Reduce First, then Reuse, and Finally Recycle

by McKenzie Beverage

Consume lessThere is a lot of talk about recycling in Indianapolis right now. I have a love/hate relationship with recycling. While I love the fact that recycling keeps items out of a landfill (or incinerator in our case), I hate that it has the potential to help drive consumption of one-time-use products.

A friend of mine recently moved to Switzerland. When she first arrived she was provided with her city’s official recycling guide.* Here is a translated excerpt:

Cans of Food: Try to buy seasonal fruits and vegetables instead.

Household appliances: Before throwing it away: is that necessary?

Cars: Are you sure that your old car is no longer serviceable? Or do you just want a new model?

Paper towels: Often overused–try returning to the good old-fashioned dishcloth.

Disposable diapers: Here is another case where avoiding the use of something is better than disposing of it.  The routine use of disposable diapers on most babies today is one of the major causes of the growing refuse problem. Cloth diapers, while intensive in terms of human energy, are still cost-effective and environmentally friendly.

Copying: Copy machines are paper eaters!  Do you really need a copy?

It is interesting to note that the guide had almost NO information on how to actually recycle. In a country that has one of the most exhaustive and comprehensive list of requirements for dog ownership, you would think that they would be more explicit about how to actually recycle.

The emphasis on using less seems like it does make an impact though. For example, Switzerland disposed of roughly 5.5 million tons of waste and recyclables in 2009. New York (a city of with a comparable population) disposed of 14 million tons. I realize this isn’t a completely fair comparison. New York is a densely populated city, Switzerland is a small country, and well, it’s Europe. But it’s difficult not to think that a single municipality would have an easier time with waste management and education than an entire country.

Even Switzerland’s recycling rate is higher. Their rates exceed 50 percent, while New York doesn’t even reach 20 percent. Nationally, the U.S. can only claim 34 percent, and Indianapolis is barely maintaining a 10 percent rate. So what’s the catch? Is “reduce and reuse” an ethos that is just embedded into Swiss culture? Feiock and Kalan would argue that higher recycling and lower trash rates in Switzerland are a result of the country’s higher income and education levels, not program design and environmentalism. Semenza et al would not disagree, but they would add that income and education differences are not an impediment to change with the appropriate policies in place and effective leadership.

Regardless, both Switzerland and New York (and the U.S. for that matter) still produce waste at a rate that is 32 times higher than developing countries. We live in an era of (perceived) plenty. We are a consumptive culture with a trash problem. As much as I love recycling, talking about recycling, advocating for recycling, I wish we didn’t have to recycle at all. I know that recycling is an industry and that industry creates jobs, and all of that contributes to our economy. I just wish it didn’t result in things like this. And I wish that our consumerism wasn’t based on a system that results in things like this.

Repeat it with me: Reduce first, then reuse, and finally recycle.

McKenzie Beverage is the sustainability coordinator for Butler University.

Invasion of the Lonicera maacckii!

by Kelly Harris

Little green men are not invading Indy, but a more covert green invader has infiltrated the city… Lonicera maacckii. With a name like that it might as well be from another planet.  Lonicera maacckii is the scientific name, but it’s also known as Amur or bush honeysuckle. Yes, honeysuckle, the sweet-smelling flowering bush has invaded Indy and many other cities across the eastern United States.

Ivy Tech View Before

View of Ivy Tech before removal of bush honeysuckle in 2012.

But this invasion shouldn’t be taking lightly. This aggressive, exotic plant causes ecological, economic and social impacts to the area it inhabits.

Bush honeysuckle is an exotic species because it’s native to central and northeastern China. It was first brought to the United States by a horticulturalist in 1896 and quickly became a popular ornamental plant due to its high flower and fruit production.

The eastern U.S. and China have a similar climate, which has enabled bush honeysuckle to naturalize (i.e., successfully reproduce in the wild of its non-native range) and spread. While the U.S. has the climate to allow bush honeysuckle to thrive, it does not have the same pest, diseases or predators to keep honeysuckle in check, thus, it has become invasive. Bush honeysuckle is especially pervasive in cities like Indianapolis for the bush honeysuckle prefers edge and disturbed habitats; this makes urban areas an ideal habitat.

