Michael Garfield, director of Ann Arbor's Ecology Center, seeks to improve community health
BY PAM HOUGHTON
Michael Garfield’s family moved from New York City to the Midwest when he was ten — a change in scenery that left a lifelong impression on him. “Living in smaller places in this part of the country made me appreciate the role of nature,” and its effect on the community, says Garfield, the director of the Ecology Center in Ann Arbor. “I always loved the outdoors and spent a lot of my time active and out of the house.”
When the moment came to choose a vocation, it made sense for the future environmentalist to combine his love of the natural world with the strong sense of social and economic justice his family had instilled. “I wanted to help make the world a better place by making the world more livable for everyone.”
He’s been making the world more livable as the center’s visionary director since 1993. The support of “long-term staff people who have made a career out of environmental advocacy and education” has helped, he adds. “I work with some of the most talented people who deserve so much credit” for carrying out the Ecology Center’s mission.
What is the mission of the center, an independent non-profit since 1970?
“We work to create innovative solutions for a healthy people and a healthy planet,” says Garfield, citing health as the focus of everything they do.
The Ecology Center also educates consumers and their families; encourages corporations to use clean energy, make safe products and provide healthy food; and works with policymakers to establish laws that protect communities and the environment.
Michigan Farmed Institution Network
Healthy, sustainable food systems are a major initiative. In 2014, the center partnered with Michigan State University’s Center for Regional Food Systems (CRFS) to create the Michigan Farmed Institution Network (MFIN), which connects growers of locally produced food with institutions such as schools, hospitals, prisons and senior living centers that buy food in large quantities.
“Michigan has the second most diverse agriculture [including fruits, vegetables and livestock] in the U.S. besides California,” Garfield says. “But everything’s grown for sale in commodities for other parts of the world. So switching over to sell to local buyers” — a process Garfield admits is complicated — offers opportunities for Michigan food growers and producers, as well as businesses that warehouse, distribute and transport food.
The goal, in agreement with the Michigan Good Food Charter, is to get institutional buyers to purchase 20 percent of their food from Michigan producers by 2020, an increase intended to grow and sustain farms, create healthy communities and stimulate local economies. “We have seen steady growth in local purchasing by food service directors across institutions since 2004,” said a CRFS director on MSU’s website. “This points to increasing potential for farmers to generate new business in these markets and for institutions to provide the fresher, local foods valued by their customers.”
MFIN connects food service directors “with the entire value chain of people [in Michigan] who bring the food to the table of a hospital patient or the lunch table of a school kid in Lansing,” says Garfield, by removing barriers such as budget constraints and limited seasonal availability. “It’s fantastic and growing fast and helping to re-build a regional food chain here in Michigan.”
The Ecology Center is also trying to lift recycling rates around the state through its Zero Waste program. “The national average for recycling is 30 percent. Michigan’s is 16 percent. Michigan’s would be the worst except that it has the strongest and best bottle bill,” says Garfield. Thanks to the ten-cent deposit law, cans and bottles have an “extremely high return rate.”
What happens to recycled products?
“Once you put recyclables in a bin, they get picked up and delivered to a Material Recovery Facility (MRF),” Garfield says. Materials are separated by type — then distributed to paper mills, aluminum melters and glass factories where they are later sold as recycled products. “The key to the system is the collecting and separating of the items. Most communities are serviced by two regional authorities … that also manage trash hauling and composting,” who have come together for economies of scale, Garfield adds. “Toronto is very good at this, with so little trash, you don’t have weekly pick up anymore.”
Last June, the Ann Arbor City Council approved a one-year contract with Recycle Ann Arbor — the Ecology’s Center’s non-profit recycling organization — to process the city’s recyclables.
The center also “led the effort in the 1990s and 2000s to convert the healthcare industry from burning trash in incinerators” — a leading source of air pollution, as well as dioxin and mercury poisoning — “to finding cleaner ways to dispose of their trash,” says Garfield
Its Healthy Stuff project — known as HealthyStuff.org — alerts consumers to lead, mercury or toxic chemicals in every day products such as child car seats, gardening supplies and food can linings.
Garfield’s colleagues also reach about 15,000 K-8 students in southeastern Michigan through their environmental education program; the effort educates young people on issues such as recycling, pollution, air quality and healthy food. And the center recently worked with the Ann Arbor Housing Commission — the agency that oversees low-income housing — on the “redevelopment of three properties to make them more energy-efficient and climate-friendly as possible,” Garfield says.
Business Sector, Public Perception, Government
“In the timeframe that I’ve been doing this work, the attitude of the business sector has changed dramatically,” Garfield emphasizes. “There wasn’t a whole lot of patience back in the 1980s and ‘90s, but things are different today. Every business everywhere understands environmental issues are important. They aren’t all successfully addressing them, but some are. What the Ecology Center does is work with leaders who are modeling good solutions and nudge along the others who should be looking for them.”
Many were critical of GM’s early electric car efforts, for instance. “They thought the company wasn’t really invested in the [technology]; instead, they thought GM was just trying to comply with regulations in California. But fast-forward to today … and you see GM first-to-market with an electric car, the Chevy Volt, [that today] can be driven 50-60 miles [on electricity alone]. It’s a kind of new thinking that led the largest car company in the world to embrace” a vehicle that’s good for the environment.
If the attitude of the business sector has changed in the last 20-30 years, “well, the general public is way ahead,” says Garfield, citing polling that shows strong public preference for environmentally friendly practices. “They’ve been dragging the business sector along. But both the public and the business world are far ahead of our politics. … Politics has always been a lagging indicator. Political leaders tend to follow and not lead. But they will come to lead on these issues when people in communities and businesses demand it loudly enough.”