Howard County women work toward a sustainable future
By Diana Friedman
Long before it was considered cool or commonplace, Pat Hersey, a 28-year resident of Columbia, took her reusable bags to the grocery store, ignoring the odd glances from other shoppers. While working full time and raising her children, she managed to stay peripherally involved in environmental causes by writing letters and making calls to her elected representatives and donating to environmental groups.
But the shock of the 2016 election results jolted the long-term environmentalist into action.
“When the current administration came into office, I knew they were not going to be protecting the environment,” says Hersey, explaining her decision to join the advocacy group Howard County Indivisible.
But it wasn’t until the summer of 2017 that Hersey found her calling. As she sat at her dining room table with her next-door neighbor, Alisa Neifeld-Batiz, discussing how somebody should do something about the horrific problem of plastic pollution, she suddenly realized:
We are somebody.
Thus, Hersey and Neifeld-Batiz, who jokingly refer to themselves as the “resistor sisters,” birthed Less Plastic Please, an organization that works as part of a coalition to pass statewide legislation that will allow the county to enact a five-cent fee on plastic bags.
“It’s not about the money,” explains Hersey, defending the measure against critics who claim that the bag fee is a tax or a way to line the pockets of grocers. “It’s about behavior change.” A bag fee, she says, will get people to not only reduce plastic bag use, but help them think about their use of plastic overall.
So how big is the plastic problem?
Since the 1950s, 8.3 billion metric tons of plastic have been produced. As of 2015, 76 percent—6.3 billion metric tons•had not been recycled. Meaning all that waste remains somewhere on earth. As plastic takes its time degrading•not decomposing, as it doesn’t ever really go away•it takes up space in landfills; gyrates around the ocean into masses of waste; and finds its way into the stomachs of marine animals who cannot distinguish plastic bags, toothpicks and cups from food. If plastic continues to pour into the ocean at its current rate of approximately a million metric tons per month, scientists estimate that by 2050, the oceans will contain more plastic than fish.
Plastic, as it degrades, is also toxic. Current evidence is now emerging that microplastics, tiny particles of degraded plastic, are in the food chain
Then there’s climate change. Plastic is both produced from fossil fuels and requires substantial energy to manufacture: seventeen plastic bags have enough embedded energy to drive a car one mile. At the end of their very short life, degrading plastic bags release methane, a greenhouse gas 86 more times potent than carbon dioxide.
On the positive side, people and governments are paying attention. Two states in the U.S.•California and Hawaii•have now banned plastic bags.
The most typical path to reducing plastic bag use is through a fee like the one Hersey wants to see implemented in Howard County. A fee that is easily avoided, she reminds us. If you don’t want to pay, bring your own bag.
Data show that fees work; a 5-cent paper and plastic bag fee implemented in Washington, D. C., led to a 60 percent reduction in single-use bags; in Ireland, a 15-cent fee led to a 90 percent drop; and in Israel, a fee of 3 cents translated to an 80 percent reduction in use.
These are the numbers that excite Hersey, whose ultimate goal is for “society to throw away its throw-away mentality.” The bill allowing the county to impose a fee has passed the first local legislation hurdles. Once it gets through the Howard Country council•Hersey has no plans to stop work until it has•she has her eye on an even bigger goal: the reduction of single-use plastic, or plastic designed to be used only once, such as straws, razors, plastic cup covers and water bottles.
She points to Europe’s recent ban on single-use plastic, which goes into effect in 2021.
“We need to catch up,” she says. “Even the queen of England has declared war on plastic.”
Crafting a Bill
It’s hard to be optimistic about climate change these days, but indeed, it’s optimism that powers Sabrina Fu, the mid-Atlantic co-coordinator of Citizens Climate Lobby (CCL), a nonprofit grassroots organization that works to provide nonpartisan solutions to climate change.
Currently, Fu has good reason to be optimistic. In November 2018, for the first time in a decade, bipartisan climate change legislation was introduced in both the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives. H.R. 7173, the Energy Innovation and Carbon Dividend Act of 2018, resulted in part from years of research and advocacy work from Citizens Climate Lobby and has garnered a wide range of support across party lines•no small accomplishment in these highly polarized times.
Fu, who lives in Ellicott City, attributes the widespread support of the bill•everyone from businesses to environmental groups backs it•to Citizen Climate Lobby’s painstaking work on developing fair and equitable solutions to the climate crisis, and to the organization’s commitment to bring people together on core values, rather than squabbling across partisan lines. Fu, who is also the group leader for the Howard County chapter of CCL, adds that the success of the organization comes from its commitment to building citizen groups in all 435 U.S. congressional districts. Those citizen groups, in turn, work to build meaningful relationships with their members of Congress to discuss climate change.
A fiery and energetic woman, Fu talks fast, because she has a lot to say.
“I’ve always liked practical problems,” she explains, citing her childhood curiosity about the destiny of garbage. She carried this question to her doctorate in physical chemistry at the University of California, Berkeley, where she worked on converting carbon monoxide and hydrogen waste to useable fuel. She quickly came to understand, though, that with alternative energy, policy was more of a barrier than science when it came to solutions. Now, as a professor of Natural Science and Environmental Management at University of Maryland University College, Fu tries to help future managers understand the basics and limitations of science, with the hopes they will be able to better integrate science into their decision making.
