Signs of Sustainability

We have a long way to go, but we're making progress. Here are some signs that we are moving towards sustainability.

January 26, 2015

Environmental Racism: 1987 to 2007

Tompkins Weekly 1-26-15

By Richard Franke

In our introductory column on environmental racism and sustainability published here on 8 December, 2014, we noted that a key moment in the movement for environmental justice came in 1987 with the publication of the United Church of Christ Commission for Racial Justice’s Toxic Wastes and Race in the United States. This report put the issue of environmental racism before the public in a way it had never been before. There was another significant environmental report that year, the UN World Commission on Environment and Development, published by Oxford University Press under the title Our Common Future. This is more informally known as The Brundtland Report, after its chairperson, Gro Harlem Brundtland of Norway. Because of this report the word “sustainability” entered mainstream scientific and academic circles.

After 1987 both environmental racism and sustainability grew rapidly as topics of conferences, reports, scientific journal articles and books. In the US the environmental justice movement discovered that Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act contained language forbidding discrimination in projects using federal funds that they could use for lawsuits, but legal challenges were not the only devices used to oppose environmental threats. Thousands of mostly un-famous activists set up local meetings, wrote letters and press releases, got petitions signed, made phone calls, led marches and sit ins – working in nonviolent ways to pressure local governments and/or companies to clean up dangerous toxic waste facilities and sites and/or to stop implementing harmful practices. In 1992 there were about 300 people-of-color environmental justice organizations active around the country. By 2011 the number had risen to more than 3,000.

In 2007 the United Church of Christ Justice and Witness Ministries updated their 1987 exposé by issuing a 160 page document, Toxic Wastes and Race at Twenty: 1987–2007. The new report listed several victories by local environmental justice activists and organizations. In 1988 “Mothers of East L. A.” defeated construction of a huge toxic waste incinerator in their community. In Dikon, Arizona Navajo activists achieved a similar victory that same year. In 1996 local grassroots organizers in Pensacola Florida convinced the EPA to relocate an entire community of 358 African-American and low-income households living next to a toxic wood treatment plant. In 2006 activists welcomed the opening of the 32-acre Los Angeles State Historic Park where a previous plan had been to construct warehouses. Also in 2006, after 13 years of litigation, the black residents of Warren County, North Carolina, whose struggle had brought the concepts of environmental racism and environmental justice into mainstream circles – finally won their case for compensation and assistance in relocating from their poisoned neighborhood. The poisoning came from an adjacent 142 acres landfill where PCBs that had been illegally dumped along North Carolina roads were being deposited.

Most of the news, however, was not so positive. The overall “findings” section of the report concluded that 9.2 million Americans “are estimated to live within 3 kilometers (1.8 miles) of the nation’s 413 commercial hazardous waste facilities.” Of those, 5.1 million (56%) were people of color whereas in areas not so close to the facilities, people of color were only 30%. The data and analysis in the report indicate that the over-representation of people of color in the more polluted zones was either equal to or possibly even greater than 20 years earlier when the 1987 report had been issued. And – several of the findings of over-representation including those in urban areas – were statistically significant. Furthermore, a detailed statistical study using 2000 census data and the (then) newer GIS location software made it possible to statistically validate a key finding of the 1987 report: “race continues to be a significant and robust predictor of commercial hazardous waste facility locations [even – RWF] when socioeconomic and other non-racial factors are taken into account.” An established statistical technique called “logistic regression” further showed that all the race indicators were statistically significant.
The 2007 20 years update report includes a chapter with a scathing and detailed attack on the lax and incompetent government response to Hurricane Katrina’s devastation in southern Louisiana in 2005. As C. J. Correa Bernier of the UCC Environmental Justice Office reminded readers in the preface, “…the environmental justice movement is a dynamic one, a continuous struggle…” At the national level in the U.S. that struggle came of age during the 1990s leading to several important political developments. Watch for another installment in this story in a future SoS report.

