Beard Details New Recycling Efforts

Posted February 26, 2008 at 6:45pm

Chief Administrative Officer Dan Beard touted his efforts in greening the House cafeterias before the chamber’s global warming committee on Tuesday, the same day his office unveiled a new pilot program to increase recycling in House offices.

Testifying before the Energy Independence and Global Warming Committee, Beard gave an overview of the composting system in the cafeterias, which he said already is saving the House money with minimal change and upfront cost.

“We’re not talking about rocket science here; this isn’t brain surgery,” said Beard, who is in charge of the House’s Green the Capitol Initiative. “It really isn’t that hard. It doesn’t cost that much more and you make the money back in the long term.”

The new composting system was introduced in late December after food vendor Restaurant Associates officially took over the House’s cafeterias. Most House employees already are aware of the basic changes.

Bins in the restaurants allow visitors to sort their items into compostable and noncompostable materials. Most things are compostable; the cafeterias now feature utensils and sandwich clam shells made from corn, plates and coffee cups made from paper, and containers made from sugarcane.

Rather than heading for the trash heap, the compostable items are taken to a pulper outside the Longworth House Office Building that breaks down and dewaters the materials. They are then shipped off to a commercial compost facility, where everything becomes dirt. The entire process takes 90 days, Beard said.

“Composting is mother nature’s natural process of recycling. It starts and ends there,” said Patricia Millner, a research microbiologist at the Department of Agriculture’s Sustainable Agricultural Systems Laboratory in Beltsville, Md., where a big chunk of the House’s compostable material heads.

Even though the program only has been going for about 60 days, preliminary results show that the waste hauler that picks up trash headed to the landfill gathered about 20 tons less material for the last three weeks of December 2007 compared to the same period in 2006, Beard said.

“We’ve made a good start, but we know there is much more we have to do,” he said.

That’s where the new recycling program comes in. CAO officials found not everybody who picks up lunch at the cafeterias ends up throwing their plates into the compost — about 40 percent of staffers take their meals back to their offices, Beard said.

“We weren’t able to take advantage to get those materials into compost streams,” Beard said.

So, special compost bins will be placed in offices that request them, allowing staffers to send their cups and forks to the compost without heading back downstairs. Offices can sign up for the program on the CAO’s Web site.

Paper recycling also will be made easier — offices that sign up for the program will get one special bin for paper, eliminating the need to sort various materials.

Beard admitted change in the cafeterias hasn’t been without some problems. Many staffers have had a difficult time deciding what can and cannot be placed in the compost bin — so greening officials are preparing new signs to make things more explanatory, he said. Officials also are looking into buying flat screen televisions that would show a short film explaining the composting process, Beard said.

But greening isn’t just making sure there is less trash. Officials also are buying foods that originate within a 150-mile radius of the Capitol whenever possible, Beard said, reducing carbon emissions generated by transporting goods.

The food itself is different, too — there is fresher produce and meat, and much of it is organic, Beard said. And people are buying it: Beard said he has yet to receive an e-mail from someone who dislikes the food.

“Revenues are up, and more people are eating,” he said. “You don’t usually go back after a bad meal.”

Reaction from committee members was mostly positive, with Chairman Edward Markey (D-Mass.) saying that “the House should be proud of the Greening the Capitol initiative.”

Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.) urged Beard to continue to reach out to Members to help offices do things such as turn their lights off at night — a small change that could have a big impact.

“I had hoped that when word got out about all the changes you’ve made in the restaurants, that would be a subtle suggestion,” Cleaver said.

Beard responded that he hopes the House will adopt a policy requiring offices to turn their lights off at night when not in use, at least until motion sensors can be installed in every office.

But not everybody was so enthusiastic.

Ranking member Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) said the House needs to be cautious to ensure that the costs associated with making changes on Capitol Hill bring “the most bang for the buck.”

“If the point is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, could the money spent making wholesale changes to House food services be better focused on creating more energy efficiency in the House?” he said. “It’s unclear to me if there’s enough transparency in this process to actually measure if these changes are worth it.”

Sensenbrenner particularly took to task last year’s House purchase of $89,000 of carbon offsets, which Republicans have repeatedly criticized as a waste of taxpayer dollars.

Beard and others argue the purchase is necessary for the chamber to meet its goal of being carbon neutral by the end of the year.