Like many other invasive species, bush honeysuckle significantly impairs the health and integrity of the ecosystem it invades. In disturbed forest such as a floodplain or urban woodlot, bush honeysuckle will take over the understory by displacing the native shrubs, saplings and seedlings. It out-competes native plants because it leafs out earlier in the spring and retains them long in the fall. Bush honeysuckle also reduces the trees’ productivity and ability to regenerate by inhibiting seedling growth.

In addition, bush honeysuckle impacts wildlife by reducing the variety and quality habitat and food. Bush honeysuckle does produces an abundance of berries in autumn, but they are a poor food source for wildlife such as birds because they are high in carbohydrates but low in fat thus not providing the high-energy food source birds need to prepare for migration. This would be like eating a bunch of chips before you run a marathon!

After bush honeysuckle removal

View of Ivy Tech before after of bush honeysuckle in 2012.

In Indianapolis, bush honeysuckle is pervasive, especially along our waterways. It acts as a green wall usually hiding the waterway completely from view. In fall of 2012, this issue was put in the spotlight when the Reconnecting to Our Waterways initiative (in conjunction with Lilly Day of Service) executed a large-scale honeysuckle removal along Fall Creek.

The transformation was incredible. Not only did it improve the ecology of the area, but it also improved the aesthetics, provided an educational opportunity, connected people to the area and make them feel safer too.

Since then I have seen honeysuckle removal become top priority for communities and it has become something for people to rally around.

Kelly Harris, MSES/ MPA, is an Americorps SPEA-VISTA Fellow at the Center for Urban Ecology.


Five Rides in One

by Tim Carter

Summer Intern Bike Ride 2014Each summer, one of the first activities we do with all of the CUE interns is to take a bike ride from Butler to downtown Indianapolis and back to campus. What always amazes me is that even though it’s one ride, we encounter five distinct biking experiences.

Section 1: The Central Canal Towpath

The crushed limestone surface along the towpath reflects the character of the “natural” surroundings as you move south from Butler past the Indianapolis Museum of Art and through neighborhoods down to 30th Street. It’s like a glorified mountain trail without the mountains…clearly there is care taken to maintain it, but there are some potholes (“Hole!!” we yell back to the 13 riders with us that day) and elements of risk (don’t stare to long at the turtles or you’ll find yourself down a steep slope). This year we noted how the bridges across the canal stop after the IMA. Why is that? Why aren’t those neighborhoods connected like all the northern ones?

Section 2: The White River Trail

We transfer over to the White River trail at the south end of the towpath. The transition at 30th Street has been greatly improved since our first ride three years ago. At the Naval Armory, we now have our own isolated path that weaves up to the crossing. It’s not quite complete, but prior to this you risked your life to make this crossing.

Once you are south of the interchange it’s pretty smooth sailing until 16th street. The character of the White River trail feels like the embodiment of the post-industrial, Midwestern city. Kind of tired, a bit neglected, lots of space and potential, but with emerging signs of life (e.g., Stadium Loft apartments are the highlight). This stretch ends with a dramatic entrance into the core of the city as you cross Fall Creek, encounter the shiny new Eskenazi Health complex, and roll into White River State Park.

Section 3: The Cultural Trail

So much has already been written about the Cultural Trail and it’s all true – it’s an iconic, important and significant piece of Indy’s infrastructure. It functions very differently than the first two sections of our ride. This isn’t a transportation corridor; it’s a sense-fest with lot to see, smell, and hear. You’re in the heart of the city and you can feel its pulse. At every stop, there is a new feature to point out…there’s one of the rain gardens, here’s the electric car share station, here’s the Pacers bikeshare, that’s where the new transit center is going. The Cultural Trail connects in a way totally distinct from any other riding experience.

***intersession*** We lunch at City Market and take a quick tour of Big City Farms as a great example of how urban space can be shared efficiently. Surplus parking lot space = vegetable growing.

Section 4: The Monon Trail

We’re now headed home and the return loop has us on the north-south interstate of Indy bike paths, the Monon Trail. The Monon has the well-worn feel of your favorite pair of shoes. It’s comfortable, operating simply but effectively, and getting better use with age. We stop at the north crossing of Fall Creek and visualize how sweet it will be when the new section of Fall Creek trail connects with the southwest crossing we made during Section 2.

