Maybe it's not easy being green, but Indianapolis resident Renee Sweany wants to show you that it's easier than you think.
Sweany, the head of Green Piece Indy and founder of Rush Hour Recycling, works to promote green habits like recycling, reusing, and reducing what's thrown away. It's become a personal mission and a full-time occupation for Sweany, who is trying to make Indy a better place to live through e-mail tips and programs promoting sustainable practices. Among her efforts: a haul of 50 tons worth of cardboard and electronics recycling in 2009, which earned an award from the Mayor's Office of Sustainability.
"So many people say they'd like to be more green, but don't think it's possible," Sweany says. "Our thinking is, 'We can, so why not others?'"
It's a message Indianapolis needs to heed. In the last several years, the Circle City has found itself at the bottom of a number of national rankings for sustainability and other green practices. Of the 50 largest U.S. cities, Indianapolis was ranked 44th in sustainability by SustainLane. MSN.com and treehugger.com called Indy a city that needs help getting green. And the state overall fared worse: Forbes.com ranked Indiana 49th in its America's Greenest States survey, basing measurements on air and water quality, waste, consumption, and government policy. The site reported that Indiana had the sixth highest carbon footprint of any state.
Green Piece Indy offers this information as inspiration for change: the tips show how to go about making life a little greener, from conserving water to turning trash into usable goods like kites and bags. Green Piece delivers its advice right to a subscriber's inbox, so even the busiest consumers still can learn how to make changes in their day-to-day life. Sweany hopes people will be similarly inspired to build on those little changes and eventually make some big ones.
"I think what makes people more passive is inconvenience," she says. "Or they need more exposure to have green habits, which is another focus of Green Piece Indy. We come up with things you can incorporate where you don't spend a lot of money, and can save you a lot of money in the long run."
Green Piece Indy launched in January 2008. Sweany, who graduated from Valparaiso University, works with writer Meghan McCormick on the e-mail tips. The free e-mail subscription had 300 subscribers when it first launched: mostly friends and family. Now there are 3,000 subscribers.
"We both have this passion for the environment," Sweany says. "The way we've grown has been very grass-roots, through word-of-mouth and forwarding. We've gotten great feedback. People love Meghan's writing style. Meghan writes. I'm behind the curtains."
The first tip taught subscribers how to calculate their carbon footprint to see what type of impact their lifestyles have on the environment. More recent tips have given readers information about local events like the late-March Green Fest at the Indiana State Fairgrounds and the Going Green Festival at the Indiana Historical Society (where Green Piece Indy sold coupon books and signed up new subscribers to the newsletter), and Earth Hour, one hour of conservation on March 27. The purpose of Earth Hour is to turn off the electricity from 8:30-9:30 p.m. to reduce energy consumption. As Green Piece Indy points out, past Earth Hour participants included a darkened Eiffel Tower, Las Vegas Strip, and the Empire State Building.
As far as money-saving tips, Sweany describes relatively inexpensive retrofit toilets that use less water. Another solution is taking up space in the tank, whether it's with a brick or some large, empty juice bottles.
"It's practically free, other than having to buy a jug of juice and drink it," she says. "These are probably things our grandparents came up with, and we can do them, too. Like line-drying clothes: anything you can do outside that cuts electricity and also cuts costs."
Here in Indy, there are now other ways to save money by going green. In April of 2009, Sweany sought to expand and improve upon the Green Piece Indy idea, and created a coupon booklet called Green Savings Indy. The second-annual edition is being released this month in conjunction with Earth Day.
"I'd formed relationships with cool people in Indianapolis who were quietly doing amazing things for the environment," she says. "This was a way to connect those awesome people with consumers."
Some of the vendors in the book include Good Earth Natural Food Company, Whole Foods, Farm Fresh Delivery, eco-friendly cleaning service Green Sweep and eco-friendly cleaning products from locally owned TraceyClean, along with the Indiana State Museum, and Endangered Species Chocolate. Sweany formerly worked in marketing for Endangered Species Chocolate, and learned in the spring of 2009 that she was being laid off. She'd already been planning to launch Green Piece Indy, and that unexpected job change was the push she needed to devote herself to her new venture on a full-time basis. In a difficult economy, Sweany merged her passion with her work and discovered a way to sustain both.
