Nancy Pelosi’s dream of ‘green’ Capitol faces an obstacle with trash bins and janitors

Jonathan Strong Jonathan Strong, 27, is a reporter for the Daily Caller covering Congress. Previously, he was a reporter for Inside EPA where he wrote about environmental regulation in great detail, and before that a staffer for Rep. Dan Lungren (R-CA). Strong graduated from Wheaton College (IL) with a degree in political science in 2006. He is a huge fan of and season ticket holder to the Washington Capitals hockey team. Strong and his wife reside in Arlington.
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Members of Congress are used to choosing. Their job is to cast votes about complicated issues that affect millions of Americans. But when Nancy Pelosi took over the House of Representatives, they faced a tough, new decision — which of four trash bins to toss their garbage in.

The change was one of the earliest, and most visible, of Pelosi’s earth-friendly push to “Green the Capitol,” the name of her office that pushes the Hill to be more environmentally friendly.

The four types of trash cans facilitate sorting of paper, plastics and compostable items that deteriorate over six months into top soil.

For those who grumble about the change, as well as those who vigorously monitor their waste streams, it’s a bit shocking when janitors come in at the end of the day and dump all four bins into a single jumble of waste.

Numerous Capitol Hill aides told the Daily Caller they see that scenario play out pretty frequently. The aides provided the information anonymously because they aren’t authorized to speak on the record.

For Robert Lane, executive director of Green the Capitol, it’s all part of his challenge in whipping Congress into environmental shape.

Green the Capitol officials are aware of the problem, Lane and his deputy, Allison Rogers, told The Daily Caller in an interview, and they’re already working to address it.

“When we hear about these issues we find that maybe the maintenance crews aren’t doing it the right way and we work with the Architect of the Capitol (AOC) to try and get it correct … obviously that’s important,” Lane said.

Recently, the issue came up when an aide to the third-ranking Democrat in the House, Majority Whip James Clyburn of South Carolina, called Lane to complain about the issue. Since Green the Capitol is trying to fix the problem, the call was “encouraging.”

“The really encouraging thing  … [is] we are having calls from members’ offices. I got one from the majority whip’s office, saying, ‘We noticed this going on, can you fix it?’ The AOC and they fixed it right away and they know who the crews are so they talked to the crews right away,” Lane said.

To be clear, it doesn’t happen all the time. And in some instances, the janitors are keeping each waste stream in color-coded bags to sort later. But Hill aides definitely see the recyclables and trash co-mingled – defeating the purpose of the four bins.

The issue illustrates how many of the biggest challenges for Lane come down to changing the behavior of members of Congress and their staffs, he said.

Lane’s spokesman, Jeff Ventura, pointed out these behavioral or culture changes are the next big push for Green the Capitol.

After picking the “low-hanging fruit,” such as switching from a coal-fired heater to cleaner burning natural gas, a next goal for the office is to “address the culture and educate folks about the cultural change … We’ve done a lot of the things that under the operational umbrella, but then there is a lot that [congressional offices] can do internally, too,” Ventura said.

Part of getting that culture shift is a series of environmental briefings Green the Capitol is conducting in congressional offices. Lane said his office is trying to brief every congressional office by the end of the year.

Of course, you’ve got to be careful when you’re flying around the country to give briefings on cutting down carbon footprints, since flying itself is a major enviro no-no.

Lane said Green the Capitol tries to reduce its travel but hasn’t tried to measure whether the briefings — and the green changes they inspire — outweigh the flights on an environmental scale.

Green the Capitol is also launching virtual means of spreading the veritable green gospel. They are introducing video conferencing to connect with district offices, and they have a new Web site that features a model congressional office (the actual office pictured is that of bike-riding treehugger Rep. Earl Blumenauer).

So far, Lane said Green the Capitol is meeting its ambitious goals of reducing energy consumption by 50 percent over 10 years.

It’s also working to reduce water usage, which saves money and energy. A press release says Green the Capitol has saved 265 tons of unused paper to date.

Another big change on the horizon is lighting the Capitol dome at night with energy-efficient lights. Contrary to popular belief, and everyone’s experience with low-energy CFL bulbs in their living rooms, the switch will make the Capitol look better at night because the lights will be closer to the dome, highlighting architectural details.