By Sandor Slomovits, Photography by Susan Ayer
In 2020, the Ecology Center will be celebrating its 50th anniversary. It has grown to become one of the most dynamic and influential organizations of its kind in the United States. Created in the wake of the first Earth Day, the Ecology Center was founded by members of ENACT (Environmental Action for Survival), the University of Michigan’s student environmental group. ENACT and the Ecology Center’s primary original focus was to start a recycling program. The city’s first recycling program, at the newly created Recycling Center, was not the recycling program Ann Arbor residents know today: no curbside pickup, only a few types of recyclables were eligible, and residents had to sort recyclables into separate containers and deliver them directly to the Recycling Center.
Recycling is still an important aspect of the Ecology Center (EC), but Recycle Ann Arbor, now responsible for the curbside, single stream recycling, to which we have all become accustomed, is now a subsidiary of the EC. And, in the five decades since its inception, the EC has grown tremendously, diversified, and broadened its focus and activities to include work on: climate change, toxic chemicals, affordable housing, medical waste, food systems, and much more.
Today the Ecology Center has a $1.9 million budget and employs 19 full time staff and 15 part-time student interns, while its subsidiary, Recycle Ann Arbor, has a $7.5 million budget and provides 45 full time positions. In addition to institutional and foundation donors, the Ecology Center received over 1,500 donations from individuals last year.
There were dozens of community-based ecology centers that were established in the early 1970s after the first Earth Day, all around the country. There’s only one other one still in existence today, in Berkeley. They do more direct service, and fewer advocacies, but they do get involved in federal and global zero waste initiatives.
Otherwise, there are prominent regional nonprofits that do environmental advocacy work and are known nationally for that work. These organizations are typically focused on one issue, such as climate change, toxic chemicals, or zero waste. For example, there’s a Minneapolis-based organization, Fresh Energy, that started as a local energy service provider, but is today a prominent policy voice on climate and energy issues in Minnesota, the Midwest, and nationally. In the environmental health and toxic chemicals space, there’s an organization in Seattle called Toxic-Free Future that’s grown into a major national policy voice. In the zero waste area, there are two other prominent “mission-based recyclers” based in Boulder and St. Paul.
I talked and emailed with several current and former staff of the EC and asked about the work of the Center, its history, and its accomplishments. I began by visiting the EC’s current offices on Liberty, on the third floor of the building that used to house the Kaplan LSAT Testing Center, just a block west of the Michigan Theater. I went there to interview Michael Garfield, the EC’s Executive Director since 1993. Garfield was finishing up a conversation when I arrived, so I walked around the main room and read the four posters displayed on the wall near the entrance that detail how and why the EC chose this location, how they optimized energy use, what was done to ensure that they used, and recycled, only safe materials, and how they salvaged more than half the construction waste during their renovation. On the partly cloudy December day I visited, not a single overhead light was on, only the exit sign was illuminated. The ambient light coming in from the two large skylights and five south facing bay windows was enough to make the large room feel open and airy, while live green plants, an exercise bike, and some whimsical touches (like a desk lamp shaped like an umbrella and a fabric sculpture of a large fish hanging from the ceiling), all contributed warmth and personality to the space.
Garfield, 59, dressed casually in checked shirt and jeans, is boyish looking, with an easy smile and a quick laugh. He speaks in a deliberate, thoughtful manner, clearly choosing his words carefully so they accurately express his nuanced thinking. “We wanted an office space that represented our principles and our values. John DeHoog, a professor at EMU’s School of Art and Design, made us his class project. Everything in here is repurposed: this bench, the conference table, the cubicles, some of the furniture legs are made of sprinkler pipe. We did a whole bunch of green improvements to the space, to LEED Gold Standard in the LEEDs certification system, and so it embodies a lot of our values, and it’s a nice space.”
Sandor Slomovits: Talk about the path that led you to the Ecology Center.
Mike Garfield: I was a kid in the 60s and 70s, the son of New York Jewish social workers who cultivated in me a sense that I should do work I enjoy that makes the world a better place.
