going to try not to buy more than I know we will use. At the WM Sustainability Forum, I learned that in the U.S. over 28% of the stuff going into our landfills is organic. Over 40 million tons of it is food waste. We need to reduce that number. At the very least, I can do my part in that effort.
Planet gift #2 – I’m ramping up my recycling expertise. Here’s a stunning statistic: Waste Management retrieves about 5500 bowling balls each year from the recycling it collects. Folks, bowling balls are not recyclable. We all need to know what is and what isn’t because putting a bowling ball – or a plastic bag or batteries of all kinds (WM retrieves an astonishing 30,000 pounds of these batteries every month) – in household recycling containers contaminates the content and makes the whole recycling process much slower and more expensive. We all need to become experts on what should be in and what should be out of those green bins.
Planet gift #3 – I’m being more intentional about choosing products with recycled content. I thought I was doing my part by buying biodegradable detergents. Turns out there is more to consumer choice than that. Here is the deal that I did not understand until two weeks ago. Every time we buy a product with recycled content instead of one using all virgin materials, we are helping to drive up the value of this content. Right now, prices are at rock bottom. Want a ton of mixed paper? It can be yours for $5. The average price of all recyclables (mixed paper, aluminum, glass etc.) has dropped from over $110 per ton in 2017 to less than $40 per ton today. At these prices it’s hardly worth it for companies to collect and process the stuff. But if consumers select items with recycled content, demand will increase; and the price will go up. This increase in value makes it more economic to invest in recycling collection and processing – and innovations in this domain. It’s a simple supply and demand problem, and our purchasing choices matter.
Planet gift #4 – I’m redoubling my efforts to buy locally. Here I have a running start. For years I have tried to buy gifts in shops in my small town, and I have often ordered books from my local bookstore instead of buying online. I love independent bookstores, and I want them to stay in business. Also, when I pick up the book, I skip the bag and put the item in my purse. No packing material to discard or recycle. Win. Win. Here’s another twofer idea: Search online to find cookbooks that show you how to cook with leftovers (see Planet Gift #1) and then order them from a local store.
Planet gift #5 – I’m giving trees for Valentine’s Day this year. In Phoenix, I learned that over the last 200 years we have cut down 3 trillion trees on this planet – 50% of the trees that were in place when our nation was founded. Efforts are currently underway to plant a trillion trees, those amazing plants that absorb carbon in the atmosphere and clean up our air. I want to be part of that effort. Giving a donation to an organization that will plant trees in exchange for my dollars feels like a real expression of love. So, I’m sending tree love to special people in my life this year.
With these gifts, I plan to get a jump on the 50th anniversary of Earth Day which we’ll be celebrating on April 22 this year.
And while I’m at it, in the spirit of the occasion, I may also whip up a delicious – and easily prepared -chocolate souffle – thanks to Mark Bittman. There will be no leftovers.
What are your plans for this holiday? By the way, if you thought you might celebrate the holiday by visiting NY City’s largest sewage plant (which takes the food waste product from WM’s Brooklyn organic recycling facility, where it is converted to green energy), you’re too late. The coveted Valentine’s Day Tour tickets are all sold out.
Nancy McGaw founded the Aspen First Movers Fellowship Program, an innovation lab for corporate social intrapreneurs, launched in 2009 by the Aspen Institute Business & Society Program. She also directs the Aspen Leaders Forum, an invitation-only, cross-industry community of senior CSR and sustainability strategists working at the leading edge of practice. Leaders in both of these communities are creating products, services, business models and management practices and policies that deliver financial value for their companies and make the world a better place.