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Energy-saving tactics pay off in Green Workplace Challenge | TribLIVE.com
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Energy-saving tactics pay off in Green Workplace Challenge

The Associated Press
| Sunday, January 25, 2015 9:00 p.m
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DAVID CONTI | TRIB TOTAL MEDIA
Sustainable Pittsburgh program manager Matthew Mehalik holds a winner’s medal from the first Green Workplace Challenge.

A $3 faucet insert can help an office save money and be more environmentally conscious, whether that workplace employs eight people or 3,000.

“Simple things like that, or putting insulation on outlets, trying to tighten up windows with weather stripping, it had a noticeable impact,” said Jim Pashek, principal at Pashek Associates, a North Side landscape architecture and design firm.

His office of eight employees took top honors in the small business category of last year’s Green Workplace Challenge, sponsored by Sustainable Pittsburgh, a group that promotes recycling and other environmentally friendly strategies. The winner of the large business trophy, Moon-based FedEx Ground, has nearly 3,000 employees but started with the same step.

“Those aerators cost $2 or $3 per faucet, but they immediately reduced the amount coming out by 60 percent,” said Phill Peterson, project manager of sustainability at FedEx Ground’s headquarters, which cut its overall water bill by 24 percent last year by using several tactics.

The list of potential energy-saving tactics for which participants can rack up points in the Green Workplace Challenge has grown since it began in 2011, as have the cumulative impacts on the region, organizers say as they prepare for the latest competition.

About 100 participating companies, nonprofits and government agencies achieved a total of $7.4 million in savings during two challenges. They cut enough electricity to power 8,000 homes for a year, Sustainable Pittsburgh said. They saved enough water to cover Heinz Field 13 feet deep.

“These kinds of reductions could mean we don’t have to build more power plants, which saves all ratepayers the cost of construction,” said Matthew Mehalik, program manager at the Downtown nonprofit who helped establish and oversees the friendly competition.

Another equally important product of the challenge, Mehalik and others said, is a road map to an environmentally sustainable future that emerged. Any company, office or school that wants to cut energy bills or take other steps to get “greener” can follow some or all of the steps outlined in the competition, even if they don’t sign up for the challenge by the Saturday deadline.

“It’s evolved into a ready-made action guide for an organization that wants to do something,” Mehalik said, noting the 240 actions for which participants can get points are available online to any group for free. The challenge is underwritten by charities including the The Heinz Endowments, Richard King Mellon Foundation, Benedum Foundation and Alcoa Foundation.

The actions range from the most basic — such as reducing electricity, heat, air conditioning and water usage with new light bulbs or windows — to improving air quality and encouraging workers to carpool.

Participants earn points for setting goals in each action and more for meeting them. Winners get medals and public recognition — and hopefully benefits in their bottom lines.

The challenge came out of efforts to write a climate plan beginning in 2008. A Business Climate Coalition that met for two years recommended a program based on what Mehalik described as “straightforward business principles.” It needed to give businesses steps that were measurable and that either could generate revenue or minimize costs.

Free software from the Environmental Protection Agency that allows an office to upload, track and compare utility bills formed the basis for the first challenge, which had 27 finalists in 2012. Last year’s field of 54 finalists had an expanded list of actions to potentially tackle, including starting a bike program, reducing emissions on air quality action days and completing radon surveys.

Sustainable Pittsburgh hired staffers to help companies collect data and take other steps, based on feedback from participants.

“It can be daunting and cause someone to say, ‘Where do I start?’ ” Mehalik said.

“Take small bites,” suggestedFedEx Ground’s Peterson.

After installing the faucet aerators and equipment that cut water use in toilets, the company spread out its plan to install new lighting and new computer servers, he said. It set aside premium parking spots for workers who carpool, and plans more now that the number of groups grew from about six to 30. It’s adding charging stations for electric cars.

“Engaging employees is probably one of the trickiest things to do in the area of sustainability,” Peterson said. “We educate employees, inform them why these behaviors need to change and show their results. And then we enable that.”

Participants report seeing a culture change among workers.

“The challenge focused us to try harder, instead of just talk about it,” said Pashek, whose office has a green roof and a friendly internal competition to see who can bike more miles to work each year. “I’d like to think all of us are environmentally conscious. This made us think about what we could do.”

David Conti is a staff writer at Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-388-5802.

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