Richard W. Franke writes about the history of sustainability. He is professor emeritus of anthropology at Montclair State University, a resident of Ecovillage at Ithaca and a board member of Sustainable Tompkins.


January 19, 2015

Helping Renters Find Their Comfort Zone

Tompkins Weekly 1-19-15

By Margaret McCasland

Chilly drafts are one way of learning where Arctic air is sneaking into our homes. And bare spots on an otherwise snow-covered roof show us where heated air is escaping instead staying inside to keep us warm.

In January, it’s hard to imagine EVER feeling too warm, but we also face challenges keeping comfortably cool in summer, especially now that 90 degree days have become more common (prior to Global Climate Disruption, this area typically had less than 7 days per year in the 90s).

There are many programs that help homeowners “weatherize” their homes so they can be cozy in winter and cool in summer. However most of these options are not relevant for renters, who have little control over the buildings in which they live.

Energy Savings for Renters is a peer-to-peer project so renters (like myself) can help each other make our homes warmer in winter and cooler in summer, as well as safer and more energy efficient. I got the idea for the project by noticing the range of ways neighbors in my housing complex addressed the comfort challenges in our homes.

The program is now in its pilot phase and I am meeting with renters on a one-to-one basis, in small groups, or talking with them at outreach events. We are exchanging stories about the challenges we face and the solutions we have found for keeping our homes comfortable, safe and affordable.

While some comfort changes need to be made with the cooperation of landlords (e.g., the installation of a programmable thermostat), there are many minor steps renters can take on their own that make major differences.

Under the guidance of the Energy Team at Cooperative Extension, we can help you make these and similar Do-It-Yourself changes. The Pay It Forward Fund can help you get the needed materials


Whether you own or rent, the first step is to air seal your home. While an energy audit followed by a full weatherization is ideal, there are many simple steps people can take to reduce air leakage in their homes. Here are a few examples:

Fully close and lock your windows as soon as you’re ready to turn the heat on. It’s amazing how much cold air sneaks in around an unlocked window. If the window is still leaky, there are various ways to caulk gaps. Few windows actually need replacing if they are properly maintained and fully caulked. However single pane windows may benefit from adding storm windows. When that is not an option, a layer of Plexiglas or plastic sheeting can make a big difference.

Insulating shades and drapes both reduce drafts in winter and block excess heat in summer, reducing your need for air conditioning.

Sealing leaks in your hot air ducts or insulating the pipes for hot water heat can also make you more comfortable for less money.

Whole house weatherization is possible for some renters through the Weatherization Program at Tompkins Community Action.


LED bulbs are finally “ready for prime time.” They use even less electricity than CFLs and can be used in places where CFLs are not the best option. We can help people chose energy efficient light bulbs that work best for their personal lighting needs and for the light fixtures they already have.

We can also help you install power strips and outlet switches so you can easily fully turn off voltage vampires: electronics that use electricity even they are turned off, such as game sets, large screen TVs, etc.


While our initial outreach efforts are focusing on work with households on a 1:1 basis, we hope these initial connections will be seeds for self-replicating Home Comfort Circles. These are informal gatherings where people exchange ideas for making their homes more comfortable while saving energy. People will also help each other do minor air sealing or install items such as sun-blocking drapes.

Our Pay-it-forward Fund (get what you need, pay what you can) helps people get the materials they need to make their homes cozier in winter and cooler in summer. The fund accepts tax deductible donations of money or weatherizing materials.

Renters interested in sharing their challenges and successes, or who would like to get materials through the Pay It Forward Fund can contact Margaret McCasland at 607-216-1091, or email her at The CEO project is jointly run by the Building Bridges program of the Dorothy Cotton Institute and Get Your Green Back Tompkins of Cornell Cooperative Extension of Tompkins County.

