Red or Blue, You Can Still Be Green

Our Joan Melcher, in Denver with her Democratic delegate dad, notes how a big event can still be a green event.
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I knew something was different when I saw the wastebasket with the recycling logo in the hotel room. Actually, there had been other clues. Delegates to the Democratic National Convention had been urged to buy carbon offsets to mitigate their travel to Denver, and we were shuttled from the airport to the hotel in a hybrid Chevy Tahoe.

I had noted before leaving for Denver that the Democratic National Convention Committee and the Denver 2008 Host Committee had big carbon-reducing plans for the convention.

Bringing tens of thousands of people to a town the size of Denver conjures up a carbon footprint that could crush a Rocky Mountain. So they put their heads together over the better part of a year to create a plan to reduce resource use while also raising green awareness throughout the city. What they learn from this undertaking can be worked into a template for use by other cities.

The host committee broke its task into 10 green teams: business outreach, resource recovery, city facilities, water, events, new energy, carbon, food sustainability, communications and transportation.

Transportation is clearly a key concern at a convention this size. And moving 50,000-plus people to the Pepsi Center every day from the city center and outlying areas is no small task.

The committee's site notes "walking is the easiest green" and a large number of people have seemed to go for that option. It's probably about a mile total from the downtown area to the center, and on the first night, we see a stream of walkers, bicycle riders, pedicabs, shuttles and buses move inexorably to the gathering. The walkers seem to be doing the best.

Once there, the heavy security requires waiting in long lines to get through the checkpoint, so we are talking some stamina here. Because of the heavy security, Denver's light rail system, which efficiently links the city center to its many venues, cannot be used for the convention.

The first night I tagged along with my father, who is the chair of the DNC Senior Council. He was given a driver with a Chevy Tahoe, and the security check doesn't involve standing in lines, although we do get out of the Tahoe while officers pour over it, using a canine sniff test for the final approval. I'm thankful for this plush treatment, but looking out the window, I wonder if I couldn't get to the center faster walking or biking.

The next day I get my chance to test the theory. Walking toward the Denver Performing Arts Center to check out the Green Frontier Fest, I see the FreeWheelin lot and decide I'll take them up on the offer for a free bike for the day.

Sponsored by health insurance company Humana and nonprofit Bikes Belong, Freewheelin is making 1,000 bikes available for attendees at both Democratic and Republican conventions.

Video: AP report on greening of convention

I walk in, register for a bike, get digitally swiped to allow for tracking miles, fitted with a helmet and I'm ready to go in five minutes. They tell me there are seven stations in the area and I can return the bike to any of them by 7 p.m. I'm set now to get a bike every day if I want one.

Freewheelin spokesman Nate Kvamme points me to a photovoltaic-powered digital display that tracks the number of bikes given out and the total number of miles ridden to the minute. At this point — early on the second day of the convention — nearly 2,000 rides have been taken for close to 4,000 miles.

Kvamme, who is happy with the response to the program, tells me they've run out of bikes at a few of the stations. Freewheelin is pushing the bikes as a health choice and a way to experience the fun of being a kid again. "Almost everyone comes back with a smile on their face," he says.

I ask him if he'll be going to the Republican convention. He is looking forward to it. "Whether you're red or blue, there's some part of you that's green," he smiles.

Parry Burnap of the Denver Mayor's Office and director of greening for the host committee says she's excited about Freewheelin's apparent success as well as with the increased interest in biking that is showing up in Denver. "The number of personal bikes downtown is about five times what we usually see," she says, adding that she expects the convention effort will spur greening throughout the city.

She wonders out loud how well the free refillable water bottles given out to delegates are working. Numbers on the success of various efforts aimed at hotels, restaurants and event venues won't be available for a few weeks after the convention.
Barnup says that one of the main innovations that will come from their efforts is a carbon emission travel calculator.

The performing arts center is not far away, and soon I'm checking out the displays at the Green Frontier Fest. I walk through a SmartGrid exhibit that explains an "advanced computer-based delivery system" for electricity that would allow people to track energy usage on individual appliances and lighting fixtures and program them digitally from a distance.

Xcel Energy, the utility that along with several partners supplies 70 percent of Colorado's electricity, is conducting a pilot project in Boulder where 13,000 homes will be fitted with SmartGrid meters by 2009. (The auditorium dubbed the Xcel Energy Center in the Twin Cities is also the home of next week's Republican National Convention.)

Next, I walk through an award-winning zero-energy solar house designed by a team from Colorado State University. Coils of copper heat exchangers are used to both heat and cool the modular home. It's impressive, cool and quiet.

Outside the wind is blowing — political wind, that is, as governors and senators take a small stage to tout the benefits of Vestas Wind — both in renewable energy generation and the jobs it is bringing to the state.

Later, I head off for the Pepsi Center. I know I'm supposed to ride in the street with the controlled chaos of cars, buses and pedicabs, and I do it for a while, but when I spot a quiet side street, I move onto the sidewalk. This works.

The police — and there's plenty of them on foot, on bikes, on horses and, oh yes, a few here and there in cars — have much more to worry about what with the protestors and an incorrigible stream of vehicles and pedestrians. It takes me about 10 minutes to get to the center but another 40 or more to lock the bike, walk another four blocks to a security line and shuffle along to the checkpoint.

Finally I'm in and I don't have a lot of time since I have to return the bike at 7. I could drop it at a site near the center, but last night's experience in maneuvering the masses of people has left me with the idea that the best way to view it tonight is from my hotel bed. I'm here to check out the recycling efforts inside.

The DNC committee has set a goal of 85 percent diversion from the landfill from the Pepsi Center and the Denver Convention Center, where meetings and caucuses are being held. Anyone at all knowledgeable in the waste management field knows that is a lofty goal. Cities that achieve 50 percent diversion are rare.

I immediately note three bins set up on the way into the center marked "recycling" (bottles, aluminum cans, clean plastic film, plastics and paper); "compost" (biodegradable service ware, PLA); and "landfill." This trio is spread liberally through the center, each with a volunteer standing behind to help people place their waste in the appropriate bin. I watch as a woman approaches with a beverage cup. The volunteer directs her to the compost bin and the woman gamely throws it in, ice cubes and all. The volunteer nods in approval.

The DNCC has urged many of the vendors at the center to use biodegradable packaging and service ware, and from the looks of the composting bin, many of them are.

I ask a volunteer (Denver has turned out about 25,000 of them for the convention) if people are picking up on the concept. She says they are for the most part, but some of the vendors aren't using the biodegradable materials, and containers are also brought in from outside. She puts on some plastic gloves and notes, "Sometimes I have to go Dumpster diving."

I take a few moments to listen to some speeches — from the nose-bleed section — but know I need a good 30 minutes to get the bike back, so I'm off.

Weaving my way through the teeming throngs on the 16th Street Mall, I find another quiet side street and somehow make it back by 7 p.m. I note that I've ridden about 10 miles and at this point 2,788 rides have been made for a total of 8,349.6 miles, which amounts to 2.9 metric tons of carbon emissions.

The next day, I score a coveted floor credential to the convention and talk with some with the delegation from my home state, Montana. I see they've gotten the green designation that is given to a state whose delegation has registered to calculate their carbon footprint and offset their travel footprint through carbon trading programs.

About 50 percent of the states are participating. A young delegate tells me how he offset his carbon for travel and calculated his carbon footprint. He is proud of the green marker attached to the top of the vertical Montana banner that designates the delegates' spot on the floor of the convention.

"We get better treatment" with the designation, he says with a grin.

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