Sandor Slomovits: You have told me that you had long been interested in the way cities affected the larger world around them, and that the Ecology Center’s similar focus seemed like a perfect fit.
Mike Garfield: Yes, one of the very first projects that the EC took on in 1970 was creating a recycling drop off station. It was the first recycling program, in the sense that we think of recycling today, in the State of Michigan. They were looking at ways that people’s lives in cities could be restructured in order to save energy, preserve natural resources, and cut down water pollution.
Sandor Slomovits: And you were also interested in energy efficiency?
Mike Garfield: Yes, making buildings more efficient (especially for low income housing), and how to design communities, systems, and the economy to protect the air, the water, and to promote the health of people.
That appealed to me greatly, in part because there is a social justice component to it too, that the way we allocate resources in the world has a huge effect on the air, water, and a community’s health. On the flip side, the burden of pollution in this region, in this country, and throughout the world, disproportionally falls on people of color and low-income people. It was here in Michigan that a lot of the early research was done that uncovered those links. Former U-M professor, now retired, Bunyan Bryant, did a lot of that early research, how resources were used, and how waste and pollution burdened certain populations more than others. Bunyan was active with the EC in its early years, along with others at the U-M. All of these aspects of the organization really fascinated me, so I was delighted to come work here in the late 80s.
Our work reaches out in a number of different directions, but we’re really a community of people that do environmental advocacy and education. I think by its nature that kind of work is focused on persuading others, be they industry leaders or governmental bodies, to do something. I think we, and everyone who does advocacy work of different sorts, struggle making that connection with people who care about it and support it. We try to do the stuff that folks would like to do themselves if they had the time, or connections, or background, but they trust that we’ll do a good job of it. We can involve them in some ways—by sending an email, or making a phone call, or writing a donation. I’ve been here long enough that I think the connection we have with this community has changed over time and we’ve changed over time too.
The first major thing that I worked on was developing the policy and funding around what came to be called the Ann Arbor Environmental Bond. It was a ballot proposal that funded the city’s materials recovery facility. It essentially gave the city the financial capacity to start recycling collection. Remember when we used to have monthly pickup and you had to separate your [he starts laughing] green glass… brown glass… aluminum foil… tin cans…?
Slomovits: I do remember that!
Garfield: Did you put out ten bags of recyclables? [more laughter]
Slomovits: Yes, we did!
Garfield: When I came into the organization the EC was largely about that recycling program which had grown rapidly in the 1980s. As I recall at the time there were about 25 to 30 people who worked for the organization, and probably all but eight or nine of them worked in recycling—on the trucks, processing materials, managing things. While I was working on these issues and getting started with the organization it became clear that it was going to grow, recycling was starting to go mainstream, and the leadership at that time restructured the organization into essentially its current organizational structure, where Recycle Ann Arbor is organized as a non-profit subsidiary of the EC. There is a separate Board of Directors, and it’s mostly a stand-alone operation. This was in 1990. One of the reasons for the restructuring was to encourage both parts of the organization to grow and flourish.
Slomovits: Meaning the recycling and the other EC projects?
Garfield: Yes. It was thought that bringing on more relevant expertise at the governance level for Recycle Ann Arbor, would be helpful, and that not having to worry on a day to day basis about all that would also let the EC explore other areas and carry out more of the mission as it was conceived of at the time—fighting for healthy people and a healthy planet. Over the bulk of the time since, almost 30 years now, the EC’s work has expanded in areas outside of this community—in areas of climate action, toxic chemicals; at times we’ve done a lot of work on food systems issues, land preservation, and land use issues.
Slomovits: Have you worked with Fair Food Network or the Land Conservancy?
Garfield: Very much so, yes. We’ve had a lot of projects that we did together with Fair Food Network over the last ten years because we had a niche in food system work that grew out of other work we did in greening the health care sector, going back a good 25 years now. One of the very interesting initiatives of the EC has been to look at different industry sectors in our culture and economy and focus on moving them toward a more sustainable path. Health care is really interesting in this regard because it’s a huge part of the economy, but also an industry that has a mission of promoting health. And, it turns out, a lot of what hospitals and the health care industry has done has been very problematic in that regard.
