'Green the Capitol' initiatives save energy, set a good example

Two years ago, the Capitol was full of trash — literally.

The House of Representatives alone used to dispose of 240,000 meal remains each month, all served on plastic plates or in Styrofoam containers. It was all thrown in the trash and taken to landfills, says Karissa Marcum, deputy press secretary for the chief administrative officer for the House of Representatives.

But in January 2007, the House committed to becoming a greener, more energy-efficient institution. It started with simple changes, such as switching to more eco-friendly products and finding better ways to dispose of waste products, says Marcum.

The goals of the "Green the Capitol" program, implemented by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, were threefold: to change to more environmentally friendly food service products; to shift to renewable energy sources; and to switch from using coal to natural gas.

Today, the House cafeteria is on its way to becoming a zero-waste facility. It sent 880 tons of food service waste in 2008 to commercial composting facilities that turn trash into soil, according to the program's year-end report.

To do this, the House switched all food service materials, such as bowls, plates and utensils, to a plastic substitute made from fermented corn starch, called polylactic acid, PLA for short. The materials are composted through a pulper, which grinds almost all waste to reduce its weight, says House chef Tom Green.

With the exception of potato-chip bags and a few other products, nearly all waste is now compostable.

While most PLA items are not cheaper in comparison with their counterparts, their cost is going down as other companies are competing for their business, says Green.

"(Twenty) months ago, we were the only show in town. We were driving it, and now we're competing with other places in town that are getting involved" in green initiatives.

In addition to switching to PLA products, the House also switched to healthier meal options. Marcum says the cafeteria had your "typical hamburgers, french fries, tater tots — cafeteria food."

Now, "we give people more access to healthy, locally grown food and organic food."

The next step, according to Jeff Ventura, House director of communications, was to switch to natural gas for heating and cooling needs.

"Many House members were not on board at first with the elements of the programs because they felt it was not the best way to spend the money," he says. But the long-term results far outweigh the initial cost.

The House has also taken on projects such as refurbishing old chairs to keep them from landfills. For the price of a single new chair, they can refurbish 30, according to the report.

The House now offers only paper with high or 100% recycled content, and as of January 2008, the House Office Supply Store began to add more environmentally friendly paper products, resulting in the conservation of nearly 4 million gallons of water, the elimination of more than 200 tons of solid waste and the prevention of more than 800,000 pounds of carbon dioxide from being released into the atmosphere.

By switching to Energy Star energy-efficient vending machines alone, the House expects to save $25,000 a year.

Switching to compact fluorescent light bulbs has reduced electricity consumption by more than 1.1 million kilowatt-hours.

More changes are on the horizon. So far, 106 House members have taken part in "green office" consultations, designed to help offices become more environmentally friendly, according to Marcum.

Efforts are also underway to "green the facilities" by installing carpeting that emits significantly lower levels of chemical fumes than traditional carpeting, Marcum says.

The new, organically produced carpet is expected to reduce eye and respiratory irritation, headaches, fatigue and other symptoms associated with "sick building syndrome," Marcum says.

U.S. Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore., has applied some of these changes to his own offices, in both Portland and Washington, by switching to Electronic Produce Environmental Assessment Tool (EPEAT) and Energy Star equipment as well as motion sensors for lights and recycling receptacles wherever possible.

"While technological improvements have helped us conserve energy, the greatest savings have come from simple day-to-day habits like turning off lights, TVs and computers when we're not using them," says Blumenauer.

"I have always been a firm believer in the principle that government should lead by example. Therefore, it was a no-brainer to adopt procedures that reduce our carbon footprint and make our operations more energy-efficient," he says.

Dan Beard, the chief administrator of the "Green the Capitol" program, says in the year-end report that he estimates the House has reduced its carbon footprint by 74% in less than two years.

"We have to green our own House before we can ask the public to do so," says Marcum.