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The 10 Most Inspirational Sustainability Initiatives in the U.S.

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As the debate about climate change continues, more examples of how to fight it are popping up around the world.

New York-based Recyclebank took note of sustainable solutions in the U.S. and issued a ranking of the 10 it believes set the bar for urban sustainability and environmental practices by inspiring other communities.

“We have watched many communities significantly reduce their negative impact on the environment; be it by reducing waste with the help of programs like Recyclebank, educating residents on sustainable practices through community volunteers, or growing food in a community garden that can be eaten for lunch at the local school,” said Javier Flaim, CEO of Recyclebank. “All of these practices are taking place in cities across the U.S and can be replicated in other communities. With this list, we hope to make positive examples out of programs and communities that are taking steps, big and small, to change America’s environmental path."

1. Green Building in Chicago, IL—It's been more than a decade since Chicago became the epicenter for LEED-certified buildings with the opening of the Chicago Center for Green Technology. The city further focused on green architecture by implementing the Green Permit Program to offer an expedited permit process and the possibility of reduced fees for green projects. Chicago has the most LEED-certified projects in the U.S. with 295. 

By increasing its statewide use of wind energy to 8.3 percent, Texas saves more than 8.1 billion gallons of water and avoids 22 million metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions each year. Photo credit: Reyclebank

2. Wind Energy in Corpus Christi, TX—Known as America’s Wind Power Port, Corpus Christi houses the continent’s first on-port wind farm. The Port serves as a shipping hub for wind turbines and also wants to harness Texas winds to generate more clean energy in what is already the nation's top state for wind power. Additionally, Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi houses 11 vertical-axis wind turbines that produce 92 kilowatts, which makes it the largest installation of its kind in the nation. 

3. Xeriscaping in Denver, CO—Denver has pioneered a type of landscaping designed to conserve water, known as xeriscaping. Besides spreading the idea to nearby “dry” climate states like Arizona and Nevada, Denver created a program to make it easier than ever for residents to xeriscape around their homes. The city’s water board has developed easy-to-follow downloadable plans and resources so that every resident can remodel their yards. The city also has a xeriscape demonstration garden that is open daily for residents that appreciate a hands-on tutorial.

4. Organic Food in La Farge, WI—La Farge is home to Organic Valley, the largest organic farming co-op in North America. State, village, federal and private funding combined to make it possible, allowing the co-op to produce sustainable food products. The 45,000 square-foot barn that houses the company optimizes natural light, minimizes heat and was built with locally sourced materials, many of which were recycled. All of the construction waste was recycled after building. The farm also plays host to the Kickapoo County Fair, which hosts sustainability workshops and rural heritage exhibits, ensuring that the entire community stays educated. The surrounding area of Vernon County, also boasts more organic farms that any other county in the nation.

5. Solar Energy in Long Beach, CA—Photovoltaic systems on the structures of the Long Beach Convention Center and Long Beach Airport aid to California's standing as the top state for solar energy. The Convention Center houses one of the largest public-facility solar installations on the West Coast, generating 1 million kilowatt-hours of pollution-free electricity. Meanwhile, the Long Beach government set up an easy to follow manual helping residents apply for the “Residential Renewable Tax Credit,” which offers a credit of 30 percent of qualified expenditures for a solar system from the federal government.

A rendering of the 47-acre solar installation at Freshkills Park on Staten Island in New York. Photo credit: MikeBloomberg.com

6. Landfill Rehabilitation in New York, NYFreshkills, formerly known as the world’s largest landfill at 2,200 acres, is being turned into a park with advanced landfill engineering techniques. Freshkills Public Park is three-times the size of Central Park. It once accepted more than 29,000 tons of trash per day, but now landfill mounds have been capped through a special process that will alleviate toxic fumes and the soil has been treated to promote proper drainage and ensure public health and safety regulations are not only met, but surpassed. 

