Keep Earth Green

Keep Earth Green

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it's the only thing that ever has.” — Margaret Mead
By Pauline Oo

Inspired by anthropologist Margaret Mead, we invited four alumnae to answer a daunting question: In the face of a changing climate, what can one person do? ANSWER: If not everything, then anything. SIMPLY BEGIN.


“Over the past few decades we’ve been transformed from not really caring about our food to wondering where it comes from, what is in it, how it was produced and who produced it,” says Liz McMann ’03, MAHS’06, consumer affairs manager and master food preserver at Mississippi Market in St. Paul.

That shift gives McMann hope for saving the planet.

“Every aspect of our food supply — from how seeds are planted to how produce is transported — affects the environment. That’s why we need to make smarter food choices,” says McMann, who blogs at “If we buy local vegetables or eggs, we’re supporting a local farmer and helping to reduce the impact of greenhouse gas emissions from the transportation of food.”

Choosing organic is another example. Conventional agricultural practices contribute to soil erosion and loss of nutrient-rich topsoil, explains McMann, while organic farming and other sustainable practices help keep soil alive.

“Losing topsoil is a huge problem today,” she says. “It’s not a real sexy problem, but it’s going to keep us from feeding the people in this country.”

In the face of a changing climate, what can one person do? In McMann’s view:

1. COOK.
“Just the act of cooking keeps us more engaged with where our food comes from.”

Plant a garden, grow herbs on a windowsill, or get involved in a community garden or community-supported agriculture. “When you have a connection to where plants and animals come from, you gain more respect for nature and the environment.”

“This is a great way to meet the farmers. Otherwise, those of us living in the city might never know where our milk, carrots or oatmeal come from.”

“Highly processed foods have been stripped of natural flavors and healthy nutrients.”


Eight out of 10 women wear the wrong sized bras, and most have a few unused ones sitting in a drawer. These ill-fitting and unworn bras could go to a woman in need, says Elaine Birks-Mitchell MAOL’99.

“Bras are one of the most requested items in shelters and transitional programs around the world,” explains Birks-Mitchell, who in 2008 founded The Bra Recyclers, an Arizona-based textile recycling company specializing in the recycling and redistribution of bras. She and her husband, Johnny, have since partnered with retailers, manufacturers and over 70 charity organizations — including domestic violence and homeless shelters — across the United States. They also have recycling ambassadors and drop-off locations in Canada, Malaysia and South Africa.

“All women have bras,” says Birks-Mitchell. “This is one way a woman can directly help another woman. We also want to educate more retailers and manufacturers to stop throwing overstock and past season items into backroom bins that just go to landfills.”

Mastectomy bras and breast prostheses are on the list as well. Her company donates them to breast cancer survivors.

The average person in the United States throws away 70 pounds of clothing a year, according to the Secondary Materials and Recycled Textiles Association, of which Birks-Mitchell is a past board member. That adds 3.8 billion pounds of waste to landfills.

“We can recycle 95 percent of our textiles,” says Birks-Mitchell, who hopes to collaborate with other alumnae and students on a recycling program at St. Kate’s. “If it’s stained, torn or ripped, don’t throw it in the trash. Make that single sock or stained T-shirt into a rag, or donate it and we’ll make it into something useful. For example, we can repurpose old denim jeans into insulation and turn teddy bears into padding for car seats.”

Just don’t put anything moldy or wet into your donation bag, she warns.

>> For bra drop-off locations, visit


“Personal change is the first step to public change, and we need to think about making improvements to our energy use on a spectrum,” says Corrie Weikle ’13, the sustainability coordinator at Everyday Green, a company in Washington, D.C., that specializes in green building and residential efficiency.

Start by turning off the lights every time you leave a room, she suggests; or reduce your heating and cooling temperature by 2 degrees. Ready to step up? Take the bus to work once a week instead of driving your car; start composting; or install LED (light-emitting diode) light bulbs and low-flow toilets.

“There’s a cost upfront to making energy-efficient changes in your home or office,” Weikle acknowledges, “but think about your long-term savings.”

According to the U.S. Department of Energy, residential LEDs — especially ENERGY STAR–rated products — use at least 75 percent less energy and last 25 times longer than incandescent lighting. Toilets with the WaterSense label from the Environmental Protection Agency can save about 4,000 gallons of water per year, which works out to roughly $90 in annual savings for a family of four.

Energy efficiency is critical to tackling climate change because much of the increase in greenhouse gas emissions is a result of burning fossil fuels — mostly coal and natural gas — for energy, Weikle says.

Nearly 40 percent of total energy consumption in the United States in 2012 came from heating and cooling residential and commercial buildings, reports the U.S. Energy Information Administration. “That’s why it’s important for us to explore alternative energy-saving strategies,” she says. “Replacing components of a less efficient HVAC [heating, ventilation and air-conditioning] system can cut energy costs by about 20 percent.”

Weikle recommends that building owners “benchmark” their energy use as a first step to reducing current consumption. For cities and state governments, she advocates implementing more energy-efficiency policies and offering greater incentives to encourage businesses and homeowners to act.

What can one person do? Measure your carbon footprint:


“Climate change is real, our situation is dire and our faith calls us to action” says Marybeth Lorbiecki ’81, author of Following St. Francis: John Paul II’s Call for Ecological Action (Rizzoli Ex Libris, 2014). The book explores the relationship among religion, science, society and spirituality, and issues a call to believers to conserve resources.

“We must renew our religious and ethical understandings, which will create new national and international policies as well as personal habits,” explains Lorbiecki, also the author of an award-winning biography on conservationist Aldo Leopold and more than 25 books for children — many on the environment.

In the decade she spent researching Following St. Francis, she discovered “a definite and insistent faith mandate” to care for the land, animals, the poor and all of God’s creation threading through the Old and New Testaments. Environmental destruction, including climate change, harms the poor first and always, she says.

Lorbiecki, who serves as director of the Interfaith Ocean Ethics Campaign (IOEC), a joint program of the Franciscan Action Network and the U.S. National Religious Coalition on Creation Care, advises watching this short presentation on YouTube: “Who’s Under Your Carbon Footprint?”

In February, Lorbiecki was part of an IOEC team that presented recommendations to ocean committees at the United Nations Working Group on Sustainable Development. The IOEC proposal included an appeal to tackle the “seven deadly sins of the seas,” which include ocean acidification from carbon in the atmosphere, overfishing, plastic waste, chemical, nuclear, and sensory pollution, coastal development and other ills.

“Oceans generate half of the oxygen we breathe,” explains Lorbiecki. “They provide us with fish and seafood; their currents spur the weather; their beauty and species provide us refreshment of spirit on their beaches. So we must act to save them.”

In the face of a changing climate, what can one person do? According to Lorbiecki:

1. STOP PLAYING THE DENIAL GAME. (Climate change is real.)

2. SHIFT YOUR PARADIGM. (Choose to make a difference and reduce your carbon footprint.)

3. THINK AHEAD AND CHANGE HABITS. (Carry reusable water bottles; carpool.)



TIPS from St. Kate’s alumnae

Measure your carbon footprint:

Donate bras:

Watch: Who’s Under Your Carbon Footprint?

Executive Editor
Amy Gage

Managing Editor
Pauline Oo MAOL Cert’14

Senior Writer
Andy Steiner

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Jessica Gallo Design

Alumnae Section Editor
Sara Berhow

Sharon Parker

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