For example, in the 1990s, the second largest source of toxic mercury emissions in the environment came from the medical waste incinerators that just about every hospital in the nation had. Hospitals were the third largest source of dioxane emissions, from the same source. And that’s the tip of the iceberg. A lot of this was not well known. So, we and other activists that worked on toxics issues came to conceive of it as a way of framing part of our work, and it eventually led to the formation of an organization that still exists today and operates all around the world called Healthcare Without Harm. At the EC, Tracey Easthope was part of the founding of that organization. They worked in many ways as a large interconnected coalition of small non-profit organizations around the world, and we were a piece of that network in Michigan and the Midwest for many years, and still are.
We worked on campaigns to close medical waste incinerators and on campaigns to change the way hospitals managed their waste, brought in recycling programs, and we campaigned to get hospitals to construct their buildings in more sustainable ways, and eventually to look at their food supply, because they’re pretty big institutional purchasers of food. For a good ten years we were the organization in Michigan, and even a little beyond, that worked with the healthcare sector to encourage them to source locally grown food, to bring healthy food into their patient care, and to provide it for their staff, and to envision their larger role in promoting community health as a major institutional cornerstone of a lot of neighborhoods and communities. What that turned into were a lot of very creative projects all over the state where hospitals were the site of community farmers markets, of local box lunch programs for employees, of sourcing locally grown food for their patients. Locally we did a whole lot of things with St. Joe’s, with their greenhouse, and some of the nutritional aid programs that they do are outstanding.
We had a bunch of different dealings with Fair Food Network and their Double Up Food Bucks program. For a number of years, we were the lead program in Detroit that managed what was called Fresh Prescription Program that’s been piloted all over the country. It’s set up as a way of treating patients who suffer from chronic illness that are probably diet related. The way it worked was that care providers would write out a prescription for fresh food and produce, and it typically comes with a voucher that can be redeemed at a farmers market or store. We set this up in Detroit, originally with the Chass clinic on the Southwest side, and then with eight other clinics, and it turned into this fabulous program. What we did with Fair Food in this case was we increased the value of the voucher through their Double Up program. It was a great project! We eventually handed it off to Eastern Market to manage, and it’s still going great. Fair Food Network has done absolutely amazing work. Their story is fantastic.
With the Land Conservancy, in the 1990s one of the big issues in Washtenaw County was about sprawl. All the development happening in the townships and rural areas here, there was fight after fight over projects and about efforts to preserve farmland and natural areas. The EC was a leader of a coalition of environmental groups, community organizations, some business groups, and some farm groups that lobbied to preserve farmland and natural areas, get a handle on sprawl in the county, and in the region. Those campaigns eventually led to the Washtenaw County Natural Areas Program which has saved, I think, around 2,500 acres of spectacular natural areas all over Washtenaw County, led to the A2 Green Belt Program which has saved, I think, around 6,000 acres of land in the Townships close to Ann Arbor, and to the interrelated land preservation programs in Scio Township, Ann Arbor Township, Pittsfield, and Superior Township. When we were working on those campaigns back in the 1990s and first half of the 2000s, we did a lot of work with what was then the Potawatami Land Trust (now the Legacy Land Conservancy), and with the Southeast Michigan Land Conservancy, which is very active in Superior Township. There is a whole network of land conservancies that operate in Southeast Michigan, and we’ve had a lot of relationships with them. We don’t do as much work on either of those issues any more, but still care about them, and keep track of them, and are happy to see what’s been created as a result of some stuff we worked on back then.
Slomovits: Please tell us about your funding. Does the city provide a big chunk of it?