Section 5: City streets

If all riding were like this, we wouldn’t do the ride. Negotiating with cars, upsetting commuters, hitting stoplights. The contrast between this experience and the other sections couldn’t be greater. We’re operating in a foreign land and we’re not wanted. Our saving grace is the critical mass that we collectively form that makes us impossible to ignore. The width of 46th Street west of Meridian Street provides a welcome respite completing the loop back to Butler.

As we’ve written about before, experiencing the city on bike is a process of rediscovery. If you haven’t done it, do it. You’ll find that the place where you live is filled with special spots you’re overlooking every day.

Tim Carter is director of the Center for Urban Ecology at Butler University.

Yes, But Can I Walk There?

by Molly Trueblood

WalkingMenHaving recently adopted a dog, I’ve had the distinct pleasure of taking lots of long walks around my neighborhood. I’ve never been that into walking, but it’s been a good change for me. I really enjoy getting to know the place around me, and the intimacy I’ve developed with my surroundings has made a big difference in the way I feel and care about the place.

Many places are walkable – cities are often filled with walkers, doing major moves with transit, then walking or biking to their destinations. Walkable environments are shown to be healthier, safer, and economically strong. Walking is our most human form of transportation – in fact, this form of transportation is one reason we evolved to be two-legged, big-brained animals. Walking on two legs helps us get around and see what’s going on (above the prairie grass, over the fence, up the tree over there).

Not that many people are walking these days, though. Walking a dog is one thing, but when was the last time you walked to work? Or to the store? To your parents house for Sunday dinner? Walking is a lost art – walking not just to get someplace, but to enjoy and to observe. Walking gives you opportunity to participate in your environment, to be present in your community. And, it just happens to be exercise (that we all could use a little more of).

If you’re wondering how far it is feasible for you to walk, check your walk score. Things like commuting time and access to resources determine your walk score. Then think about other places you go, and check their walk score – your place of worship, the grocery, the bank, etc. Consider different parts of town, like the Far Eastside, Haughville, Midtown. Think about what it would like to live there, and whether you could get around on foot, or – heaven forbid – without a car.

Now, go take a walk.

Molly Truebood is community organizer with the Center for Urban Ecology working on the the Indianapolis/City as a Living Laboratory (I/CaLL) project.

[Editor's Note: Molly also loves bikes!]

Anticipating Summer: An Update from the Farm

by Tim Dorsey

cuebarnAfter a long harsh winter and an unpredictable spring, the heart of the growing season is certainly upon us at the CUE Farm. A few early, cold-hardy crops have come and gone, but mostly we’re in that sweet spot of having many of the spring crops available and the summer crops on their way. Our CSA and Thursday afternoon farm stand begin this week (June 5), and I know many other area farms have just begun or will soon. The wait is over!

Over the last few years we’ve been finding ways to utilize more and more of our available space at the farm. For us that includes new infrastructure and new crops.

Last year, we had completed a shade structure built from reclaimed and recycled materials, including a fabric roof repurposed from the RCA Dome and re-milled barnwood roofing members. Just before winter, a team of architecture students from Ball State University completed their design and implementation of a repurposed shipping container, transforming it on site into a classroom and resource center space, complete with furniture, a creative shade canopy, a rain-catchment system and a solar-powered fan to exhaust warm air from inside.

On the biological side, we’ve also planted some new perennial fruiting shrubs this spring with hopes of reaping their bounty in the years to come. Some folks will be familiar with Gooseberries. Many may not be so familiar with Seaberries, aka Sea Buckthorn. Both of these shrubs are a bit thorny but known for delicious fruit. Sea Buckthorn has recently been finding its way into North America from countries such as Russia, Germany and Norway as folks are becoming acquainted with its highly nutritious orange berries. Just as important, the plant is a legume and a soil-builder capable of fixing nitrogen from the atmosphere (through a symbiotic relationship with certain soil bacteria) for its own use as well as other plants nearby. It’s also extremely cold-hardy, down to -40 or -50 degrees F, and without many pest problems. If we can figure out a way to efficiently harvest while negotiating the thorns, it should be one of the more nutritious hedges in town.

