Jamaica Plain's Earth Day Hall of Honor

We all know the mantra: Reduce, Re-Use, Recycling. Who is walking the talk?

Every old-time Yankee worth her salt has a drawer for things like used twist-ties or rubber bands, jars of screws or buttons -- things that might come in handy. For such folks, re-using is as intuitive as turning the leftover corned beef boiled dinner into corned beef hash. Of course the scratched old dresser gets stripped down and/or painted up, the seam where the sleeve pulled away gets mended, and the saucer to the broken cup takes on a new life catching the drips from a houseplant.

The New York Times says it looks as though there may now be a post-recession long-term trend toward reusing rather than throwing out things that are still useful. Lots of folks in JP have been re-using and recycling all along.

They’ve been reusing small things (as small as a box of staples at ) and very big things (office furniture at Boston ReStore , building supplies at the Boston Building Co-Op, or – think BIG! -- the fifteen buildings of the Brewery Complex). They’ve been reducing what we send to landfills by recycling household food waste through composting and vermiculture, giving a second life to cloth and paper and machine parts in art projects, and recycling electronic products for their mineral content (at every third Wednesday).

Here’s a look at just a few of those who belong in the JP Earth Day Hall of Honor, ranging from individuals and families to community institutions that have caught my attention.  There are lots more! Please feel free to nominate your own JP Earth Day heros in the comment area.


Lots of JP people have been reducing the use of heating fuel by insulating or installing double pane windows to keep the heat from leaving their homes in our cold winters. Some folks grow their own food or buy local to reduce the fuel used in food transportation.  And we all know lots of JP people who regularly take the bus and the T and bicycles and go by foot to reduce the fuel to power cars. Some folks go further.

At the JP Green House, a demonstration home for sustainable urban living located in the Bourne neighborhood where JP meets Roslindale and Hyde Park, Ken Ward and Andree Collier Zaleska have rehabbed a derelict building with (to quote their Website) “passive solar design, super insulation, recycled materials, triple-glazed windows, a heat transfer ventilation system.” Result: They keep  their house  at an average indoor temperature of 63 degrees in the winter without a heating system (yes, our fierce Boston winter!).

They also have something called “an air-to-hot water heat pump” for hot water. I saw some of the machinery involved in the various heating technologies, but it all still seems kind of mystifying to me.

I caught Andree a few weeks ago as she was laying out the garden where she  raises the vegetables the family eats from late spring through the fall with enough left over to share with a food pantry; second son Simon is also engaged in planning and creating the garden. She showed me through their attractive home, which was pleasantly warm on a sharp early spring day, and which looked remarkably normal for the home of pioneers of urban sustainability working through issues of energy systems and food supply. That fits with Andree’s idea that they want to teach about stewarding resources with a positive model rather than scary images.

The next big project planned by these urban homesteaders is chickens, for the manure as well as the eggs.

Loie Hayes is a community organizer who has been workingwith CoolJP to encourage residents to reduce energy use by signing up for energy audits with MassSave and to come together to green their blocks as residents on Sheridan and Gay Head streets are doing – building community and energy efficiency with weatherization parties, clean-up parties and – starting in the fall – depaving parties. The depaving parties are meant to reduce the storm water runoff that can flood our storm sewer system – and sometimes our basements! – caused by hard rains on asphalt surfaces like paved driveways, dog runs, and walkways. The stormwater can carry motor oil and other toxic urban pollutants to our rivers, degrading water quality and river habitats. Asphalt also soaks up heat and radiates it at night, helping to create a "heat island" effect in urban areas, and increasing the use of airconditioning.

Surfaces like driveways may be replaced by permeable pavers that don't absorb as much heat and that let the rain soak into the ground instead of running into the storm sewer system.


 At Boston Building Resources (the new name for the Boston Building Materials Co-op and the Building Materials Resource Center), the concept of “re-use” can involve very big things. Not long ago a local church was deconstructed and most of the materials were brought to the Building Resources warehouse. Deb Beatty Mel explained that many of the materials – pillars, leaded glass, and the handsomely finished wooden underside of a balcony area -- came and went quickly, as contractors often stop by on their way to or from jobs. There were not quite so many eager takers for the 15-foot pews.

(Coincidentally, Beatty Mel has written a prize-winning paper on the issue churches face when struggling with the challenge of maintaining their buildings – the challenge of determining whether the congregation has become the servant of the building rather than the other way around.)

The mission of the Boston Building Resources is in part: “benefitting the environment by diverting reusable materials from landfills.” Last year the Boston Building Resources won Boston magazine’s 2010 Best of Boston Home Award for the Best Salvaged Materials source.

Boston ReStore (which is technically in Dorchester, but is the creation of JP’s own recycling maven, Bill Perkins), connects donors of used office furniture with nonprofit organizations or low-income folks who need it. That desk chair you saw sitting near the dumpster could be donated to folks who really need it. Then it would be re-used, instead of sitting out there in the rain. More on Bill Perkins under "Recycle."

The biggest re-use project of all in JP is one that has taken 30 years to bring to fruition. That’s the Brewery complex. In the 1970s the largely abandoned complex seemed to be begging to be torn down and carted off to landfill. The Haffenreffer Brewery had long since shut down (in the 60s); once the highway that was planned to go through JP was averted, the moving company that had invested in the site with the prospect of having warehouses on an off-ramp was eager to unload the property. The buildings needed substantial repairs. Even if funding could be found to buy the space, the wisdom of the day was to bring in a bull-dozer and tear down the old buildings.  Re-use didn’t seem to be an option.