Her business is registered as Green Indy, an umbrella term that could contain a number of different words in between: Green Savings Indy, Green Piece Indy, and so on. Sweany also helps organizations do green fundraisers involving green vendors, though that's been on a smaller scale so far: about seven or eight last year.
"I'd love to see that program grow," she says. "If we do more with sustainability, everybody wins."
Rush Hour Recycling
The award-winning Rush Hour Recycling program began on a whim, as Sweany wondered how to make recycling easier for consumers. "This was one of my harebrained ideas. I thought, 'I don't know, maybe it'll work, maybe not.' We partnered with Workforce, Inc. In the first event, we collected three tons of electrical items and cardboard. In 2009, we collected more than 50 tons at 10 events."
Sweany likens the cardboard and dead electronics that fill many Hoosier basements to a kind of never-ending storage: it'll get recycled one of these days, if we could only find the time and the right way to do it.
"Generally people want to do the right thing, but we're not always sure what the right thing is," she says.
She sought to make the right thing easier for would-be recyclers. Here's how Rush Hour Recycling works: between the morning rush of 7-9 a.m., commuters can pull up to a designated checkpoint, where volunteers will unload car trunks and take unwanted items for recycling. At two events in 2010, Rush Hour Recycling already has amassed 12 tons of recyclable cardboard and electrical items.
"We're well on our way to blowing last year out of the water," says Sweany.
"On Saturday mornings, I don't necessarily want to work, so I tried to figure out a way to work it into the routine. That's one of the biggest reasons people aren't green: inconvenience."
Sweany's connection to Workforce, Inc. came about when she was researching businesses and their recycling efforts last year. She asked to take a tour, and soon after began collaborating on Rush Hour Recycling. In the process, she learned about Workforce, Inc.'s social mission: they employ ex-offenders in their factory to disassemble electronics. While that might've given her pause at one point, working with the group was another story. She calls her collaborators not only colleagues, but friends.
Rush Hour Recycling was a needed venture, and the Mayor's Office of Sustainability took note. Established in 2008, this office seeks to build the economy while improving public life and health. As part of this enterprise, local individuals and groups were honored this year at a February luncheon. This is the first year the Mayor's office has recognized programs that bring sustainability to the city, and Rush Hour Recycling was one of five award winners. The program won in the "Reduce, Reuse, Recycle" category.
"My motivation is just the planet," Sweany says. "Caring for the planet. And how do we communicate to people who don't necessarily believe in that? Why wouldn't we live that way if it's gentler on the planet? You don't throw trash on the floor in your home. Why throw it on the street?"
She keeps an eye out around town. Recently she noticed that Taco Bell and KFC cups littered the nearby lot of the 24th and Meridian restaurants' location. She took a cell phone picture and plans to send it to corporate headquarters.
"Those pieces of trash are marked," she says. "They say, 'Hi, I came from right over there.'"
The reason broken stereo equipment languishes in a basement while people recklessly toss soda cans on the side of the road has to do with the value people assign to objects, Sweany says. Even useless items. "A soda can doesn't have a perceived value."
Locally-owned cafes and coffeehouses are more Sweany's style. Putting money back in the local economy is a way to keep the dollars green, too. At Tea's Me Cafe at 22nd and Talbott streets, Sweany orders an aptly named tea: Perfect World, a blend of chamomile and mint. While Sweany grew into the green movement, some habits started early. Growing up in Avon she and her family recycled glass bottles.
"We recycled when I was a kid," she says. "It was the only green habit I was exposed to. We loaded up the car, and this was back when you divided up green bottles and brown bottles and clear glass, and my brother and I would throw them to break them and see who could make the loudest noise."
"It was fun. It's neat how I can look back and remember, and I like knowing there was a green element in my life."
An eye-opening moment came for Sweany about eight years ago, when she read a book about diet being used for healing. Incorporated in the book was a message she took to heart: If you take care of the Earth, the Earth gives you what you need to survive. Eating organic food is a starting point. Sweany was once a vegetarian, but now calls herself a locavore: at the farmer's market, she chats with vendors to learn whether the meat was raised sustainably.