Garfield: Well, for funding purposes it’s probably worth separating the EC and Recycle Ann Arbor, because they’re very different. For the EC, the parent organization, we are almost entirely funded by charitable donations, and we have a handful of contracts for our educational programs (kids’ educational programs), and those constitute about ten percent of our total, and of that, about half of that comes from the city. They fund the EC to do school programs, mostly on recycling. We’ve been doing those for four decades. Of the philanthropy money, we have a couple of thousand individual donors, many of them from Ann Arbor, but we have a base of supporters in Southeast Michigan, and we have a smattering of donors throughout the state and the country. A significant amount of our support comes from private foundations around the country that fund environmental health. They’re interested in our work because of its national significance, even if it’s local to Southeast Michigan.
Recycle Ann Arbor (REA) currently has three contracts, but only two of which have any money transacted between the city and REA. They’ve a contract for curbside recycling collection, they’ve a contract for processing recyclables, and they have a contract to run the drop-off station on Ellsworth Road. At the Drop-Off Station there is no fee to the city. The other two contracts generate about 25% to 30% of REA’s income. The rest of their funds come from the sale of recyclable materials, fees that they charge people that use the Drop-Off Station, or the Recovery Yard on Jackson Road, and they sell almost a million dollars’ worth of stuff out of the ReUse Center every year. The city is a very significant source of income for REA.
Slomovits: How has the mission of the EC changed over the years? In 1970 I don’t remember hearing the phrase climate change, or carbon emissions; those weren’t the main issues then.
Garfield: No, I think climate change was known, scientists had been aware of it for a while, but it was usually referred to as global warming. It wasn’t well studied then, it became a major international issue in 1988 when a scientist working for NASA, named James Hansen, delivered testimony before Congress that our time to act is limited, that this is a crisis far worse than anyone realized. That got attention, but not enough. It was still called global warming until the 2000s when it became popular again as an issue in good part due to the movie that Al Gore made, An Inconvenient Truth.
I think issues like that wax and wane as issues of great public awareness, and the language around them changes too, global warming to climate change. When the Ecology Center was started, when people talked about the movement of people to fight for a healthy environment, they referred to it as “the ecology movement.” People don’t talk about it that way now. Now the word ecology tends to refer to a field of biology that studies the interconnection of habitats. So, language changes, our organization’s emphasis has changed over the years, but the core mission has always been about what we now call “working for innovative solutions for healthy people and a healthy planet.” And the parts of it that are really important are the innovation part of it, and the people and planet part of it.
On the people and planet part first. What this organization has always been about is the connection of environmental issues to people, communities, neighborhoods and the effect of climate change, air pollution, toxic chemicals, food systems, land use, land preservation, the effect of those kinds of issues on people’s health. That’s the framework many people who come to these issues use to consider them fully. I think it’s a framework that the EC always cared about, but it was uncommon in the 70s and 80s and the world has been catching up with it. There’s an increasing awareness. Maybe we, and other organizations like ours, have had an effect on people’s outlook. I think today that point of view is a little more widely accepted and appreciated.
The other thing is our part in innovation. I talked to some of the early leaders of the EC about this, how our approach has been to look for creative ways to make a difference and to move the culture and the community [toward a greater awareness of environmental issues]. In that regard we have tried a lot of different projects, campaigns, and educational programs over the years, to see what works. What I’ve tried to create, and what other leaders of this organization have tried to create over the years, is a culture of creativity and a community of creative activists that are trying to find effective ways of making the world a better place and promoting healthy people and a healthy planet. We have let our work take us in really interesting directions. I’ll give you an example of this.
