Sustainability flies high in Chico

Local efforts to better the world are gaining attention, momentum

GLOBE-SPANGLED BANNERS<br>The Earth flags will fly from Chico light standards for the rest of April.

The Earth flags will fly from Chico light standards for the rest of April.

Photo By Meredith J. Cooper

Andy Keller makes a living selling an environmentally friendly product of his own invention and is largely responsible for the Earth flags flying down some of Chico’s busiest thoroughfares. Still, he insists he’s no activist.

“I just care and I want to inspire people,” said Keller, the founder of the ChicoBag Co., a manufacturer of reusable shopping totes.

The ChicoBag idea was borne from a trip to the Neal Road Landfill a few years back to discard yard waste. All it took was one look at the dump site’s collection of plastic bags, which pose environmental hazards. They were everywhere: on the ground, blowing in the wind, and caught on fences.

Keller quickly turned around a prototype for his nylon bags and, fittingly, began selling them at the Saturday Farmers Market two years ago this Earth Day (April 22).

ChicoBags now sell around the country in retail stores and online. And they’re just one of the many sustainable practices putting this little ol’ place on the map.

Endeavors in the realm of sustainability have become widespread throughout Butte County and Chico in particular, from public policy and education to private industry and various local environmental groups—such as the Chico Sustainability Group.

Thanks to that group, the movement has even made it to the streets, where giant Earth flags soar from city light standards. Keller came up with the idea and, with help from other members, raised funds for the flags and earned the Chico City Council’s permission to fly them.

His goal is for the people who see them to find a way to celebrate Earth. The design of the flags was inspired by man’s first look at the planet during the historic NASA Apollo missions nearly 40 years ago; as you can tell by looking at the them, Keller said, the Earth is worth some serious celebration.

“There’s no boundaries,” he said. “We’re just part of one huge ecosystem.”

There’s probably no greater symbol of the environmental gains in Chico than the Earth flags, yet Keller’s project—and his bags—are just a few pieces of the puzzle.

One of the largest efforts is taking place at Chico State University, which is emerging as a leader on a national scale. Its Earth Month observance, weaving through April, includes a bevy of high-profile activities such as last week’s keynote speech by one of the founders of Earth Day, Denis Hayes, and next week’s dedication of the campus’ organic dairy.

In a year-round effort, the institution is working to integrate aspects of sustainable development into the curriculum campus-wide. At last count, Jim Pushnik, a Chico State professor charged with the task, said 147 courses have done so.

Scott McNall, who until recently served as the university’s provost, credits students with many of the advances in the movement. Engaging the entire student body is a work in progress.

Photo By Meredith J. Cooper

“That’s a big challenge,” admitted McNall, the first director of the university’s Institute for Sustainable Development. “But we think we’re up to it and the community will support it.”

When asked why this emerging environmental paradigm has taken hold in Chico, McNall mentioned factors ranging from global (like the volatility of oil prices and competition for resources from China and India) to national (such as Hurricane Katrina) to local.

While scientists for many years have been pointing to increases in greenhouse-gas emissions and the link to more intense weather patterns, Katrina gave the phenomenon context, not to mention a sense of urgency in dealing with it.

California has emerged as a leading state in the global-warming fight. Gov. Schwarzenegger in the fall signed legislation, the first of its kind in the nation, to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions.

The high-profile move helped highlight a movement that’s rapidly gaining momentum in the mainstream. It also adds to the list of factors that have led to what McNall refers to as a happy conjuncture of events locally—the collaboration of entities that for years (decades even) have been working on myriad aspects that fit under the umbrella of sustainability.

One of the oldest local environmental groups, and a partner in the movement, is the Butte Environmental Council—a 31-year-old nonprofit organization devoted to environmental health issues and advocacy.

These days, Jennifer Oman, BEC’s education and outreach coordinator, is in demand more than ever. She is constantly working on giving the public—and businesses—practical methods to be environmentally friendly. Recently, BEC purchased 1,000 ChicoBags to give away at the Thursday Night Market.

Oman said consumer demand for similar products and the Internet have helped speed up the sustainability movement. Locally, the university’s commitment is undeniable, she added.

Still, BEC is focused on ensuring long-term efforts don’t get left behind in the momentum surge.

“Even recycling is an on-going education endeavor,” she said.

Another high-profile partner is Chico itself. The city made several noteworthy strides to reduce energy consumption, such as assembling a large solar array at its wastewater treatment plant, which the city says has reduced the facility’s utility use by about 35 percent. One of the city’s most recent and bold undertakings is a vow to significantly reduce greenhouse-gas emissions.

The pledge came last fall when Vice Mayor Ann Schwab, along with a majority of the City Council, voted in favor of signing on to the U.S. Conference of Mayors Climate Protection Agreement, which asks participants to meet or beat Kyoto Protocol targets by reducing greenhouse-gas production by 2012 to a level 7 percent below what was found in 1990. Schwab is now serving as chairwoman of a 15-member Sustainability Task Force that is dedicated to coming up with concepts to accomplish the challenge.

“It’s not only about improving the environment, but saving money, too,” she said.

Crucial to the cause, and one of the biggest items on the agenda, Schwab added, is an education component. She is hoping the public will weigh in on the process by attending the task force’s meetings (the next one is 3-5 p.m. April 30 at City Council chambers).

Input and support of community members is essential, she said, because the choices they make have lasting impacts.

“It’s really about quality of life, for everyone.”