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Duluth businesses test sustainable approach

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One free wash
Employees at the London Road Car Wash get a free lunch once a month -- paid for by recycling the trash they find in the cars.
MPR Photo/Stephanie Hemphill

What do a family restaurant, a car wash, and a Lutheran church have in common?  They're all trying to operate more sustainably.  

A simple definition of sustainability is running your business in a way that ensures you can run it forever.   That would mean not ruining the earth.  

The Duluth Grill
The Duluth Grill is a family-style restaurant that's finding ways to cut down on trash, reduce energy use, and encourage volunteering in the community. The hanging lamps use LED bulbs, for a dramatic reduction in electricity use.
MPR Photo/Stephanie Hemphill

In Duluth some businesses are studying the Natural Step, an approach to sustainability developed in Sweden 20 years ago.  Companies around the world have adopted it, from Ikea to McDonalds and Home Depot.

In the Duluth Grill, a family restaurant a mile west of downtown Duluth, there are lots of healthy choices on the menu.  The to-go containers are compostable, made of corn or sugar cane.

New LED lights and special window shades save energy.   That's the first principle of the Natural Step -- reducing the use of fossil fuels and other resources that have to be mined from the earth.

Church window
Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, near downtown Duluth, voted to become more intentional about "creation care." That starts with building awareness of how the earth functions, and how people affect the earth, in good and bad ways.
MPR Photo/Stephanie Hemphill

In the kitchen, the trash is separated from the food scraps.  The food goes for compost, manager Jeff Petcoff said. 

"We've just made it very easy for our staff to be able to compost and recycle, with the bins all over the restaurant," says Petcoff. 

The composting and recycling have  reduced their weekly trash pickup, and saved a bunch of money.  Money isn't the only reason to do it, owner Tom Hanson said.  Another Natural Step principle is not degrading the earth, like by building landfills.  As much as a third of the stuff sent to landfills could be composted. 

"It kind of goes back to the theory that we don't live next door to a landfill but somebody does," Hanson says.  "And so we felt obligated that if we can make the change -- once you become aware of it, I think, it becomes more compelling to do it."

Encouraging car pooling
As part of its sustainability or "creation care" effort, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church encourages people who live near each other to carpool to church. Church leaders hope that kind of cooperation can lead to other ways of caring for each other.
MPR Photo/Stephanie Hemphill

On the other side of Duluth, the London Road Car Wash has switched to biodegradable detergent.  That's not required by the city or the state, but it's another principle of the Natural Step program -- to reduce the use of man-made toxic substances.  

As the cars move through the wash, the first flush of soapy water is captured in a pit below the floor, and re-used.   In the basement a special boiler uses oil reclaimed from the lube operation to heat the building and the water.

They recycle the cans and bottles they haul out of the cars they wash, and once a month the employees get a free lunch with the proceeds.

That addresses another part of the Natural Step, which says a sustainable business will make sure its employees can meet their needs.  A free lunch is a way of giving something back to the workers, manager Frank Nicoletti said.

Gloria Dei Pastor David Carlson
Gloria Dei Pastor David Carlson says the Christian bible offers many lessons about the importance of living in ways that sustain other creatures.
MPR Photo/Stephanie Hemphill

Nicoletti is a biologist by training, and he even has lofty goals for a green roof on the car wash.

"We have a flat roof. I'd love to make a butterfly garden up there, and that will actually clean the air," he says.  "The butterfly migration and the dragonfly migration through the lakeshore here is just huge.  There are days when the dragonflies are going by, you can see a million different species." 

At the Gloria Dei Lutheran Church near downtown Duluth a concert by a youth choir is a reward for 16 people from around the region, who have spent their Saturday talking about how they can encourage their churches to become more sustainable.  To them, that means taking better care of God's creation.

Judy Isaacson tries to get everyone involved. 

"We're the newbies at our church; we've only been there six years," Isaacson says.  "By having someone who's been there forever be the person who changed the light bulbs, it was very easy because she had credibility in the congregation."

Church meeting
Gloria Dei hosted a synod-wide meeting on how to encourage churches to meld "creation care" into church work.
MPR Photo/Stephanie Hemphill

Gloria Dei church is a leader in the so-called creation care movement, and is part of the Natural Step process in Duluth. 

During Lent, Pastor David Carlson is encouraging the congregation to consider going on a "carbon diet."  Everyone can find ways to cut their greenhouse gas emissions, he said.

Many church members are taking on projects, Pastor Carlson said.  One man is promoting the idea of ride-sharing to church.

"He is offering free fair trade coffee to anyone who comes up to him during coffee hour and says that they car-pooled that day," says Carlson.  "It's trying to introduce habits, to remove barriers for people that may be in the way of taking further steps.  And they may be small.  But they may make a difference."

The biggest difference this group might make is offering their experience to others.  Sustainable Twin Ports, the group behind the Natural Step here, is documenting their progress and hoping to enroll more businesses.