Central Library in downtown Portland and Albina Library in Northeast Portland are among a growing list of businesses and nonprofits in Portland increasing their commitment to sustainable practices. Each library has earned City of Portland Sustainability at Work gold certification.
As a public service organization built on sharing resources for the benefit of the community, the library is committed to sustainability practices. But operating 19 individual library branches across Multnomah County requires a more conscious effort to engage staff in sustainability practices and further environmental benefits.
“We felt strongly that there was a better answer than going along with all the waste we were creating,” said Greta G., administrator at Central Library. “We knew there was a way to incorporate sustainability solutions into day-to-day problem solving.”
Run by the City of Portland, the Sustainability at Work program began in 2007. The program offers three levels of certifications, with gold being the highest level of achievement, that recognize businesses for the number and type of sustainability features and processes that they implement.
Albina and Central libraries incorporated more than 45 individual actions into their operations, which aim to improve sustainability in the workplace. Before the process began, the two libraries were already doing a number of sustainable actions, such as installing LED lights, printing on recycled paper and not purchasing plastic water bottles.
To begin working toward their certification, Central Library staff focused on small, detailed efforts. They created simple, visual signage to help others sort various types of specialty plastics for recycling that weren’t allowed in the county’s mixed recycling container.
“It can be difficult to divert some plastic packaging materials from landfills because many vendors no longer accept them,” said Library Facilities Specialist Dan S. “Library staff did extensive research to identify new vendors who would accept the materials and then worked to educate others on the proper sorting so we could ensure they’d be recycled.”
In addition to implementing a more robust recycling plan, Central Library staff partnered with Dan and Multnomah County Sustainability Coordinator Sara M. to make more robust facilities improvements, such as installing water-saving, low-flow faucets in staff restrooms (they’re already installed in public restrooms).
Across the library system, a dedicated group of staff also organized an Environmental Team to help individual library locations make improvements in their overall footprint. The team also pushes for systemwide changes, such as switching to a Vitamin C based, non-toxic receipt paper and investing in green cleaning products.
“Libraries have an important role in the community to provide information and resources— organizing these sustainability efforts allows us to lead by example and put our best foot forward,” said Lili R., an access services assistant at Albina Library and lead organizer of Albina’s efforts to reach gold certification.
At Albina Library, staff partnered with neighbor Whole Foods to further their environmental efforts.
“Albina Library is a leased space, so we weren’t able to add a weekly compost pickup service, but thanks to an agreement with Whole Foods, staff can take a compost bucket from the lunch room over to the grocer for proper disposal in their larger composting bin,” said Lili.
Another notable area both libraries excel is in transportation, with a significant portion of staff at each location commuting with alternative methods such as walking, biking, carpooling or taking public transportation. To add additional incentive for staff to bike, Albina Library purchased a bike repair kit and spare lock to keep at the branch for anyone that needs to use it.
“I’m really proud of this award, and I’m proud of my coworkers,” said Lili. “None of this stuff matters if nobody does it. I could be doing backflips trying to make everything as green as possible but if your coworkers don’t support it, then it doesn’t really matter.”
While the certification is a notable milestone for the two libraries, staff noted it’s important to stay informed of sustainability challenges and changes in the world and to advocate for action.
“We’re never going to be able to make change in our overall waste stream without working from the ground up,” said Greta.
Lili says that individuals can help by making small swaps that have a big impact:
“An easy change would be to focus on bringing your own reusable travel mug when going to get coffee. Disposable eating supplies are not recyclable so using the staffroom dishware for meetings and small events can go a long way.”
In addition to incorporating green efforts in buildings, the library offers several free, environment- and sustainability-focused classes and programs:
Two other Multnomah County buildings have received the City of Portland Sustainability at Work certification: the Multnomah Building and Inverness Jail. And, thanks to Multnomah County facilities standards, advocacy from the Library Environmental Team, and support from the Office of Sustainability, many libraries, and other county buildings, already meet several of the requirements to receive Sustainability at Work certification. Dan and Sara are looking forward to helping more buildings earn the certification in the future.
To learn more about the City of Portland Sustainability at Work program and certification process, visit portlandoregon.gov/sustainabilityatwork.