When cooking oil from your turkey fryer goes down the drain, it causes headaches for the folks who unclog the city sewer system. But of even greater concern to the city is that this valuable resource not go to waste.
'We can turn that clog into fuel,' says Andrew Statz, the city's fiscal efficiency auditor. The Streets Division has set up facilities to collect cooking oil at the city's Sycamore and Badger Road recycling centers. And by next year at this time, the city plans to use that grease to fuel the machinery that unclogs the sewers.
'It's kind of a nice closed loop,' says Cathy Cryan of city engineering, which is spearheading the conversion project. 'We spend a lot of time cleaning grease out of sewers, so if we can prevent it from going there in the first place, we'll reduce our maintenance and at the same time provide ourselves with an alternative source of fuel.'
This collaboration across departments is part of the Natural Step framework the city adopted last year. Aided by volunteers from Sustain Dane, 1,000 Friends of Wisconsin and other environmental groups, some two dozen city employees recently attended a two-day training session.
Madison is one of only six U.S. cities to adopt Natural Step, and it was the first to train its employees in the framework.
Natural Step is not a program or formula, but rather a process by which projects are analyzed. Statz says it fosters 'awareness and cross-pollination' among city agencies, and encourages employees to work together to make the city more sustainable.
'Just about everything we do has some sort of environmental impact,' reflects Madison Mayor Dave Cieslewicz. His goal in pushing Natural Step is that 'everybody in city government who is making any decision at all will think of the implications for the environment.'
Karl Henrik RobÃrt, a Swedish pediatric oncologist, founded the Natural Step Movement in 1989, in response to his concern that unsustainable human behavior was causing an increase in cancer rates among children. With the help of other scientists, economists and even the King of Sweden, RobÃrt developed four principles that define a sustainable society:
1. Don't take stuff (fossil fuels) out of the ground that cannot be reincorporated into the ecosystem.
2. Don't put more manmade stuff into the ecosystem than the ecosystem can naturally break down.
3. Protect the natural environment, which through processes like photosynthesis breaks down the bad stuff humans put in the ecosystem.
4. Avoid systematic barriers that prevent others from meeting their needs. For instance, cities must have adequate mass transit.
Madison employees, trained in these precepts in September, have set out to tackle real-life projects. Madison Fire Chief Debra Amesqua found the Natural Step concept of 'backcasting' particularly helpful.
Backcasting is, as it sounds, the opposite of forecasting. Instead of using today's trends to predict the future, backcasting calls on players to imagine a sustainable future, and work backwards to identify the steps that can create it.
'I would think about the future of the fire service based on the four major principles of the Natural Step program,' says Amesqua. She is looking at the possibility of using more fuel-efficient fire vehicles, or switching to vehicles that do not use fossil fuels at all.
Statz, meanwhile, found himself thinking about sustainability even after the workday ended. 'I am now more personally aware of the things that I do in my private life that could be improved for sustainability.'
Converts believe the framework makes financial as well as environmental sense. Says Bryant Moroder of Sustain Dane, 'If you're making sustainability a priority, but you're not making financial decisions equally a priority, then in the long run you're not going to be around.'
Cieslewicz agrees: 'Good fiscal planning, which is about being willing to make the short-run investments for the long-term savings, is the same as a good environmental management.'
This could explain why companies like IKEA have adopted Natural Step: It encourages efficiency, which enhances profitability.
Natural Step has been adopted by more than 75 communities in Sweden and Canada. Kristianstad, a Swedish city of 75,000, has managed over the years to completely phase out the use of fossil fuels to power its municipal vehicles and buildings. Whistler, British Columbia, last year won an international award for its 2020 sustainability plan based on the framework.
In the waste-loving United States, Madison is so far ahead of the curve that some of the people who trained city staff in the Natural Step program had to be imported from Canada.
Madison's Natural Step core group meets periodically to identify new projects that can save the city money and energy, making it more sustainable.
The mayor's number-one environmental priority is becoming more fuel efficient, a goal ideally suited for Natural Step analysis.
'We use a tremendous amount of energy in city government,' Cieslewicz says. 'City government is frontline service, it's very tangible stuff. We plow the streets, collect the garbage and run police cars [and buses and fire engines] all over the city. We use a lot of fuel.'
While buses powered by renewable energy might be farther down the road, Madison Metro is taking other steps toward becoming more sustainable, like possibly installing a garage door to separate its bus maintenance area from its bus storage facility.
Currently, Metro heats the entire space to a comfortable temperature for its mechanics, even though buses can rest comfortably at 45 degrees Fahrenheit. Metro service manager Ann Gullickson, who received the Natural Step training, guesses that installing the garage door would cost $50,000, but could save $30,000 to $90,000 a year in heating costs. As an added bonus, the mechanics would not be exposed to as many toxic bus fumes.
Other Natural Step ideas include using environmentally friendly cleaning supplies in city buildings, providing incentives to city employees to not drive to work, and installing solar-powered hot water heaters in a new fire station.
And the framework is facilitating discussion among employees, making sustainability a priority. Making wise use of resources, says Cieslewicz, 'is not like an add-on, it's not anything special, it's just the way we do business.'