Toward More Sustainable Libraries
by Jessamyn West
I resolved to fly less this year as part of a commitment to a more sustainable work life. I’m lucky to reside in a state that makes sustainable living simpler. I can compost in my yard or municipally. I can install solar panels and sell power back to the electric company; the local electric company will do free energy audits. We have a bottle bill so that people return many kinds of recyclable containers. My landlady takes sustainability to a bit of an extreme and wanders the hallways of her house with a flashlight so she’s not using electricity. Finding ways to do things sustainably enough to make a difference—but not breaking the time or money bank—can be challenging. I’ll highlight a few ways in which libraries can help with sustainability through their own direct actions or by helping others live more sustainably.
If this is a topic near and dear to you, Rebekkah Smith Aldrich’s Sustainable Libraries website and her two books (Sustainable Thinking: Ensuring Your Library’s Future in an Uncertain World and Resilience) should be required reading.
Program and App Ideas
Sustainable systems may often feel good in practice but may be hard to maintain. It’s worth evaluating what you’re doing in terms of being sustainable, not only for the planet, but also regarding staff time and attention. I’ve read a lot of articles about sustainable smartphone apps, and many pointed to nonexistent or outdated apps or to apps only available for the iPhone. However, I did more research and found some that can help you:
- Oroeco is an iPhone and Android app that claims to gamify learning more about climate change and helping individuals make smarter daily choices. JouleBug, available for the iPhone and Android, is a similar app.
- LiveGreen is an iPhone app created in 2019 by students from the University of South Florida that helps users track carbon emissions from daily activities and set a carbon budget to work toward.
- iRecycle, for Apple and Android, helps users figure out how to recycle standard and nonstandard items and points them toward exactly where to do it.
These apps share some of the theories of gamifying or simplifying a desire to help the planet. Thinking about these concepts in terms of your library space can be a useful exercise. Would people recycle more if bins were more accessible? How do we balance the convenience of printing with the digital divide hurdle of encouraging people to save their born-digital documents to a thumb drive? How low is too low to keep the heat?
Better Information, Better Products
It’s all a balancing act. For people who are heavy online users, it can seem as if there is no end to the things you need to do less of (using disposable straws) or more of (getting microfibers out of your laundry’s rinse water). At the same time, straws are useful for people with disabilities, as well as for children. And those trendy microfiber balls? They’re nowhere near as effective as attaching an actual wastewater filter to your home’s laundry drain. This was what I determined by reading the marketing materials for CoraBall and tracking down the sources it cited for its claims.
Not everyone has the time, energy, or skill to research every product or new tool, and this is something libraries can help with. We’re all consumers of something in this country. Helping consumers make smarter determinations about whether to invest in something or divest from something can slowly nudge your community toward sustainability.
Sometimes, it’s as simple as knowing about a thing that solves a problem, a thing others possibly don’t know about. My public library is trying to actively recycle more; one of the stumbling blocks it had was dealing with food waste. Vermont is banning food scraps from household trash in mid-2020 and will require trash companies to have a procedure for dealing with scraps by then. My library doesn’t have enough of a backyard to have an open compost pile, and our local community biogas digester recently shut down. However, it does have space for a Green Cone—an in-ground digester buried so animals can’t get at it, with an opening in the top to deposit scraps (including meat and dairy, if needed). Staffers had never heard of one until I brought it up at a meeting.
Having sustainability as a discussion topic during staff meetings can lead to productive idea-sharing. And now that our library is visibly recycling and composting, we can share that information with community members and make it seem like a more genuine option than if they were just reading a brochure about Green Cones from someone trying to sell them one.
Yes, It Costs Money
I am often wary of shopping your way to sustainability, but in some cases, it makes sense. It’s worth getting used to the fact that some sustainable options may actually cost more. But it’s also worth considering that when you buy an apple in a supermarket, that apple may have been picked nearly a year ago and “put to sleep” (see the Resources section for more information) so that you can buy it from the supermarket out of season. An apple from the local orchard may cost a bit more, but it’s fresh, and the money goes to a neighbor and stays in your community.
I still get on planes for work, but rarely. In those cases, I’ve resolved to buy carbon offsets and roll them into my fees as a more accurate cost of putting me on an airplane to go talk with people. While purchasing carbon offsets may be new to some folks, San Francisco International Airport has offered this service since 2009. Lyft’s rides have been carbon neutral, meaning the company has been buying carbon offsets for them since 2018. Airlines that fly internationally will have to offset their own emissions by 2021. For now, there are a bewildering number of alternatives, but starting at the United Nations’ carbon offset platform (offset.climateneutralnow.org) is a way to get good information with less confusing marketplace pressure.
It’s easy for mega-corporations to spend some of their vast wealth on sustainable initiatives. Google’s sustainability pledge includes phrases such as “100% of Made by Google products launching in 2022 and every year after will include recycled materials,” which isn’t saying much, is it? This is also how huge brands such as Nike and Pottery Barn can be among the top purchasers of organic cotton. This becomes part of the ethical purchasing battleground. Do you buy organic but from a mega-corporation versus local but non-organic?
These are decisions that have to be made in accordance with your personal moral compass, but lately people are thinking more about externalities as part of their decision-making process. Part of the “cost” of your out-of-season supermarket apple includes a huge apple sleep chamber and the infrastructure to support it and to bring that apple to you. The costs of bottled water include the plastics and trucking industry that are required to support it. When you are buying food for a program, thinking about these externalities—offering bottled water versus having some nice-looking permanent container to dispense water and using washable drinking cups, but also the time to wash those cups—can become part of the planning process.
It can be challenging in the way that staying healthy can be challenging, especially at first. Ultimately, the U.S. seems to stress individual actions to mitigate issues that are better dealt with either collectively or through changes that need to happen at a much higher level. However, being a community institution that is exploring and supporting sustainability initiatives can go a long way toward helping lay the foundation for more people to work together to find collective improvements they can make for the sustainability of their community.