Tim Dorsey is the CUE Farm manager.

CUE Loves Bikes

by Ryan Puckett

The Center for Urban Ecology at Butler University (CUE) is an inspirational place and I’ve had the pleasure of working with CUE for the past year. CUE is all about how our urban lives interact with the natural environment and how our city is an ecosystem unto itself.

As humans, one thing we can do to tread lightly on our local ecosystem is ride our bikes more. I realize that’s easier said than done. I, for one, have a newborn, a 4-year-old in daycare and consulting job that takes me all over the city. Try taking care of all that on two wheels!

But occasionally, I like to ride. I recently signed up for a Pacers Bikeshare membership – it’s a great way for me to travel throughout downtown (and the bikes are fun to ride too). From time to time, I also make my way to Gallahue Hall on the Butler campus via my humble, low-budget commuter bike.

The CUE staff member who really takes the cake on biking is the indomitable Molly Trueblood, local redhead celebrity and community organizer for the Indianapolis/City as Living Laboratory (I/CaLL) project.

Recently, Indy-based storyteller Tim Taylor directed a video of Molly’s bike habits and her mission to save the planet, one bike ride at a time. The timing of the video of Molly is great as May is National Bike Month. Established in 1956, National Bike Month is a chance to showcase the many benefits of bicycling — and encourage more folks to give biking a try. Check it out!

Others at the CUE are also passionate about about their ride. You’ll frequently find CUE Director Tim Carter about Midtown on bike during the summer and I’ve seen Travis Ryan, chair of the department of biological sciences, (un)locking up on campus and at Hubbard & Cravens. McKenzie Beverage, Butler’s first sustainability coordinator, can frequently be seen on her trusty Masi Speciale CX she’s named “Root Beer”.

When I asked McKenzie about her bike habits, here’s what she shared,

“I have been a bike commuter since I was in college. It started out of necessity because I lived in a college town but I quickly fell in love with it. I have lived close enough to campus or work that I’ve always been a year-round bike commuter although I admittedly drove to work quite a bit over this nasty winter because the roads weren’t clear and the temperatures were so extreme. Before moving to Indy, I was able to take a bus to work so this is the first year since college that I’ve relied so much on a car.

I commute by bike for so many reasons. It saves on gas, I get exercise, and it’s better for the environment. There are some more subtle reasons I ride too. I get to smell the wonderful spring blooms, hear kids playing during recess, and observe tiny interactions between people as I pass.”

Keeping with the Bike Month theme, local bike advocacy superheroes IndyCog are challenging Indy residents to participate in the National Bike Challenge and collectively reach a goal of 1 Million Miles in May.

And if you’re heading to ‘The Race” on Sunday, IndyCog has the skinny on how to ride to the Indy 500.

Ryan Puckett is the principal of TWO21 LLC and a communication consultant for the Center for Urban Ecology. 

Cooking Knowledge as Key to Healthy Food Systems

by Nic Mink

foodfellowfromscratchcookingOne of my favorite lines from Wendell Berry comes from his essay, The Pleasures of Eating, an instructive piece that offers a stinging rebuke of the industrial food system and outlines guidelines for more thoughtful eating.

“That they,” he writes of the food industry, “do not yet offer to insert it, prechewed, into our mouth is only because they have found no profitable way to do so….The ideal industrial food consumer would be strapped to a table with a tube running from the food factory directly into his or her stomach.”

In re-conceptualizing my Sustainable Food Systems class this spring, I took Berry’s line to heart, as I thought of ways to ensure that my students would never find themselves strapped to a table with a tube running directly into their stomach! This resulted in the creation of three gastronomy labs, created in partnership with Maggie Hanna, the executive director of Fall Creek Gardens Urban Growers Resource Center.

The labs sought to provide hands-on lessons about the science, history, and culture of food, all while instructing students in food preparation. Over the course of the semester, we ended up cooking fish and chips, macaroni and cheese, and gumbo, all from scratch. In the process, we interrogated ingredients, examined labels, and explored personal conceptions of health and well-being.

