Two of the most popular conversations on our The Civic Commons these days have to do with the notion of sustainability. They're so popular, in fact, one has even attracted the attention of and contributions from my mother, of all people. (I don't really mean anything by that, Mom, I swear.) But what's clear about both of these conversations is that what different people mean by sustainability is really difficult to nail down. 

The first conversation--focused on the the long term strategic plan for the Cleveland Heights-University Heights school district--began in December and has been steadily plugging along since then. Local eco-conscious auto mechanic and small business owner Sam Bell launched the dialogue to advocate that the plan include more clear goals for sustainability and, specifically, a position for a sustainability director for the district, and he has galvanized elements of the community to the cause. They seem to share a concern that discussion of sustainability happening is little more than green-washing, and that without a particular person responsible, the promises of the plan won't mean much. There hasn't been much public response from the district, so I called Angee Shaker, the district's director of communications. She told me, "Sustainability is a major piece in what we're doing. We can't sustain what we're doing right now, so we have to change that." And then she followed up with an email:

Hello, Dan,

As I stated over the phone, the District believes strongly in the principle of sustainability. In fact, the entire basis for our Master Facilities Plan is sustainability.

Our current facilities are inefficient, costly, and simply unsustainable. This community needs and deserves a school district that it can reasonably support for the coming decades.

However, Superintendent Doug Heuer has made it clear throughout this two year process, the District operates on a very limited budget, and has spent a great deal of effort and time reducing administrative positions to keep our focus on student learning.

An administrator devoted to sustainability may make sense in the abstract, but it’s not the choice for our district at this time.

Major, cost-saving sustainability choices – for which a director would advocate – are already core elements of the Master Facilities Plan. Our architectural partners were chosen specifically because of their knowledge and experience in creating sustainable educational communities. Because of that, we doubt that there would be additional, feasible cost savings to be found to offset what would be an expensive administrative position.

Yet while the District won't be hiring an internal sustainability director, we remain strongly in favor of sustainable business and educational practices, and will continue to pursue a position as one of the state’s leading sustainable school districts.

This sense of sustainability sounds largely fiscal and economic. In other words, the way they're running the district is not something they'll be able to afford in the future. Adding a position, regardless of what it is, sounds like it's not in the cards.

Meanwhile, one city over, in the City of Cleveland (where there happens to be a cabinet level position devoted to sustainability), the Mayor's office is asking the community about their concerns regarding a proposal to create something that actually doesn't exist anywhere on the planet--a recycling and waste management facility that, by burning municipal waste under super-heated, low-oxygen conditions, creates energy. The city sees this project--called the CREG Center (Cleveland Recycling and Energy Generation)--as a real part of their goals in the Sustainable Cleveland 2019 efforts. From their perspective, it will keep 230,000 tons of trash out of a Lorain county landfill every year, ensure the community is recycling as much as possible, and create enough energy for a few thousand houses, get Cleveland off fossil fuels (a bit), and likely create a few jobs (though they may not be the most desirable jobs around).

From another perspective, it's a fancy incinerator that will increase pollutants in and around the Ridge Road neighborhood where it will be sited.

I think probably both perspectives are correct. On Friday, we talked to some reps from the city as part of our weekly podcast, including the Chief of Sustainability Jenita McGowan, Public Works Commissioner Ron Owens, and Commissioner of Cleveland Public Power Ivan Henderson. I asked McGowan about the pushback they're getting from the environmental community. Her response, it's a NIMBY thing:

"We're ok with exporting our trash to a landfill in another county. People tend to be ok with polluting through coal in other cities," she says. "But if we were to take responsibility for our own waste, here, in our own community, it's a different way of thinking about it... We're all responsible for the things we throw away, and we're all responsible for what happens afterward. It's a new way of thinking about the trash we produce. There is no away."

It's hard to argue with McGowan on that point. There really isn't an "away" anywhere. But is this plan--with its attendant pollution increase, with the "dirty MRF" (which, I'm told, is really quite dirty and nowhere near as sustainable as simply having residents sort their own trash), with the strange semantic dance the city does around words like burn and incinerate--is this plan really sustainable?

I don't know the answer. It reminds me of the objections to wind energy off of Cape Cod, that pits environmentalists of the green energy sort against environmentalists of the conservation and preservation sort. There is something very appealing about the city wanting to take responsibility and ownership of its own trash, because, one day, there won't be any more land to fill. And right now, our energy needs require burning coal which creates pollutants that exceed what's officially expected for this facility. But the coal burning is happening "away" somewhere, not here.

So, what's sustainable here? Burning trash or landfilling it? Owning your waste or sending it away? Polluting your air or someone else's? I don't know.

Usually, the compromise solution is evident to me, but I'm not seeing it immediately here. A little help?

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Copyright © 2012 Dan Moulthrop; available under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike License.

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