ESRL Quarterly Newsletter - Summer 2009

Molly Heller

Molly Heller helped direct traffic during an electronics recycling event she helped organize for David Skaggs Research Center workers and the community. Photos courtesy of Will von Dauster, NOAA.

Workers sort recycled equipment.

Workers sort recycled equipment.

Making a Difference

One researcher’s push to cut human climate impact

ESRL researcher Molly Heller coordinates NOAA’s cooperative air sampling and aircraft networks of more than 80 atmospheric sampling sites around the world. She makes sure each has what it needs to collect air samples for the precise measurement of greenhouse gases and other constituents. During the last year, Heller also made time to create a building-wide composting program for the David Skaggs Research Center, DSRC, which includes ESRL.

Heller, a NOAA affiliate with the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Studies (CIRES), was honored with a CIRES Outstanding Performance in Service Award this year, for her “exceptional” work in both categories.

In ESRL’s Global Monitoring Division, Heller so effectively streamlined the processes involved in the logistics of sampling networks and preparing sample containers that she handles the workload once meant for two people.

She also composts. Dedicated to minimizing her climate impact on the planet, Heller used to walk several blocks from her home to carry her own compostables to a public drop-off site. At work, Heller was frustrated to see compostable material in trash bins. She also tired of carrying her own lunch scraps home in the evening. “It was getting messy,” Heller said.

In the spring of 2008, Heller began investigating the science and economics of composting. She soon learned that the DSRC could save both greenhouse gas emissions and money by adding composting to the recycling mix.

Waste and CO2 projections with and without composting.

Waste, in millions of tons per year Business As Usual (top) and Zero Waste Approach (bottom) to disposing of waste in the United States. By 2030, 90 percent of domestic waste could be diverted from landfills to recycling and composting. This would achieve seven percent of the cuts in equivalent CO2 emissions needed to reduce total U.S. emissions 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050.

Composting—an aerobic process—generates the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide. But in landfills, decomposition is anaerobic—without oxygen—and that process releases the more potent greenhouse gas methane, Heller said. Reducing methane emissions would have 72 times the impact of reducing equivalent emissions of carbon dioxide (measured as “global warming potential” during a 20-year time horizon).

So Heller and a few colleagues with NOAA and the U.S. General Services Administration, began crafting a plan to bring composting to the David Skaggs Research Center.

It wasn’t easy, Heller said. She had to scramble to find the few hundred dollars it would take, up front, to purchase new composting bins and create signs. She and a colleague spent a weekend in the building, setting up bins and posters to explain the new system. She is still frustrated to find people putting compostable paper towels in trash bins and trash in the compost, but recognizes that employees have come a long way. DSRC workers now compost and recycle about 40 percent of our waste. “I would like that number to be closer to 70 percent,” Heller said.

Still, she said she is pleased with the response. “To me, this is about the whole environmental package,” said Heller, who also rides the bus to work. “We didn’t have all this stuff 100 years ago, and we need to figure out what we’re going to do with it all. One small thing is putting waste in the right place.

Read the Poster

Zero waste poster

Zero Waste: A Practical and Effective Approach to Reducing Human Impacts on Climate