7. Climate Positive Community: Oberlin, OH—Oberlin is one of only three U.S. cities in the Climate Positive Development Program which works to revitalize the local economy, eliminate carbon emissions, restore local agriculture, food supply and forestry and create a sustainable base for communities. The Oberlin Project developed five goals, including reducing emissions by 50 percent by 2015 and developing local food sources to meet 70 percent of consumption. Additionally, Oberlin College's Ecolympics, an energy reduction competition, was the precursor to the Campus Conservation Nationals, a national energy reduction competition. Oberlin's program combined the city, Oberlin College and private partners in the community.

8. Sustainable Engagement in Philadelphia, PA—Mayor Michael A. Nutter developed the Greenworks initiative five years ago to explore sustainability through the lenses of energy, environment, equity, economy and engagement. Goals were set in each category to be achieved by next year. So far, the city has expanded recycling options at events and in public spaces; added additional types of plastics to the list of recyclable materials in Philadelphia; and instituted e-waste drop-off centers to reduce the amount of waste entering landfills and engage residents in sustainable action. The city also planted more than 89,000 new trees and retrofitted more than 5,500 homes with insulation, air sealing and cool roofs. 

9. Alternative Transportation in Portland, OR—The Portland Bureau of Transportation continues adding new bike routes to advance alternative transportation while maintaining current routes. Portland is also home to the Bicycle Transportation Alliance whose mission is to create healthy, sustainable communities by making bicycling safe, convenient and accessible.

An aerial view of the Wilimington Organic Recycling Center, the largest composting facility in North America. Photo credit: Peninsula Compost Group

10. Organic Recycling in Wilmington, DE—The Wilmington Organic Recycling Center is the largest composting facility in North America, sitting on 27 acres and accepting 160,000 tons of organic waste per year. The plant reduces greenhouse gas emissions by an amount equivalent to removing 8,800 cars from area roads, per year. The center also lowers the cost of organic waste disposal by 20-50 percent, which makes it possible for more residents and businesses to participate in the program.

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If people in three European countries want to fight the climate crisis, they need to chill out more.

That's the conclusion of a new study from think tank Autonomy, which found that Germany, the UK and Sweden all needed to drastically reduce their workweeks to fight climate change.

"The rapid pace of labour-saving technology brings into focus the possibility of a shorter working week for all, if deployed properly," Autonomy Director Will Stronge said, The Guardian reported. "However, while automation shows that less work is technically possible, the urgent pressures on the environment and on our available carbon budget show that reducing the working week is in fact necessary."

The report found that if the economies of Germany, Sweden and the UK maintain their current levels of carbon intensity and productivity, they would need to switch to a six, 12 and nine hour work week respectively if they wanted keep the rise in global temperatures to the below two degrees Celsius promised by the Paris agreement, The Independent reported.

The study based its conclusions on data from the UN and the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) on greenhouse gas emissions per industry in all three countries.

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"We welcome this attempt by Autonomy to grapple with the very real changes society will need to make in order to live within the limits of the planet," Emma Williams of the Four Day Week campaign said in a statement reported by The Independent. "In addition to improved well-being, enhanced gender equality and increased productivity, addressing climate change is another compelling reason we should all be working less."

Supporters of the idea linked it to calls in the U.S. and Europe for a Green New Deal that would decarbonize the economy while promoting equality and well-being.

"This new paper from Autonomy is a thought experiment that should give policymakers, activists and campaigners more ballast to make the case that a Green New Deal is absolutely necessary," Common Wealth think tank Director Mat Lawrence told The Independent. "The link between working time and GHG (greenhouse gas) emissions has been proved by a number of studies. Using OECD data and relating it to our carbon budget, Autonomy have taken the step to show what that link means in terms of our working weeks."

Stronge also linked his report to calls for a Green New Deal.

"Becoming a green, sustainable society will require a number of strategies – a shorter working week being just one of them," he said, according to The Guardian. "This paper and the other nascent research in the field should give us plenty of food for thought when we consider how urgent a Green New Deal is and what it should look like."

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