In the 1990s we, like a lot of other environmental organizations, were concerned about air and water pollution in Southeast Michigan and one of the biggest sources of pollution at the time were auto-manufacturing plants. We delved into that deeply and started looking at a lot of the production processes—what went into the manufacturing of cars and trucks—and we built a lot of relationships with auto industry engineers and companies. We looked at different policy approaches that could force the industry, or encourage them, to do things in better ways and make cleaner cars. As we kept exploring we started looking at things at a very granular level, and at one point we decided to do some testing of indoor car air quality, to see what drivers and passengers in cars are exposed to. We tested dust that collects on dashboards, and windshields, there is a way of figuring out what’s off gassing and collecting there, and what gets taken in; we started looking at some of the component parts, to see what’s in them, what degrades, off gasses, quickly. We started looking at some of the other component parts of vehicles that become major pollution sources and we started to pick apart some of these pieces, and one of them was a switch that was used in trunks and underneath hoods, that gives you a little light so you can see if you need to look in your trunk or under the hood at your battery. For years that switch was made of mercury, and that mercury, when a car got scrapped, would go with the scrap metal. It would get compacted in the giant machines they use to compact cars after they’ve taken out everything that can be resold, and would get sent to a steel mill that uses recycled scrap from cars, and it would get burned in those mills. It was a major source of mercury pollution, these tiny little switches. So, we organized a national campaign to get that changed, and it eventually led to a national EPA program that first phased out the use of those switches until they found an alternative and then, for the ones that were still left on the road, a recovery fund was set up to get scrap yards reimbursed for taking them out before they junked the cars.
We also looked at the lead that gets used in wheel weights. We started doing tests of the interior parts of cars and came to the conclusion that it could be of great public interest to inform people what their cars are made of. We were able to get one of our founders to give us some rapid screening equipment that let us do some of our own independent testing that enabled us to test for metals like lead, mercury, cadmium, and other chemicals of concern, and we started testing car interiors for toxic chemicals. We did that for all the makes and models in 2007, and we published the results, with names included. It was the first time, as far as we’re aware, that anyone had tried to do a sort of Consumer Reports-style study of toxic chemicals in a consumer product. There is research about this stuff that’s often done at universities, with the names removed, for all sorts of reasons…
Slomovits: Funding is likely one…
Garfield: Liability issues. They take the names out. You might know that a certain class of products is problematic, but you won’t know distinctions between brands, and you won’t have any information for the average person, or even for the manufacturer to work with. The thing is, from the point of view of a carmaker, and this is true of any manufacturer, they love the toxic chemicals in their dashboards [laughter] or seat cushions or whatever. From their point of view these are functional products that are inexpensive, right? And so, when we released our car report, we had every Ford, GM, and Toyota product listed with letter grades and some detail about what’s in there. We got a lot of press attention for it around the country, and we got a lot of phone calls from our friends at the auto companies.
As I mentioned, we built a network of relationships with people at the auto companies, especially the Detroit companies, and engineers who are working on sustainability issues there came to us and asked, “Where did you get that information?” We told them we tested, that we have a portable X-ray florescence spectrometer, which can detect the presence of heavy metals down to a certain depth within an object. And they said, “This is really interesting. We’ve been trying to get some of this data from our suppliers for years.” [Laughter] So, we tested other consumer products, and a year later we tested cars again, and we found that Ford and GM showed marked improvement. So, before we released our results, we called the engineers at those companies and said, “Hey, we just did our tests again and learned that they look a lot cleaner.” And one of those engineers said, “We bought our own XRF device.” [Laughter] And they started leaning on their suppliers to get them better materials. This is true in a lot of product categories, it’s not that hard to make them cleaner. In fact, in Europe, the EU has tougher laws when it comes to toxics in consumer products. So, there are—it’s been well documented—manufacturing plants in Asia now that have a European line and an American line.
Garfield: But, all car companies, and a lot of other manufacturers, are global at this point, so if they can do it in Europe, they can do it in the US. And since it’s not a core part of their operations, they would just as soon make it clean, if people know about it. So, we bring some disclosure to it. We started testing all sorts of other key consumer products. We tested child car seats, toys, we’ve been testing a lot of building materials, furniture, we recently started looking at dairy products and food cans, and some other interesting new areas, and that’s what we call our Healthy Stuff Project. It’s probably the project or initiative that we’re best known for throughout the country.
Our work has changed but the core mission has more or less stayed the same. We’ve tried to adapt as the world has changed, as issues have waxed and waned.
Slomovits: What do you feel are your top priorities now?
