Capitol gets touch of green

Chicago Tribune

Many voters remember that Democrats, when they won control of Congress two years ago, promised change on issues such as Iraq, the war on terrorism and the minimum wage.

Well, congressional Democrats have made changes in a more immediate, housekeeping sort of way, making the Capitol complex a greener, healthier and more nutritious place to work -- to the applause of some and the annoyance of others.

To conserve energy, motion-detector lights have been installed in hearing rooms and vending machines are shut down at night. Smoking areas and sales of tobacco products have been curtailed.

Most notably, House cafeterias serve healthier and more politically correct food, including fair-trade coffee, hormone-free meat, organic entrees and locally grown produce.


Plus, everything -- including plates and knives -- is biodegradable. A pulper shreds used containers and flatware, and extracts excess water. It turns the waste into a “coleslaw” that weighs 70% less than before and decomposes within 75 days.

Many of the changes are part of a Green the Capitol program created by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) with the goal of making the House carbon-neutral by year end, meaning it would offset any carbon it releases. Last year the House produced 91,000 metric tons of carbon.

Advocates say Congress is setting a good example. Jeff Ventura, communications director for the House’s chief administrative officer, said the program could encourage Americans to live in healthier and more environmentally friendly ways.

If the House achieves carbon neutrality, which Ventura said it was on track to do, it would become one of the world’s few carbon-neutral legislative bodies.


“The food service was one of our most titanic achievements,” he said.

Bernadette Maxwell, a Library of Congress employee who goes to the Longworth House Office Building cafeteria for lunch, said she had noticed more options recently.

“The quality of the food has edged up a little bit,” she said.

Maxwell, whose lunch recently consisted of soft tacos and a Mr. Goodbar, said she used to often buy pizza in the House cafeteria but now eats more healthily. “I haven’t gotten the pizza since they changed over,” she said.


Ventura said the changes had garnered a positive response.

“Things like that aren’t sexy but they’re effective,” Ventura said.

It isn’t just the House. In the Senate, the Rules Committee has mandated that all new appliances be Energy Star-certified. The Senate also has implemented a pilot program using office lights that automatically dim when it is sunny or no one is in a room.

Some Republicans complain that these environmental initiatives cost too much; Green the Capitol costs $4 million annually. Others say they are irrelevant or a distraction.


“Nancy Pelosi’s focus on greening the Capitol seems a little hypocritical in light of her earlier demands to have a military 757 fly her home every weekend,” said Nicklaus Simpson, a spokesman for House Minority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), in an e-mail statement. “Whether the Capitol carry-out uses ‘green’ spoons that dissolve in soup or green eggs and ham, what the speaker should be focused on is the reality that the American people are paying $4 a gallon for gas.”

Pelosi has said she did not request a larger plane, but that the House sergeant-at-arms’ office wanted it for security reasons.