Mary Parlange, Green Thinker

Green Thinker rating:  95/100 Certified
Department: Office of the President
Position: Office of the President Affiliate
Hometown: Los Alamos, New Mexico

How are you involved with campus sustainability at URI? Marc and I are organizing – with the collaboration of the URI Office of Sustainability – a series of Sustainability Suppers at the President’s House on campus. These salon-type suppers bring together students, faculty, staff and local business leaders around a given topic in sustainability and a meal of local, sustainably-sourced food. We’ll connect, discuss, and then go out into our communities with new partnerships, new ideas, new knowledge and new impetus to act. There will soon be a dedicated website with information on topics discussed and the themes of upcoming suppers and an opportunity to indicate interest in participating. I’m also currently taking the URI Master Gardener Certification course, and hope to serve my volunteer hours with the MG program in community outreach, food sovereignty, or native gardening efforts. Last fall I participated in the Free Farmer’s Market and picked apples for URI’s food security efforts. There is a vegetable garden and soon to be chicken coop on the grounds of the president’s house, and our food waste is composted for eventual use in that garden and for the chickens.

What does sustainability mean to you? To me, sustainability means keeping our planet viable for life over an indefinite period of time. Keeping our species alive is a delicate balancing act that involves every other life form on earth, as well as the inert “resources” all life forms need. Maintaining this balance involves a constant give and take, feedback loops that regenerate rather than deplete. I take issue with a human-centered viewpoint of sustainability, one in which our priority is primarily the maintenance of our institutions (our economy, our infrastructure, our lifestyles) rather than the long-term maintenance of our planet’s viability for supporting life as a whole. That broader viewpoint is challenging, because it requires humans to take on a stewardship role, rather than an ownership role. We should constantly question our assumptions about what we think we need to sustain. If there was one word I would associate with sustainability, it would be reciprocity.

Which URI project or program related to sustainability should we be the most proud of? I am very impressed with the efforts being made by dining services to reduce waste. Despite the challenges of the pandemic they have been working very hard to compost food waste and reduce the amount of plastic used. I am also so glad that undergrads have the option of a minor in sustainability. I think the free Farmer’s Market program, which uses the abundance of fresh produce grown in our farm to help sustain members of our community, is great because it provides local, healthy food. The Master Gardener program is also a fantastic means of translating the latest in sustainability research into practical hands-on advice for citizens.

What can URI do to be greener? I’d like to see recycling collection options for clothing, batteries and electronic waste streams, particularly at the end of terms when students are moving out of the dormitories. I’d also love to see if we can create more incentives to discourage single-use bottled water consumption. We need to strengthen the connection between the produce grown on our farms and our dining services. On a larger scale, I would love to see better rapid public transport accessibility for our campus, and create incentives that discourage students and staff from driving individual vehicles.

What do you do in your personal life to be green? I pay attention to our consumption habits. We don’t often buy clothing, and when we do, we try to purchase items from companies that I know make efforts to use recycled materials and don’t employ exploitative labor practices. At the supermarket, I pay attention to how far a food item has traveled, and I shop more frequently so that fresh food doesn’t go to waste, and limit processed foods (and all their packaging). I choose products that do not have plastic packaging, if it’s an option. We buy most of our produce at the farmer’s market on campus, (or out of season with a box delivered from a local farm) and most of the meat we consume is pasture-raised and free range, from local vendors. During the pandemic we had more things delivered, but I’m now making an effort to find things I need locally rather than going online. I compost food waste for use in our veggie garden (and soon the chickens), and I re-use bags, including plastic bags for produce. I collect recyclables, including soft plastic waste and batteries. I also try to recycle textile waste – donating usable items or dropping unusable ones like bedding off somewhere that can recycle them. This can be a hard one as options are limited. We have a hybrid vehicle so most of my day to day trips don’t generate (directly) any CO2 or pollutants. All our various billing is paperless and I very rarely print anything on paper any more. I try to keep household energy in check by managing “vampire” appliances and not over-heating or over-cooling the house.  And as I mentioned earlier, I am studying to become a Master Gardener, so that I can do volunteer work that is based on sound, sustainability-based research. And we’re hosting the Sustainability Supper Series, so we’re constantly learning and spreading the word about the awesome sustainability-related research going on at URI.