Art Johnson, who was part of the at that time, remembers the first time they walked into the cavernous empty space at the heart of the Brewery complex. There were fifteen different buildings to be considered.  It was difficult to imagine that the NDC could ever reach their goal of using the site to generate the number of jobs that had existed during the time that Haffenreffer used the site.  

Pressure to tear everything down was intense.  But even in those pre-internet days word reached JP of some community development done in a similar space in Minneapolis.  An MIT architecture professor, Jan Wampler, brought students over to the site to generate ideas of how the space could be used. And perhaps there was enough Yankee sentiment in the group that the buildings were saved for future re-use.

Finally the site was purchased (at a price of $2 a square foot), and with a combination of historic tax credits, federal grants, and patient endeavor over decades, the project was realized; the jobs were actually recreated. And the JPNDC never lost a dime on the property.

Another JP institution is a surprising one to include in a story of reuse. Hospitals are the last place you think of for reusing resources; they are more famous for single use disposable items. But at the Green Team, a grass roots staff effort, has raised consciousness in the whole institution about reuse and recycling as an ongoing process. That has meant, for example, a construction company was chosen in part because they reuse scrap metal and other material. Not long ago when some refrigeration equipment was being replaced, a buyer was sought and found for the old refrigeration equipment that might have ended up as landfill.  

Nutritionist Susan Langill explains that the Green Team meets every month, and they prod each other and their colleagues to take their environmental responsibility seriously. It has led to creating events like Office Supply Swap Day, which may seem like small stuff, but it adds up – you take the toner that doesn’t work in the new copier to the Swap and you bring back a complete set of hanging files that some other department over-ordered. Result: stuff that might have been chucked gets used.

Langill added that communication has been set up through internal mail for letting other departments or finally employees know when there is an extra couch or set of chairs available; it gets used. (Kind of an institutional version of Bill Perkins’ ReStore). The importance of reusing resources percolates; it builds habits of thinking that then become the natural response. When the earthquake hit in Haiti, the Faulkner Rehab Department was able to mobilize crutches, canes and walkers from former patients’ home closets and get them where they were used.

Faulkner Hospital has been honored by Practice Greenhealth, a national organization for health care facilities, for simultaneously supporting and protecting patient health and preserving the environment.

Most hospitals don’t do very well on recycling of even the most mundane kinds of items, often because they don’t have room to store things until they can be recycled, but Langill is proud that Faulkner recycles over 20 percent of their waste because they have found storage for the 25,000 pounds of cans, bottles, plastic and glass that are collected every two weeks. And the 120,000 pounds of cardboard. Oh, and the Big Green Box for collection of batteries, cell phones, and personal electronic devices. Did I mention the collection and recycling of long tube fluorescent lights?

Which brings us to...


The most beautiful example of recycling of materials in Jamaica Plain right now may be . Created with “materials with past lives: artists’ brush cleaning rags, a mother-in-law’s blouse, cast-off sheets from the Salvation Army, plastic mesh bags from garlic bulbs, vintage linens, and colorful fabric samples,” Merill Comeau’s Tree Pieces are striking.

has been recycling here in Jamaica Plain since before most of us thought much about it. The printing co-operative was founded in 1974, and they have been thinking about their environmental impact from the beginning.  That’s why they chose to locate near a T station (you’ve probably walked by them on the way to the ), why they use vegetable-based inks, why they offer their customers 100 percent post-consumer waste paper - along with progressive ideas - and why they recycle all their waste paper .

Nancy Nichols, who showed me around the Press -- including the kitchen fully stocked with real plates and glasses and silverware so that workers don’t have to use throw-away stuff -- mentioned that several of the people working at the Red Sun Co-Op have been there for decades, maybe another kind of successful re-use…

Red Sun not only recycles more than 50 tons of waste paper per year, but they also have an ongoing program of recycling usable waste paper and out of date paper sample books into schools and daycare centers. Envelopes that have lost their stick-um and slightly damaged paper are still big hits for daycare projects and art classes. Nichols explained that an art teacher she knows in a public school has 500 pupils and an annual budget for art supplies of $800. Right. Whenever an amount of usable paper goods has been accumulated, that is one happy teacher, ready to come and pick some up for her students to use.  

Nichols was one of the JP folks who referred me to Bill Perkins, describing this ardent environmentalist as an unsung JP hero. Perkins was also described to me as “the recycling guy,” the ReStore person, and “the man who deconstructs the Wake Up the Earth trash.” This last description refers to a satisfying coda to JP’s signature spring festival during which the trash collected during celebration is separated on a sorting table into huge amounts of compostable materials and various other kinds of recyclable materials.

Perkins admits that it’s difficult for him to see even a paper clip lost to recycling. “The little things add up.” At his house, food scraps go into the worm bin or the compost, wood scraps and metal scraps are collected. His family is able to recycle almost everything except a few things like plastic wrappers, amounting to about one-quarter of a trash can of unrecyclables each week. As I crunched across the gravel driveway outside his house I thought of what he had said about how even pieces of masonry can avoid the landfill: if you break them into small enough pieces, they can just be tossed into gravel.

I asked Perkins why we should care about recycling.  He paused. “For just about every reason!  So that we won’t go on depleting earth’s limited resources. So that resources we do take are wisely used. So that we aren’t overwhelmed by our trash. So that there is something left. The more we recycle the longer we’ll be able to live on our earth.”

myrnagreenfield April 16, 2011 at 12:33 PM
Thanks for this inspiring article. Even though I'd already heard about some of these people and groups, the detail you provided about how they do what they do taught me a great deal. Please keep providing these helpful examples!


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