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Interview with Green Cambridge President Quinton Zondervan, Part 1

Quinton Zondervan has only been president of Green Cambridge for a year, but he’s already revitalized a volunteer organization that was on the verge of collapse. He was gracious enough to talk to me about the work that the group does and how he pulls together volunteers with diverse interests (stay tuned for the latter later this week).

For more on Quinton’s background, check out Sam Seidel’s blog.

How did you get involved with Green Cambridge?
I’ve always known about them, but I’d never really participated. Then last year I found out they were going to go out of business, and I thought, that’s a waste. It is a 501(c)3 organization, and it’s pretty difficult to get tax exempt status. So I rounded up some friends who are environmental activists in Cambridge, who I’ve been working with for some time, and we proposed to the board that we take over the organization. About half of the board members stayed on, and the other half are new members.

Quinton Zondervan

What sorts of projects do you have in the works?
Right now we’re actively engaged in two projects and planning a few others.

I’ve partnered with the city on talking with small businesses about commercial recycling. Businesses are required to recycle if more than 15% of their waste stream is recyclable, but there’s no clear sense of how much compliance is out there, and the city doesn’t have the resources to figure it out. So we’re getting trained by Randi Mail at the Department of Public Works on what the regulations are and the resources that are available to businesses to help them recycle. And then we go in to talk with them to see if there’s anything blocking them from recycling and maybe help figure out some solutions. Generally we’re just looking for how to enable the small businesses to more effectively recycle their waste stream. There’s a hearing in the city council this week on whether the city can pick up from small businesses. We can understand that big businesses make their own arrangements, but just a little mom and pop shop or restaurant, just throw them in with the residents, and you’ll get better compliance that way. But obviously that’s going to cost the city money, so that’s the trade off.

The other project that we’ve been doing is partnering with the DPW on their rain barrel program. They resell rain barrels to residents, and we volunteer to help people install them. Some people are really motivated to do the right thing, then after they’ve bought the barrel they’re like, now what? So it’s helpful to know that they can call somebody.

Right now we’re also working on two major initiatives that we’re actually combining. Originally the plan was to do some advertising promoting renewable energy in the City of Cambridge. We settled on the concept design where we had wind turbines on one side and a coal-burning power plant on the other side, with the words “you choose.” But that’s just a preliminary concept design, and the idea is to take that to an actual media company who would use that to understand what we want to communicate.

The winning concept

And then starting earlier this summer we embarked on an exploration to see if we could put up a community solar garden. The idea is that a lot of people can’t put solar panels on their houses, because it may not be facing the right way, they might not own the house they live in, and so on, but with virtual net metering you could actually have a solar installation somewhere else and still get full credit for it on your electric bill.

We would figure out the location, rent that spot, and have solar panels installed on it, and people who wanted to participate would sign a power purchase agreement, a long-term contract to buy the power from that installation. So a third-party company installs the solar panels and sells the power for the next 20 years at a fixed cost to the participants, generally less than half of current NStar utility rates. So it’s kind of a no brainer, but the tricky part is in the collective aspect of it. We’ll gather up the people who want to participate, prenegotiate the contract, and help figure out where to locate this thing. Ultimately it’s owned and operated by a third party. They get all the tax credits, but they pass that on to their customers, which is why the rates are lower.

Solar’s really taking off in Massachusetts, but they’re all focused on individual homes, and they’re picking and choosing. I’ve had two evaluations done on my house and been turned down both times, because my roof doesn’t face the south. Less than 20% of homes in Cambridge are going to be able to put solar on their roofs ultimately. The way they’re facing, the age of the roof, structural issues, shading from nearby buildings and trees, there’s all kind of issues that end up weeding you out, so the chances of getting solar on your roof are actually not that great. So we’ve decided to try to combine these two things, to figure out how to have this community solar project and then run our ad campaign to attract customers for it.

Do you feel like businesses are aware of recycling resources that are available to them?
There’s a state program that’s really not well known where they will consult with a small business for free to help them recycle their waste. And lots of times people are not aware of the fact that all the waste haulers that provide service in Cambridge have to provide recycling pickup.

Are there larger state activities that you participate in?
As an MCAN chapter, we go to MCAN meetings; there’s a lot of communication and a network. The solar garden idea came from an MCAN seminar that they held on this topic. But in terms of our daily activity, we’re very focused on Cambridge, working with the city council, working with DPW, and doing local volunteer activities. On the state level, we participate more as advocates and keep our Cambridge constituency informed as stuff goes through the legislature.

How do you work with local government?
We have very good relationships with the city government. [Mayor] Henrietta Davis; Minka vanBeauzekom, who just became head of the environment committee of the city council; and Sam Seidel, who used to be on the city council, are all members of our organization. So we have direct communication with the city council and direct communication with DPW, and we can facilitate those conversations for people who may not be so familiar with the process.

We worked with the city for years on the resident parking fee, which was finally increased from $8 to $20 a year last year. It’s going up to $25 in January, and all of those funds are going into the city’s efforts to reduce vehicle miles traveled, to increase bicycling. Like the new bike share program that’s being installed right now—that’s coming out of those funds. They said that people were going to be rioting in the streets, and we said, “No, we’ll show up at city council and say we want this fee increase.” And sure enough, almost nobody objected to it. In fact, Tim Toomey was the only one who voted against it, and he put in an amendment that people could pay extra, and he reported back to us that he was surprised that people did. Just 25 bucks a year and you can park your car anywhere it says resident parking only—that’s nothing if you can afford to operate a car. And that money is going straight to making your city better.

How can people get involved in Green Cambridge’s activities?
We need more people who are willing and able to go talk with businesses about their recycling; that requires a training with Randi Mail before you can be certified to do that. We do some volunteer work with the Friends of Alewife Reservation. We have an active Facebook page; it’s a great place to see what we’re up to. We keep an up-to-date calendar on our website, so you can find out about our events and other organizations’ events, as well. You can sign up for our monthly newsletter. And, of course, we meet once a month, and the meetings are open to anyone in Cambridge who wants to come.

Comments

Comment from Sharon
Time August 13, 2012 at 9:12 pm

I’m pretty sure the Cambridge building my office is in doesn’t recycle. We don’t produce that much waste, but I hate seeing even the little we generate going into the trash. Right now one of my coworkers takes the recycling home every few weeks, but that’s a crappy system. I’m so excited that someone is out there making this easier on businesses. I mean, we’re so busy, it’s hard for a small company like us to really focus on facilities stuff. Such a great initiative.

Pingback from Pragmatic Environmentalism
Time August 16, 2012 at 9:01 pm

[…] Earlier this week I spoke to Green Cambridge president Quinton Zondervan about the work that the volunteer group is doing in the community. But even more interesting to me, as an organizer of Berklee’s sustainability group, was the chance to pick his brain about how he’s able to keep the group going in what little spare time he has. (Quinton is also CEO of biopharmaceutical company Excelimmune.) […]

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