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The Green Issue

Earth angels

These five innovators are doing good deeds at home and far away.

Anthony Cortese (Globe photo / Dina Rudick) Anthony Cortese envisions environmentally friendly campuses.
By Elizabeth Gehrman
October 10, 2010

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The Ultimate Recycler Chris Swan finds new uses for dirty byproducts that would otherwise clog landfills. Because of all the emphasis in news headlines on oil as an energy source, it may come as a surprise that about half of the energy that’s generated in the United States actually comes from coal. And with all that coal use comes problems for the environment – including the residue, called fly ash, that’s left when coal is burned for electricity. “In the United States alone, we produce about 70 million tons of fly ash a year,” says Chris Swan, an associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at Tufts University in Medford. “India and China produce much more.” Though 25 million to 30 million tons of the stuff are reused every year – mostly in making concrete – the rest, of low quality or contaminated with radon or heavy metals, is dumped in landfills and retaining ponds. Plastics create a similar problem. Many more grades of plastic are being recycled now than ever before, but different grades don’t mix well, and many containers are tainted by products like oil and antifreeze.

Swan, a 48-year-old who lives in Needham, has come up with a tidy two-in-one solution: a strong, flexible, lightweight aggregate for use in roadways and in building materials that mixes fly ash with virtually any type of plastic. The plastics encapsulate the fly ash, so contaminants won’t escape into the soil or air, and Swan is working out whether the carbon in the ash, in turn, might help neutralize some of the contaminants in the plastics. “I’m looking at the back end,” he says, “but we need to make a change on the front end, so we don’t produce these wastes in the first place. This has gone from being a passion on the research side to being a passion in almost everything I do.”

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The Playground Maverick Mav Pardee creates natural spaces that children love to explore. As Mav Pardee was growing up, every family vacation involved the outdoors. Hiking and camping, crossing streams and gathering wood for the fire, she says, “give you a kind of courage and make you more comfortable with your own physical abilities.”

Now that she’s director of the Children’s Investment Fund, a Boston-based nonprofit that provides funding and guidance to help early childhood and after-school facilities create high-quality spaces, the 62-year-old Pardee is making sure local children can have the same kind of experiences. She’s bringing the campground to them in the form of natural playgrounds filled with trees, hills, rock, sand, and water features.

“Children who play in a natural environment as opposed to a traditional playground play longer,” says the Concord resident. “They move more, and they carry on imaginative sagas from day to day, so the play is richer. They make up games and use their imagination. They develop better motor coordination, and research shows natural environments also help reduce stress.”

The natural playground movement started a few years ago and is quickly picking up steam nationwide. The four examples funded and built by CIF – all of which reused as many materials from the site as possible – are the first of their kind in the Boston area, but Pardee hopes they won’t be the last. “These playgrounds give kids a lifelong connection to the natural world that some of them would not have,” she says. “Unless you know nature and love nature, you don’t worry about it.”

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The Devoted Rebuilder Doug Hammond aims to teach Haitian youths about sustainable practices.

“Everybody’s very excited about the opportunity to help Haiti,” says South Deerfield’s Doug Hammond. “But there’s a vulnerability. It’s like, ‘Hey, here’s what Haiti needs.’ And if we don’t pay attention to the realities on the ground, if we just think that we have the solution for Haiti and don’t engage Haitians in self-determination, we’ll just perpetuate all of the things that have plagued the country for countless generations.”

About a year ago, Hammond, who had been a leader in social services and sustainable business for much of his 30-year career, started Alive Communities, a South Deerfield-based organization that works with individuals, companies, neighborhoods, and, in the case of Haiti, a country, to help them move toward environmental and economic sustainability while taking into account local culture and history. When the earthquake hit Port-au-Prince in January, it was a call to action for the 54-year-old. With funding from Halloran Philanthropies and Generocity Partners, he made Haiti Onward the signature project of Alive Communities.

