Educating Bloomington-Normal on Environmental Issues

The Ecology Action Center, located at 202 W College Ave. in Normal, has been serving the local community since 1971. 

The Ecology Action Center, located at 202 W College Ave. in Normal, has been serving the local community since 1971. 

A renovated historic house sits at 202 W. College Avenue with native vegetation and rain barrels on the lawn. The building serves as the home of Bloomington-Normal’s Ecology Action Center (EAC), a local non-profit offering a variety of programs to promote environmental health and education.

The EAC, originally Operation Recycle, has served Bloomington-Normal since 1971 with the mission to inspire and assist residents of McLean County in creating, strengthening and preserving a healthy environment.

A primary focus for the EAC is community and education outreach. In 2016 the EAC visited every elementary school in McLean county and conducted a total of 157 classroom visits.

“Once we started focusing on education and not just recycling we became the Ecology Action Center,” EAC Director Michael Brown said. “From there we have done a lot more educational outreach. It’s solid waste education across all age groups and all sectors if possible. We are trying to reach all residents: adults, youth and businesses.”

The EAC now acts as the central resource for environmental education, information, outreach and assistance for Bloomington-Normal and has many new initiatives on the horizon for 2018.

Most recently, the EAC has been working on the “20-Year Materials Recovery and Resource Management Plan” to guide the Town of Normal, the City of Bloomington and McLean County toward an increased recycling rate. Recycling rates have remained stagnant since the late 90s, hovering around 35%. In June 2017, the recycling rate hit its goal of 40%, a number that should continue to climb with the 20-year plan in place.

Brown explained how solid waste management has been a central focus for the EAC since its origination. “It’s not just the education outreach. We took on the role of solid waste planning and eventually became the solid waste agency for the community. That means we are looking at the big picture and providing assistance to the municipalities to establish programs and meet the solid waste management needs."

One way the EAC meets those needs it through its newly launched app, Recycle Coach. The app uses push notifications to remind users when their recycling collections occur. It also offers detailed disposal instructions for certain products, and gives drop-off locations. On America Recycle Day (November 15), the EAC collected 5,000 pounds of electronics, 2,400 pounds of textiles, 58 pounds of ink cartridges and 12 mattresses.

In the coming year, the EAC will complete its second inventory of greenhouse gas emissions for Bloomington-Normal. The inventory will address emissions and sources from Bloomington-Normal in 2015 as compared to a baseline study conducted in 2008. 

“The greenhouse gas emissions tie into climate change, but also there are air quality issues,” Brown said. “There are National Ambient Air Quality Standards, such as ozone and air pollutants. Urban areas need to watch these because once you reach a level of non-attainment you will have ramifications for public health issues.”  

In addition to monitoring air quality, the EAC also keeps tabs on the health and safety of our water. The EAC hosts multiple educational programs geared toward preserving clean water for McLean County. The Sugar Creek Stewards, a volunteer group charged with preserving Sugar Creek, practice storm water management and study the positive impact of native plants on the creek's health.

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EAC Director Michael Brown lends a hand with the Sugar Creek Stewards program.

The Yard Smart program aims to educate community members on the importance of reducing synthetic pesticide use, conserving natural resources and preserving wildlife habitats. Residents can practice water conservation through the use of EAC-provided 55-gallon or 275- gallon rain barrels.

Another big EAC initiative is the BN Energy Bright program, which is designed to increase the energy efficiency of homes and businesses in Bloomington-Normal. The EAC provides educational information, professional low-cost energy audits and personalized audit reports. Since the program started the EAC has audited 204 residents and 13 small businesses.

The intention of the program is to reduce the overall energy demand of the community, BN Energy Bright Coordinator and EAC Assistant Director Larissa Armstrong said.

“One of the easiest ways to save energy is to install LED lamps or light bulb fixtures. I recommend that people, rather than go out and totally replace all of their lights at once, prioritize their high-use lights. Then you can gradually end up with LED in the entire house.”

In congruence with the BN Energy Bright Program, the EAC partners with the Midwest Renewable Energy Association to offer bulk-purchasing of solar panels for McLean County. The Solar Bloomington-Normal program helped residents install solar panels from April through September 2016. The pricing secured through the partnership allowed residents to save 15-20% compared to the cost of purchasing solar panels on their own, Armstrong said.

In 2016, the EAC helped increase the solar capacity of McLean County by 432 kWh with new solar arrays at 29 homes and businesses. Solar Bloomington-Normal is set for a second round of solar purchasing beginning April 2018. The EAC's 2018 goal is 600 kWh of new installation.

“People get really excited about it,” Armstrong said.  “If they come to the Power Hour presentations there is no obligation there. It’s just an opportunity for people to come and learn [about solar energy].”  

Being a non-profit organization, the EAC continued success depends largely on the community's contributions of volunteer hours and financial gifts, Brown said. Residents can sign up on the EAC website to make a donation, volunteer, and receive notifications for upcoming events.