"I choose not to eat fish, because it's hard to get sustainably," she says. "There are lots of environmental concerns there."
"Some of my motivation is that Indiana is ranked 49th of 50 states in green habits. We're definitely behind the curve. Change for those numbers needs support from downtown and big business. And I truly believe individuals can have an impact," she says.
"I want to empower people to make better choices for the planet. My goal is to have 10,000 subscribers (to Green Piece Indy) in 2010. It's a big goal. But I know there are 10,000 people in this city that care about this. I don't think it's a problem all that unique to Indianapolis. And there are a lot of people doing really amazing things in this city."
Sweany notes the initiatives of Keep Indianapolis Beautiful, the Indiana Recycling Coalition, the Hoosier Environmental Council, and the Mayor's Office of Sustainability as ones to watch.
"There's so much room to grow," she says.
And plenty of Indy businesses are ahead of the pack. Did you know the Hilton Garden Inn downtown uses solar panels for energy? So does the Broad Ripple Brew Pub, an establishment that also uses sustainable and compostable materials at its restaurant and pub – not to mention having one of the best vegan and vegetarian menus in town, according to Sweany.
"People are starting to look for those things to make decisions about how to spend their money," she says. "That information seems to find me."
Spring is the perfect time for greening up. Green Piece Indy participated in the late March Green Fest at the Indiana State Fairgrounds, where business was somewhat slow. The organization hopes for a stronger turnout at the upcoming Earth Day celebrations at White River State Park. And Sweany is looking forward to farmer's market season, which is right around the corner.
"There's almost a farmer's market every day," she says. "There are natural soap makers galore," Sweany added. "There are so many unique things you don't expect out of Indianapolis."
Gardening is another way to be green. Many coffee shops offer free coffee grounds for gardeners who like to use the waste for compost. Sweany takes it even further: she has worms.
Not just your garden-variety, either. Hers are contained in a VermiComposter and fed kitchen scraps, which they turn into nutrient-rich material for Sweany's small city garden. She first planted a garden last year and is planning on a second. She's using rain barrels to water her vegetables.
She's also planning her May wedding – a green wedding, of course. Her engagement ring is made of reclaimed metals and recycled diamonds. Her mother is making her wedding dress from the material of Sweany's grandmother's dress. On her wedding day, she'll be gathering her own bouquet rather than enlisting a florist's help.
"I decided I wanted to be outside that morning, cutting flowers," she says.
Sweany recently filled the trunk of her Toyota Prius with cases of organic wine for the wedding – the bottler uses less packaging, she notes. And of course all the bottles will be recycled after the reception.
Her fiance, Christopher Sublett, owns an appliance-repair business. "He wasn't green at all when I met him," Sweany says. "But now he's learned a lot of waste is recyclable."
Attached to a building near her parked Prius one day, a poorly-connected hose leaked a steady stream of water onto the ground. Sweany tsk-tsked. "I noticed that earlier," she says, "and it pissed me off."
From her business venture to a green wedding to seemingly little things like a hose wasting water or a flock of soda cups littering the ground, Sweany is convinced each action is important.
"It becomes a way of thinking," she says. "And that makes such a difference."
Simply put, small things make a difference in Sweany's newfound occupation, even something like refraining from using a straw with your drink. "It's interesting how you see that light bulb go on with people," she says. "They'll reply to our e-mails, or I'll run into them, and they'll say they never even thought about doing something like that."
Sweany also recommends ordering a draft beverage rather than drinking from a bottle or can. If your favorite watering hole doesn't have your brew of choice on tap, why not try something new?
"Indianapolis-area restaurants are so behind about recycling," says Sweany. "That's an area that could really use some improvement. We've all heard that clink of bottles going into a trash can when we're out socializing. We just don't have those recycling options in place yet."
It's something individual consumers could ask for. If people base their decisions about where to spend their money based on a business's green practices, their dollars – or lack thereof – could make an impact. And getting individual consumers to start changing long-held mindsets is a move in the right direction, according to Sweany.
"Once you start to incorporate some of those small, simple steps, I do think it changes the way you think about things. I haven't always been green, but now I do use less, and think about how to use less."
A day in the life of Renee Sweany
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