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  Sierra Magazine
  September/October 2004
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  ELECTION 2004:
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One Small Step:
Helping Ethnic Eateries Go Green

Ritu Primlani, Oakland, California Executive director, Thimmakka's Resources for Environmental Education,
age 30

interview by Marilyn Berlin Snell

"Restaurants consume more energy per square foot than any other retail space. They use tremendous amounts of water. They are significant polluters of storm water, because of the grease and oil, which can lead to beach closures. And they are one of the greatest generators of solid waste. More than 80 percent of that waste is recyclable.

"Almost all the environmental outreach in the restaurant industry targets businesses where English is the primary language. But ethnic eateries constitute 25 percent of the restaurants in any metropolitan area.

"I walk into a restaurant, ask to speak to the owner, and have 30 seconds to establish credibility. They don't know me but they need to trust me: I'm going to tell them how to run their business, and ask them to show me the chemicals they use and allow me to dive into their dumpsters to inspect their trash! I do an initial assessment and then prepare a list of what they need to do.

"I show them 6 steps to save water, or 12 energy-saving steps. We tie everything down to money, because that makes sense to them. We fundraise so they don't have to pay anything.

"Ninety-six percent of those we approach agree to participate. Of those, 99 percent pass all the inspections and are certified by the Alameda County Green Business Program. We currently have 60 restaurants working with us. Most are in Berkeley and Oakland, but we are starting to expand.

"I named the organization after an untouchable woman in southern India. She wasn't able to have children. Instead, she adopted 284 banyan trees. After 40 years of tending them, she received the Indian prime minister's award for social forestry. She taught me two lessons: You don't have to have a PhD in environmental science to be an environmentalist, and you don't have to be Bill Gates to be able to afford being green."

On The Web: Check out Primlani's site at For a green plan for the food-service industry that focuses on cutting both costs and waste, see; for waste-reduction tips for all businesses, visit

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