On a 400-acre parcel a few hours from the capital city, Haiti Onward is developing a green, locally built “innovation hub,” or sustainability campus, where youth leaders can get vocational training in green energy, environmentally friendly building, sustainable agriculture, waste management, and entrepreneurship, taking those lessons back to their communities. Hammond hopes the center will someday become a model for other countries.

“With the earthquake,” he says, “everybody is thinking about how the world is going to save Haiti. But there’s no doubt in my mind that years from now, it will be Haiti’s role to help save the world by their embracing the best green practices. The blank slate in Haiti is an incredible opportunity, and to rebuild in any way other than green and sustainably would be a lost opportunity.”

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The College Booster Anthony Cortese envisions environmentally friendly campuses. When Anthony Cortese was commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection from 1979 to 1984, he couldn’t understand why so many initiatives he introduced came up against roadblocks. “I thought, ‘What is wrong with the way I’m thinking that I can’t help people see there are better ways, that we can use earth’s resources for a much longer period of time if we keep them in good shape?’ ” says the 63-year-old Cambridge resident. A few years later, as dean of environmental programs at Tufts University, he solidified his notion that education was the key. “We educate people in silos, as economists or engineers or scientists,” he says. “But when you look at the challenges on a global scale, they are all interdependent. We need to help people think more systemically.”

In 1993, with backing from John Kerry and Teresa Heinz, he helped found Second Nature, a Boston-based organization that helps colleges and universities to embrace sustainable approaches. Among the group’s more ambitious programs is the American College & University Presidents’ Climate Commitment, started in 2007 and signed by about 670 schools dedicated to becoming carbon-neutral, to researching and developing green technologies, and to preparing students to create a clean-energy economy.

Second Nature’s most recent effort is the Advancing Green Building in Higher Education Initiative, which assists financially strapped higher-ed institutions. Officials at Tennessee State University, which is involved in the program, say the school has already saved $300,000 in energy-consumption costs by taking small steps like turning down thermostats. TSU can invest that savings in more expensive fixes, such as energy-efficient windows. “By 2050, we’ll have to essentially renovate 75 percent of the building space in the United States,” Cortese says, “because every 40 years you have to renovate a building. You might as well do it right.”

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The Dirt Developer Susan Leschine hopes her lab’s microbe discovery will lead to lowered gasoline use. Whenever University of Massachusetts Amherst microbiologist Susan Leschine and her research associate, Tom Warnick, go anywhere new, they bring back souvenirs – small canisters of soil. “I’m interested in understanding the diversity of certain soil microbes that can break down plant material,” she says. “As it turns out, the one microbe that had some unusual properties that might be useful came from our own backyard.”

The Q microbe, which Warnick picked up in a soil sample while hiking around the Quabbin Reservoir in Central Massachusetts, was isolated by Leschine’s lab in 1996, but “it took us awhile to realize it could be useful,” Leschine says. Like many microbes, the Q breaks down plant materials into “yummy bits” – in this case, bigger chunks than most other microbes can consume, which allows it to out-compete its neighbors. A byproduct of this process is ethanol, a biofuel additive for gasoline.

Currently, every gallon of gas sold in the United States is about 10 percent ethanol by volume – though existing engines could handle as much as 25 percent. Why isn’t ethanol used more? Because there isn’t the necessary support to bring advanced biofuels to market, says Leschine, 64 and a resident of Leverett.

Because the Q microbe isn’t fussy about its meals, it can use plant residues such as corn stalks and husks. The current process for using nonfood plant parts to make ethanol involves several steps, so employing the Q instead would simplify production and make ethanol economically competitive with gasoline.

Leschine is hopeful that Qteros, a Marlborough company she founded, will be able to increase production as congressional mandates for biofuel use inch higher. “I see things like the gulf disaster and the price we’re paying for mining all this carbon,” she says. “It just keeps repeating itself over and over. We need to find alternatives. I don’t see this as a silver bullet, but it is a part of the solution.”