These labs were some of the most rewarding I have ever instructed and they taught me many lessons.

First, despite the fact that most of my students had a real interest in eating “healthy,” most of them had never considered that healthy eating included the necessity of cooking their own food from scratch. Healthy, to many of them, simply meant ensuring that food had the proper number of calories (few) and the right amount of fat (even less).

Second, the labs also taught me that most of my students had never actually cooked a meal from scratch. Ever. In their two decades of existence, they had always relied on others—parent, fast food chains, sit-down restaurants, or a school cafeteria—to provide their nourishment.

The process of cooking with students (and learning these lessons) suggested, to me at least, the value of making culinary and nutrition education a core part of any college curriculum. Not only can you teach just about any subject through cooking, but you can also provide an outlet for creativity and an avenue to build interdisciplinary connections.

At the end of the semester, one of my students remarked that these labs were the best classes he’d ever had. While it would be nice to pin this success on Maggie and I’s uncanny abilities as educators, in reality I think the remarks this student made reflects the power of food to build community, nourish our souls, and teach us that immense and profound happiness can be found in cooking with one another.

Nicolaas Mink, PhD is the urban sustainable foods fellow at the Center for Urban Ecology.

Year of (Less) Waste: One Semester In

by McKenzie Beverage

Trash AuditThe “Year of Waste” is the unofficial term for my first objective at Butler: get the recycling program, behaviors, and awareness locked in, then tackle things like transportation, local food, etc. Recycling is a baseline. The program (and participant behavior) should be seamless. Once that happens, we can take the conversation to the next level. This blog entry is a reflection on the first half of the Year of Waste.

Trash audit results are in. People at Butler are putting 33% of their recyclables in the trash. Students from my class (and a couple of daring volunteers), helped us sort through the 1,800 pounds of trash strewn across Butler’s west mall during Earth Week. Reporters from many of the local news channels and the Indianapolis Star also joined us.

Are you as excited as I was to know what is being thrown away? There were some things that surprised me—two bags full of clothes in perfect condition, a case of unopened Ramen, and an unopened box of windshield wiper blades.

There were many things that didn’t surprise me: plastic water bottles, fast food containers, LOTS of pizza boxes, beer cans, Starbucks cups, and uneaten (but cooked) food leftover from the dining halls. Food waste itself accounted for one-third of the total. Read Shel Silverstein’s poem “Sarah Cynthia Sylvia Stout” and you’ll get a good idea of what it was like to root around through one day’s worth of garbage from the dining halls.

The trash audit served two purposes: 1) raise awareness and 2) collect data. Reducing consumption is directly tied to raising awareness about our current consumption patterns. It was a newsworthy spectacle that hopefully gave some perspective on just how much we consume.

When you think of Butler, what do you think of first? For some people, it’s the lovely green campus, maybe the bell tower, or the historic buildings. For most people, it’s Hinkle Fieldhouse.

On Earth Day, we announced that we are working with People for Urban Progress (PUP) to salvage fieldhouse seats to sell them to the public and install them in public places as the second round of PUPstops. This unprecedented project has already received national media attention and will hopefully inspire other university athletics departments about how to get engaged in sustainability initiatives.

In addition to the trash audit, students from my class designed and implemented two-week recycling competitions for some Greek houses and graduating seniors. The students completely managed the whole process and came up with exceptionally creative ways to incentivize participation. Between the recycling competitions and the trash audit, my class helped divert over 2,500 pounds of recyclables from the incinerator. While I am thrilled that they were so successful, I am also deeply bothered by how many pounds were accumulated by so few people in such a short period of time.

I am an absolute advocate for recycling, but I truly believe that it encourages consumption. The good feeling that we get knowing that we can recycle something often blinds us from the fact that that product was still manufactured and shipped which takes an enormous amount of energy. Recycling itself uses significant amounts of energy. Advocating for reducing and reusing before recycling is difficult, especially in our one-time-use-disposable-culture.

I’ve got some big ideas for the next half of this year. I’ll check back in soon and let you know how it goes.

McKenzie Beverage is the sustainability coordinator for Butler University.