Garfield: At a granular level, our top issue priorities are climate change, toxic chemicals, and zero waste. But to look at it more holistically, it’s important to understand that environmental issues are health and justice issues. The Ecology Center’s unique role is to find innovative solutions for healthy people and a healthy planet. I believe that what’s different today from 1970 (and even from 2005) is that every sector of our society (corporate, political, academic) that seriously thinks about these issues understands those connections and appreciates their urgency. And there are thought leaders in each of those sectors that are trying to address them responsibly, and to move their organizations [and our world] forward. We try to move them along faster!
We were part of a movement that has transformed the way people in this community, the state, and this country think about environmental issues, so that no one any longer openly says that environmental protection, clean air, and clean water, are not extremely high priorities.
Garfield: There continues to be great resistance to strong environmental policy and policies and practices that are a measure of the problems we are facing in the world—whether it’s climate change, or toxics and health—but when I started this work, large industry groups actively worked to dispute the importance of environmental issues. It was unusual that companies would market products as green, or clean, or safe, or healthy. They complied with regulations and that was enough. It’s different today. There’s been a sea change in attitudes about this, and I think we’ve been a big part of making that happen. We have organically grown and locally grown food available in many places. We have recycling programs, renewable energy available and affordable all over the country and all over the world now. We have products that are marketed now because they don’t have BPA or other toxic chemicals in them, and that’s a good thing, it’s something that has value.
I also get it. Your point about Trump is a really important one because our culture is kind of schizophrenic about it, and our politics are a million miles behind our culture when it comes to these issues. That’s because government operates on a certain set of structures and through processes, and those have to get moved through, and folks in companies with power, public officials with power, who’ve got real interests in keeping things the way they are, fight it every step of the way. But I think the change is really dramatic.
It’s bracing how much some of the issues, which decades ago we fought to make people aware of, are now pretty much taken for granted and incorporated into day-to-day life. But at the same time we have not had a major new environmental law passed and enacted in the US since 1986, and that’s the reason why major climate policies that were enacted by the Obama administration were passed as regulations and were criticized because they were going around Congress to enact these regulations in a less effective way. The reason it was done that way was because the Republicans in Congress were dead set against letting them get considered, much less taken up for a vote, and there were probably some Democratic votes against them too. Our politics have to change. So we still have a lot of work to do. And that’s I guess what I’m most frustrated about.
When I was starting this work in 1988, James Hansen gave his celebrated testimony before Congress, and that got an awful lot of media attention and kind of set the environmental and political world on fire for a little while. For a number of years that was a somewhat non-partisan issue, people like John McCain and some other Republicans would co-sponsor legislation to create a cap and trade program to take a first step at addressing climate change. The issue was acknowledged as a critical issue that long ago, and not only is the current administration not acknowledging science that was acknowledged several decades ago, but they’re actively working to undo the little that we’ve done so far. That’s incredibly frustrating right now, and it’s just the most high profile of a whole lot of frustrations that go along with working in politics on these issues. From my point of view, even more disgusting and upsetting, close to us, was the poisoning of the children of Flint because of a horrible decision by the emergency manager. With all the awareness that we have today about lead, we’ve known about lead for decades now, that given all that awareness to still allow…
Slomovits: That gets us back to one of your earlier points, about how that kind of thing winds up affecting the least powerful, the people of color, the low-income people. Despite all of that, is it fair to say that you get up in the morning feeling good about your work?
Garfield: Oh, God yes, I responded to your question at a big picture level. At a very personal level I’m incredibly proud of a lot of the things we talked about, and a bunch of things we didn’t mention. I’m incredibly proud of the work we’ve done to green consumer products, creating the land preservation programs, the work we did to shut down all of the state’s medical waste incinerators—all of that energizes me like few things. My personal level frustrations are more mundane, [laughter] fighting the fight on different political issues and attracting the funding to be able to carry out our mission in an effective way. I’m really lucky to have found this place and this community. I’m grateful for it every day.
For more information, news on the latest findings, and events happening in conjunction with the Ecology Center, visit them online at www.ecocenter.org.
Read more interviews from past employees of the Ecology Center, learn about the U-M’s EC website project, and understand what the EC is working on currently here.