Small Changes, Big Impact: Sustainability Efforts Don’t Need to Be Complex

Sami Edens said that when it comes to sustainability “there’s no effort too small to make a difference.” In essence, that is what individuals and companies (large and small) are beginning to take sight of.

Edens, who works for Bluestem Solutions as its marketing manager, said for individuals it can be as simple as leaving a small section of your grass unmown.

“For companies, planting native grasses and flowers on your property is a great first step,” she said.

But what else is possible? How can companies and individuals make changes, both large and small, in the name of sustainability?

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Accessible Energy

When you think about sustainability, you might think about solar energy. As a renewable resource that relies solely on the sun, it’s one of the more accessible options for alternative energy.

It’s so accessible that a National Renewable Energy Laboratory (2016) stated there are “over 8 billion square meters of rooftops on which solar panels could be installed in the U.S.”

That may be why in December of 2019 when OPPD launched its Community Solar Program, its available shares sold out in just 49 days.

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“There are currently 889 households in OPPD’s service territory who are taking part in the program,” said OPPD Media Specialist Jodi Baker.

“Interest in the program has remained high, so we began a waitlist for customers interested in signing on in the event we expand our community solar offerings.”

OPPD, which is currently focused on its Power with a Purpose project to add 600 megawatts of utility-scale solar and natural gas generation, has not had the opportunity to expand the community solar program yet.

In the meantime, Baker encouraged residents and business owners to consider a customer-owned generation system.

“The utility industry is seeing price challenges across all resources given challenges such as inflation, supply chain and global events,” she said. “Solar continues to provide benefits for customers as an on-peak energy resource.

Interested parties can start by going to OPPD.com/cog, where they can use the solar calculator to help gauge the investment and payoff. OPPD also has a list of “Solar Trade Allies” that are located across the state who are verified and certified to do the installation of a solar system.

“We strongly recommend searching solar businesses and getting multiple bids,” Baker said.

Countering Costs

Clean energy, such as solar produced at Bluestem’s solar farm in Burt County, can impact the surrounding environment during construction. Offsetting those impacts in ways that rejuvenate and improve the environment is both important and easy.

For example, Bluestem worked with Conservation Blueprint in 2021 to create seed mixes of over a dozen native plants that were planted at the Burt County solar farm.

“We chose pollinator-friendly plants because they benefit local bees and improve soil quality, retention of nutrients and water quality,” Edens said.

The plants —such as clover, yarrow, coneflower and black-eyed Susans — will, in turn, help capture the excess carbon.

“The more carbon we can pull out of the atmosphere with plants, the bigger impact we can make on climate change,” she said.

She encouraged residents who have either commercial or personal properties to consider native plants and flowers when landscaping. A simple Google-search of native plants in your area can turn up resources or businesses specializing in native plants.

If you are a member of the Omaha Public Library, the Common Soil Seed Library is also an excellent place to find resources and local seeds at no cost.

SEEDS ERG helps Keep Omaha Beautiful with creek cleanup (Photo Courtesy of Keep Omaha Beautiful)
SEEDS ERG helps Keep Omaha Beautiful with creek cleanup
(Photo Courtesy of Keep Omaha Beautiful)

Involving Employees

Additionally, Bluestem is providing opportunities for its employees to be involved in communities through organizations dedicated to protecting the local environment.

“For Bluestem team-building this fall, the Bluestem team will be planting trees with Keep Omaha Beautiful, which will benefit the local environment over the long term,” she said.

Also partnering with Keep Omaha Beautiful, Mulhall’s’ brand-new Employee Resource Group (ERG) worked with the organization to clean the nearby park, hoping that it will in turn reduce waste in the neighboring creek.

The ERG, called SEEDS — Seriously Eco-Conscious Employees Driving Sustainability — had its first event in September and has since grown to around 20 members. All events are open for SEEDS friends and family.

“The ERG matters to me because it serves as a reminder of the real reason I do what I do,” said Sheldon Garcia, head of Mulhall’s Farms. “I’m in a position where I’m thinking a lot about things like labor efficiency, employee engagement and business financials on a daily basis, but SEEDS ERG is a great reminder of the big picture.”

The ERG has also taken a trip to see the Sandhill Cranes in central Nebraska and hosted a beer tasting/weeding party at its native wildflower garden. Its next event will focus on installing a new native planting at the entrance of the garden store, while enjoying farm-to-table ice cream from Coneflower Creamery.

“We’ve also learned more about how to recycle, then we share that knowledge with customers during an event at our store,” said Carly Rozeboom, Mulhall’s merchandising specialist.

Involving Customers

Mulhall’s has taken their commitment to land stewardship a step further by making recycling and composting easier for employees and customers.

Since October of 2020, Mulhall’s has been a recycling drop-off site for the city of Omaha. In March of 2021 it added mixed recycling. It also hosts a drop-off site for Hillside Solutions’ compost club.

“Communication and education have been the focus of our team at Mulhall’s,” said Mark Perley, head of Garden + Home. “There are many community members that want to do the right thing with their waste but just don’t know where to go with it.”

Mulhall’s customers also have an opportunity to donate to organizations focused on the environment at checkout by rounding up.

Last year Mulhall’s raised $18,000 for Keep Omaha Beautiful. So far this year the company has raised $4,500 to benefit The Nature Conservancy in Nebraska.

“In addition to their own properties, The Nature Conservancy is able to extend their impact across the state by educating other landowners about sustainable practices, conducting important research and influencing policies for change,” said Partnership and Outreach Manager Sarah Vanek.

Reducing Corporate Waste

Internally at Mulhall’s, employees have access to containers for recycling mixed material and glass, as well as composting.

For companies in the construction field, reducing waste is even more complex and often unavoidable due to the nature of the job.

Take for example a study done by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that estimates nearly 600 million tons of construction and demolition debris were generated in 2018. That’s roughly double the amount of municipal waste generated by individuals.

But Boyd Jones representatives said a large portion of those materials can be recycled or repurposed. It launched a program in January to divert waste from the landfill.

SEEDS ERG weeding party (Photo courtesy of Mulhall’s)
SEEDS ERG weeding party (Photo courtesy of Mulhall’s)

By utilizing clearly marked, individual receptacles for recyclable materials (carpet, wood, aggregate, paint, metal, wallboard, plastic, etc.) and waste, Boyd Jones is limiting what’s sent to the landfill.

The program is currently active at 15 job sites and will be considered for new projects moving forward.

“This program allows us to continue to demonstrate our values of stewardship and continuous improvement on job sites,” said Jared Jensen, Boyd Jones director of field operations and safety.

“At the same time, we’re taking a more active role in diverting construction and demolition waste from landfills. In collaboration with subcontractors, we can create a better work environment while helping preserve our natural environment for a more sustainable future.”