Making Nice with Money

by Tim Carter

MakeChangeLogoMoney has always been, and will continue to be, a hard topic to write about. Wars are fought over it, it’s inherently exclusionary, and it’s one of those topics (like religion and politics) that you’re not supposed to discuss at a dinner party.

Many of us in the non-profit sector, as implied by that description, are not inherently driven by the desire for our organizations to make gobs of money; therefore, the relationship to funding is always one laced with tension. We need it to do what we do, but we strive to not let it drive our operations. To put together successful grant applications, like our recent one from the National Science Foundation, it takes a lot of partnerships, months of planning and conceptual development, and creativity to fit your proposed activities within the funder’s framework.

Which is why it’s so refreshing to encounter a program privately funded by Smallbox called “Nice Grants”. Nice Grants started in 2013 and the premise is simple: if you have a good idea that helps to improve the city, fill out a short application and potentially get $1,000 to make it happen.

CUE’s proposal, along with nine others, was selected for funding this year. Our project is to expand the “Make Change” initiative that we piloted in the Mid-North area of Indianapolis into all of Indy’s Midtown neighborhoods.

Make Change also directly engages the monetary system. When you do something good for your neighborhood’s environment, you earn community currency that can be redeemed at participating businesses.

Be on the lookout for the official launch of Make Change expansion this summer! In the meantime, if you see a coin with a logo that looks like this, you know that person has done something that improved their local environment. If you see a sign in a business that looks like this, you know the next time you receive one of those coins, you can redeem it at that business.

Nice Grants and Make Change are two ways to rethink how money can be used in service to community. When we are creative about the use of currency, it may help us operate out of a mindset of abundance rather than scarcity.

Tim Carter is director of the Center for Urban Ecology at Butler University.

Places and People We Encounter

by Molly Trueblood

575248_10102433597058918_1805685920_nAs much as I try to keep my life spontaneous, I tend to fall into patterns. Wake up at the same time, bike the same route downtown, mow the yard on a certain day each week, eat at the same restaurant over and over. Sometimes it’s easier to do just what I’ve done before.

But recently I’ve been apt to explore new places I’ve never seen before, like the Burdsall Parkway fire station, or the Eagledale neighborhood. As I bike through these unfamiliar streets, I wonder, where do folks who live in these neighborhoods gather? How do they build community and ensure cohesion? Where are the hidden gems in this neighborhood?

Ray Oldenburg coined the concept of the “third place,” a gathering place that isn’t home or work. This is a place where folks go in their neighborhood to relax and connect with neighbors such as a park, a pub, a library, a community garden, or a religious institution. These spaces create opportunities to encounter folks we may or may not have met before, to have discussions and to spark new ideas. They help forge new and stronger links between individuals within a certain location.

There aren’t many third places in my neighborhood. There are a few churches, a great park, a few places to eat, and a soft-serve ice cream shop. But wouldn’t it be great if there were a place where activities were going on almost all the time? Music shows, art classes, dances, spoken-word performances and poetry readings, cooking demonstrations, a community garden, activities for the kids in the neighborhood.

Places like these exist around Indianapolis – some great examples are the Harrison Center for the Arts, Murphy Arts Building, the newly opened Grove Haus. In all of these places, arts are the sturdy backbone of the location, encouraging experimentation, exploration and creation in and around their physical walls.

The arts have a proven track record of successful revitalization, from community-centered art galleries in Detroit to economic development in California. In fact, the idea of creative placemaking is taking off around the country. Art seems like a good place to start if we want to encourage participation by neighbors, community ownership, and creative expression.

Reconnecting to Our Waterways has received a grant to encourage creative placemaking in Indianapolis, particularly in neighborhoods like Mapleton Fall Creek and West Indianapolis. Indianapolis waterways have been both integral and overlooked in our neighborhoods and it’s time that we encourage people to creatively reimagine their waterways as places for art, nature, beauty and recreation.

You can help in the planning process by participating in a waterway committee. Check out more information here. How will you transform your neighborhood’s overlooked assets into destinations for gathering, encountering, and creating with your neighbors?

Molly Truebood is community organizer with the Center for Urban Ecology working on the the Indianapolis/City as a Living Laboratory (I/CaLL) project.