According to the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the world has one decade to dramatically reduce greenhouse gas emissions or face potentially catastrophic sea-level rise and other environmental devastation. Already, impacts have been felt close to home in the form of two 1000-year floods in Ellicott City just two years apart, regular high-tide flooding and more extreme summer heat throughout Maryland.
The Energy Innovation and Carbon Dividend Act promoted by Fu and CCL offers a solution to break the nation’s paralysis. The act reduces emissions by charging producers and importers of fossil fuels a fee on the fuel’s greenhouse gas content. The fees could potentially reduce U.S. emissions to meet the IPCC targets by enabling nonfossil fuel energy such as solar, wind, geothermal and hydropower to become cost competitive.
Pricing carbon tops Fu’s list for addressing climate change. But, she says, the dividend portion of the bill is what makes it a game changer. While revenue from a simple carbon fee, sometimes referred to as a carbon tax, goes to the government, a carbon dividend returns all revenue to citizens.
“This model directly helps protect the poor,” says Fu. Giving money back will offset price increases resulting from the carbon fees. All citizens are free to use the money however they choose, either by paying the higher prices for fossil fuels and associated products, or using the funds to transition to a low-carbon future, such as investing in solar panels or purchasing an electric car. This approach is far preferable to the chaos created by a carbon tax without revenue neutrality, Fu says, pointing to the riots in France last fall after a carbon tax was proposed as a deficit-reduction measure with no tangible benefits to taxpayers.
Fu is eager to see CCL members and all interested citizens reach out to their representatives in both the House and the Senate to urge passage of the bill as it comes up for a vote in 2019. But for her, CCL and the Energy Innovation and Carbon Dividend Act are about more than passing a piece of legislation. “It’s about bringing people together to work on core values to heal the nation and create a livable world.”
Most people don’t generally get excited about energy efficiency projects or energy performance contracts, but thankfully, Howard County’s Energy Manager, Leah Miller, does.
She began work in the Office of Community Sustainability just after a $13 million energy performance project on 75 Howard County buildings was completed. And she continues to enthuse about it.
“It’s not that typical to have an opportunity to do this on such a large scale at one time,” she says about the program that retrofitted almost 40 percent of the county’s buildings with energy improvements ranging from new LED bulbs to upgrading insulation to adding new cooling and heating systems. Teaming up with ESG, a private company, the county reduced energy costs by 34 percent, leading to approximately $900,000 in annual savings.
And the best part? ESG raised the money for the project, allowing the county to put zero money down. The county will use the annual energy savings to pay back the cost of the work, and in 15 years, when the bill is paid off, will recoup those savings directly.
According to Miller, the project had one other critical benefit: “It helps move us very quickly toward our goals in reducing greenhouse gas emissions and energy use overall,” she says, referring to targets set by Howard County’s 2015 Climate Action Plan.
Even before this project, Howard County, a statewide leader in sustainability efforts, was ahead of schedule for meeting its emissions targets. The 2010 Climate Action Plan called for the county to reduce emissions by 2012 to 7 percent of 2007 levels. By 2012, the county had accomplished reductions of 12 percent.
“It’s a great time to be working at the local level,” says Miller, referring not only to the absence of unified action on the federal level, but to the way local county government can respond directly to constituent needs. For example, the county can adapt zoning regulations for solar installations or coordinate programs through tax payments, such as the PACE program, which provides business owners with zero down, low-interest loans from private companies for energy improvements.
Balancing science and policy requires a special skill set, one that Miller, with a dual degree in political science and biology, clearly possesses. Active in her high school environmental clubs, she never thought about environmental work as a career option until she landed internships in Maryland, first with the Department of the Environment and then the Department of Natural Resources. After graduation, she worked on clean water issues at the Izaak Walton League in New York, eventually returning to Maryland to become the Montgomery County Sustainability Manager, a job she credits for bringing her up to speed on the inner workings of county government.
Unlike that position, which focused primarily on improving sustainability within the government, Miller’s job in Howard County focuses on coordinating money and energy savings by also assisting businesses and residents.
And much of what she’s excited about involves new opportunities for residents, particularly those who want to go solar but either don’t own a home, have shaded roofs or don’t have the money to invest in rooftop solar. Community solar, a new program introduced to Maryland in 2017, allows residents to subscribe to a solar “farm,” a local installation of solar panels that allows participants to receive credit for excess power generated, much the way rooftop solar does.
Miller points to the energy savings basics she wants everyone to remember.
“Conservation isn’t sexy,” she says, “but it’s the easiest and most cost-efficient activity: turning off lights, keeping the blinds up to let in light, shutting off your computer or turning the heat down when you’re not home.” Howard County residents can also take advantage of free energy audits that include free LED light bulbs and smart power strips.
Looking to the future, Miller is excited by the county’s three new electric buses, as well as legislation that requires all new townhouse developments to install one charging station per 25 parking spaces, and all new single-family home garages to be pre-wired for a home charging station.
Speaking at the Howard County Green Forum in 2018, Erle C. Ellis, professor of Geography and Environmental Systems at UMBC and author of Anthropocene: A Very Short Introduction, also pointed to the future.
The question is no longer how we stop the changes we’ve caused, he said, referring to climate change and loss of biodiversity. Rather, we need to be asking ourselves what kind of future do we want to build for ourselves and the earth? What do we want a more sustainable planet to look like?
Pat Hersey, Sabrina Fu and Leah Miller may not have all the answers, but these three Howard County women are working hard to lay down the path to get us there.