How a local biz got EarthWISE

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Staff at Willamette Lutheran Retirement Community have committed to going the extra mile for the environment. (File)

By JASON COX
Of the Keizertimes

Since Willamette Lutheran Retirement Community went EarthWISE, the results are showing up in savings.

The business has cut back on purchasing fertilizer, instead using compost generated on-site, and has also reduced consumption of disposable cups and plates.

That’s just a couple of the changes Raeann McDonald, the community’s executive director, said has instilled a sense of pride and provided a positive marketing message.

“Social accountability is important,” McDonald said.

Marion County assists businesses in becoming EarthWISE certified. It was seeing a list of “businesses we admired” that got conversations started, McDonald said.

Garnering the seal of approval requires extensive recycling efforts, including fluorescent lamps and electronics along with the usual cardboard, paper, bottles and cans. They must also choose one like styrofoam, printer cartridges and cooking oil.

At Willamette Lutheran, recycling printer cartridges has created a win-win for the center and local schools, McDonald said. The cartridges get sent to the schools, who in turn get credit for it.

Recycled paper products are a must – McDonald said those do come with a slight markup.

Of course, it helps when you use less of it. A nurse’s report that went to several executives every day generated 6,570 pieces of paper per year.

That number has been cut back by two-thirds, keeping one copy on file and the rest distributed by email.

The residential retirement community has 42 acres in total, 12 of which are manicured and landscaped. That leaves plenty of room for a compost pile, which meant fertilizer isn’t needed for flower beds any more. Fertilizer is still used on the grass, but McDonald said the cost savings rise with the price of oil.

“WE can utilize the compost on our grounds and it’s cost-effective for us,” McDonald said.

One mandate is that businesses have a Green Team – employees who monitor the criteria and help other staff comply and improve sustainability efforts.

“They also look through the building and look for areas that need to be addressed,” McDonald added.

Bill Labhart and Allan Freebury are the residential Green Team members – a staffer leads the group. Freebury enjoyed the environmentally-conscious nature of Oregon culture – a far cry from his life working in marketing in California – but admitted he was skeptical of how it would help the bottom line.

“I was probably the most critical as to why,” he said. But he found that the certification has garnered publicity and goodwill, including television and print recognition.

“Doesn’t everyone want to conserve our natural resources?” Labhart added.

Freebury said some of the residents lived through the Great Depression and avoid waste by nature.

“These people are the greatest generation,” he said. “They never throw away anything. It was survival, for a lot of people. They walk the talk.”

Maybe that’s why the two men encountered virtually zero resistance from other residents.

“Once we tell people the benefits, it just seems like people cooperate,” Freebury said.

Conserving utility resources like water and electricity are part and parcel of the program. A drip water system replaced sprinklers on flower beds and stopped watering during the hottest part of the day, both changes that reduce water use.

Switching to native flowers cut back on the number of plants they were buying, and also meant less plastic use.

With a large organization – 120 residents and 85 staffers – participation and buy-in are critical. McDonald said younger staffers led the way.

“Change is always difficult, but … a lot of the young people who work here heard about recycling during their developmental years, so it was time for our youth to shine. It was just part of the culture.”

For Freebury, the chance to closely examine how the community operates has left him with more respect for administration.

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