As an enthusiastic member of her high school environmental science club, Teresa Vela-Hayes piled her family’s newspapers on the back porch, periodically loading them into the station wagon to haul to the Thruway Recycling Center.
Times have changed — now you can recycle your newspapers from the comfort of your own home! But Vela-Hayes, who majored in environmental science, is still at it. She composts, carries a pouch of silverware in her purse and hounds her 25-year-old daughter to bring reusable bags to the store. Recently she audited her family’s waste production with a fine toothed comb, going so far as to line her garbage can with newspaper instead of using plastic bags. Then she turned her focus on her workplace.
Vela-Hayes is a library assistant at Albert Wisner Public Library in Warwick. She teaches weekly cooking programs to classes of about 18 kids. It bothered her to be serving the food in plastic bowls, with plastic utensils that went straight into the trash.
Plastic wins the prize for quickest clean-up, and of course cheapest. Making a big deal about it would go against Vela-Hayes’ credo: “You can do your own thing in your own little bubble, just don’t force other people to do it.” But nerdy as she knows it sounds, she was extra-motivated, since she was taking part in a Plastic-Free Ecochallenge where you score points for each accomplishment.
Using a small grant awarded to her department, Vela-Hayes bought 18 ceramic bowls and 24 Ball jars, and she brought in little stainless steel forks and spoons from home. After class, she washes the dishes in the sink in the library’s activity room, drawing perhaps an eye roll from her supervisor for taking 20 minutes to do a task that used to be instantaneous. Still, the change seems to have taken, making its mark on library culture. A colleague jumped onboard, committing to order wood coffee stirrers and paper cups.
“Trying to change the rules... I don’t think that works,” said Vela-Hayes. “I guess my biggest success is just setting an example.”
Though she’s not in charge of shopping, Vela-Hayes has been known to swing by Ochs Orchard for peaches before the class featuring baked peaches with ice cream on top. Even better would be harvesting ingredients two steps from the door. An ornamental garden was already on the deck outside the children’s room. Why not add vegetables? The library bought two raised beds, and kids signed up to help plant seedlings. By August, the small patch of tomatoes, cucumbers, basil, radishes, beans, mint, chamomile, nasturtiums and cilantro was thriving, producing enough for a few bites per person in the class.
An upcoming menu will feature those cucumbers turned into pickles, alongside Vela-Hayes’ piece de resistance: grilled cheese sandwiches with garden tomatoes, cooked in solar ovens, which Vela-Hayes made out of upcycled pizza boxes, black construction paper, tin foil and newspaper. “Let’s teach kids there’s all that energy there, easily accessible for all different things,” she said.
The hitch? The class is at 11 a.m., when the sun might not be strong enough to melt the cheese. “I’m hoping for a really hot day.”