Eva Touhey thinks about trash a lot. At times, she finds joy in it. Touhey doesn’t necessarily want to pick through your trash, but she enjoys telling you where to put it — …
Eva Touhey thinks about trash a lot. At times, she finds joy in it. Touhey doesn’t necessarily want to pick through your trash, but she enjoys telling you where to put it — responsibly.
Touhey is the “Director of Sustainability” for Clean Ocean Access, a relatively new nonprofit organization dedicated to healthy waters and a healthy world. Thanks to a grant from 11th Hour Racing, the Newport-based sailing organization hoping to win the around-the-world Ocean Race that launches this week, Touhey’s small consulting service was able to sustain itself through an ambitious 2022.
Throughout the year, Touhey and a small team partnered with the organizers of 15 large-scale events, many clustered in Newport. They included the newportFILM outdoor movie series, the Bowen’s Wharf Oyster & Chowder Festival and Seafood Festival, the Broadway Street Fair, the Norman Bird Sanctuary Harvest Fair, and the International Tennis Hall of Fame Tennis Open. They successfully managed 15,603 pounds of food scraps, 4,500 pounds of oyster shells, and 6,101 pounds of clean recycling materials. In total, they diverted 26,204 pounds of waste from entering the Rhode Island landfill.
All in all, it was a good year.
But that effort survived largely on the support of the seed grant, which has run its course. In 2023, Touhey and team need to turn their passion project into a sustainable operation that can pay for itself. They are currently looking for an additional staff member and for paying clients.
Here’s how it works:
1. Clean Ocean Access and its “Healthy Soils Healthy Seas” team partner with a large-scale event organizer willing to pay for its services. Newport is host to many, but there are many more throughout this region.
2. Touhey and team work with the organizers during the planning stages. They talk about the supply and design choices, food and beverage choices (Do you really want to distribute thousands of single-use plastic bottles??), and waste management.
3. They provide support at the actual event. At last year’s food festivals, for example, teams of volunteers manned “Zero-Waste” stations, helping consumers choose where to toss their trash, separating food scraps from oyster shells, recyclable materials from pure trash. Those materials ended up in separate waste streams, with food scraps going to compost haulers (Clean Ocean has developed strong relationships with two local haulers, The Compost Plant and Black Earth Compost), uncontaminated recycling going to a recycling center, and a much lighter load of trash heading to the state’s central landfill in Johnston.
“Our ultimate goal is waste diversion, but if we can control the amount of waste produced form the start, then that’s the way we want to go,” Touhey said.
As an example, she talked about a strategy used at festivals last year. Organizers offered the first drink to a consumer with a $2 reusable cup fee added to the cost of the drink. After getting their first drink, those customers then kept and reused their cups, receiving a discount on their subsequent drinks.
“We ultimately want to reduce waste, and there are so many creative ways to do that,” Touhey said.
One of the leading clients in 2022 was the Bowen’s Wharf Co., host of several food and drink festivals in the heart of Newport. “Without them [Clean Ocean Access], there is little to no incentive or guidance at the municipal level for events to successfully transform their waste footprints and educate the public on environmentally-friendly practices,” said Bart Dunbar, president of Bowen’s Wharf Co. “As the City by the Sea, it is up to us to be stewards of our environment and ensure our community is preserving the good health of neighboring ecosystems on land and in water.”
Selling their services
The sales pitch for the Healthy Soils Healthy Seas program is not the easiest. Touhey cannot say that their consulting service will always pay for itself, not in a direct way on the bottom line. There might be some savings in trash hauling fees, but the real value lies elsewhere — helping make a positive impact on the trash stream, the oceans, the ecosystem and the world.
“For most organizations, sustainability is something that has gained more interest over the last two and a half years. They know everyone needs to be adopting these strategies,” Touhey said. “Everyone wants to have someone on their team who is responsible for sustainability.”
One part of their sales pitch is getting organizers to see the value in promoting a “green” event, a “sustainable” event. Event planners can tout this in their pre-event marketing, and they can showcase it at the actual events. They might also attract sponsors for the “green” program, something Touhey and Clean Ocean Access try to instigate, creating matches between willing sponsors and event organizers.
“It helps with all the promotion and marketing,” Touhey said. “It makes them look good, because people want to attend events that are environmentally friendly.”
Actually executing the plan at a large-scale event requires a lot of teamwork. Clean Ocean Access does not have the resources to pay dozens of staffers, so it relies on volunteers. At the big Newport events last year, many volunteers stood beside those “zero waste” stations for hours, handling people’s trash and hauling bags of waste for few rewards other than personal satisfaction and a pat on the back.
“I truly value all our volunteers,” Touhey said. “I want to grow our green team volunteers, make it a positive experience for them and give back to them, because I know it is not the most glamorous job.”
Touhey started as a volunteer herself, when she interned with Clean Ocean Access seven years ago. The internship turned into a part-time job, and that led to her current full-time job as program director. An undergraduate Biology major with a master’s degree in Marine Affairs from the University of Rhode Island, Touhey believes she is in the right place, doing what she loves.
“Yes, this is my passion project … I’m really passionate about working with people and encouraging them to make environmentally sustainable choices,” she said.
Touhey knows people are more aware of all these issues than they were a generation ago, but she also knows education is a big part of the challenge. “We all need to be so aware of the environmental impacts we’re having at a local level, state level, national level, and across the world,” Touhey said. “Everyone needs to start thinking about how they can live their own personal lives, day to day, being more mindful … For example, imagine if everyone stopped using single-use plastic bottles overnight. That would kill the demand immediately. That would make an immediate change.”