January 12, 2015

Become a Master Composter

Tompkins Weekly 1-12-15

By Adam Michaelides

Though the balmy days of summer may seem like a distant dream, the Master Composters are preparing. This time each year, 15 to 20 Tompkins County residents are trained to be expert composters, and community educators. Over the course of the year, this group speaks with thousands of people about their composting practices at classes, festivals and the annual Compost Fair. These volunteers support the goals of our County to minimize waste and keep organics out of the trash.

Home composting has been described as “the ultimate sustainable action.” Why? The practice provides a tidy solution to several problems. The first is what to do with all of the stuff that I no longer need; items like banana peels, egg shells, branches, dead leaves and more. Through composting, what was once considered a “waste” can now be described as an “input” for the compost.

The second problem that compost addresses is how to keep the soil fertile and conducive to growing things. You may love roses, or need shrubs for privacy. Or you may be trying to grow more of your food for environmental reasons, or just to save a few bucks on the grocery bill. Even if it is just a healthy, green lawn, adding compost to amend the soil will help.

Composting at home also addresses the greater problems of fossil fuel consumption and greenhouse gas emissions. Tompkins County and the City of Ithaca have ambitious goals to reduce greenhouse emissions in the coming years. We can all be part of the solution by the choices we make with our waste. Composting organics at home require no fossil fuels; you simply move materials from your kitchen, yard or garden to somewhere on the premises and the myriad of decomposing organisms (the doers”) do the rest. Small, but numerous critters like bacteria, fungi and invertebrates consume your unneeded materials, and leave a rich, useful product behind – all without fossil fuels!

As anyone who has tried home composting will tell you, there are a few things to learn before starting. Master Composters are the perfect people to assist. They are trained to help people figure out what kind of bin to use, where to put the compost, what materials to include and what to keep out, and they convey many other best composting practices. With this support, common pitfalls like odor, annoying flies, pests and the like are easily avoided.

Master Composters also help people solve problems. What do I do if my landlord won’t let me compost? What can I do with meat scraps if I can’t put them in the home compost? The neighbor’s dog is getting into my compost – what can I do? Usually trained Master Composters know the answer, but sometimes they need to consult with the “Rotline” or Compost Hotline at Cooperative Extension.

Ultimately, Master Composters carry the torch for home composting in our community. They visit schools and talk to kids about composting. They stand by the cans at events and help people properly separate their discards (and understand why they should bother to do so). Many Master Composters are on “green teams” or in groups at their school, workplace or community. Master Composters help friends, coworkers, neighbors and family members set up compost systems and continue on as resource people.

Last, but not least Master Composters have fun! Let’s face it; people who commit themselves to dozens of hours learning about compost are special people. Master Composters get together for potlucks, field trips and holiday parties every year. It’s a vibrant network… not unlike the busy decomposer organisms in the compost heap.

The 2015 Master Composter training starts in early February and goes through April. Training classes are held every Wednesday evening at the Cooperative Extension in Ithaca from 6:30 – 8:30pm, with the exception of three Wednesdays over school breaks for a total of 10 two-hour classes. A couple of the classes are field trips. In addition to the classes, Master Composters in training volunteer to help teach classes, give presentations and participate in events. The hands-on experience is a valuable part of the training program. After they graduate in late April after the Compost Fair, new Master Composters continue to volunteer in the community, and lead projects of their own.

To learn more, or for an application, visit us online at:  or give us a call at 607-272-2292. Application packets are also available at the front desk at Cooperative Extension, 615 Willow Ave. THE DEADLINE TO APPLY FOR THE 2015 MASTER COMPOSTER TRAINING IS FRIDAY, JANUARY 23! For questions about the Master Composter program and training, contact Adam Michaelides by email or phone.

Let’s continue reducing waste, feeding our soils and protecting the environmental systems that sustain us all. Compost!

Adam Michaelides is the Program Manager for Cornell Cooperative Extension of Tompkins County’s Compost Education Program. He trained as a Master Composter in 2000. The Compost Education Program is funded by the Tompkins County Solid Waste Management Division.