Island could be pioneer in green industry

By Jack Barbash

For The Beachcomber

In response to The Beachcomber’s request for suggestions regarding the need for environmentally sustainable manufacturing, I’d like to revisit an idea I proposed more than two years ago for the creation of a Vashon Ecosystem for Green Industry (VEGI) at the now-vacant K2 facility. I first presented this proposal to the Vashon-Maury Island Community Council (VMICC) Land Use Committee in June 2007 and have discussed it at two subsequent VMICC meetings since then.  

According to the VMICC’s Sustainable Practices Committee, a sustainable community is one that is capable of meeting all of its needs — from food and shelter to fuel and water — in a way that does not compromise the ability of future generations to meet their needs. A truly sustainable community is a three-legged stool that can only stand if these needs are met while maintaining the integrity of the social, economic and ecological systems upon which the community depends.

One critical facet of sustainability that has received limited public attention, however, is the ability to manufacture valuable products in ways that exert minimal adverse impacts on the Earth’s natural ecosystems. Given the recent emphasis on the expansion of green jobs at the national, state and local levels, such an enterprise seems worth considering in our community — especially since we already have the building and infrastructure in place.

The VEGI proposal represents an attempt to outline the contours of such an enterprise. Centered on the K2 site, now called K2 Commons, the VEGI plant would be designed to produce the highest-value products possible from the mix of biomass feedstocks currently available on Vashon. These materials include forestry and other wood wastes, livestock and pet manures, agricultural waste, supermarket produce cuttings, tofu waste and, perhaps someday, sewage sludge (“biosolids”) from Vashon’s wastewater treatment plant and private septic systems. Among the wide variety of products that might be manufactured from some of these materials, high-quality compost appears to be one of the most straightforward and immediate options.

All non-urgent materials transported to and from the VEGI plant — including feedstocks and finished products — would employ horse-drawn wagons, built on Vashon using lumber produced by the Vashon Forest Stewards. These wagons would be designed so that when they weren’t being used by the VEGI facility, they could be converted into taxis an additional source of revenue for the operation.  

Off-Island transport, as well as all heavy machinery operation, would be carried out using biodiesel-powered or electric vehicles and equipment. Transport, use and (if necessary) disposal of toxic materials would be widely publicized in the local newspapers to maximize the transparency of the operation.

Most if not all of the food served within the facility would be provided by local organic farmers from the Vashon Island Growers’ Association. Among other operations, the VEGI plant might also house an industrial-scale kitchen for canning produce grown by Vashon farmers — a facility that many Islanders have been suggesting for years. Because any potential hazards of its manufacturing operations would be minimized, the VEGI facility could still be located adjacent to whatever recreational or other non-industrial activities are currently being considered for the site. (Who knows? Perhaps this might be our chance to finally get a bowling alley back on the Island!)

Another fundamental design objective for the VEGI facility would be the one mentioned earlier — a sustained, ongoing effort to minimize the adverse environmental impacts of every aspect of its design and operation, using the most up-to-date technical and ecological knowledge available.

The overall design of the facility would undergo continual evaluation and evolution through an open-source model, incorporating ongoing input solicited from around the world through the VEGI Web site. Regular updates to the design and operation of the facility would be implemented with input from Vashon College, as an annual project for a course on green chemistry and manufacturing.

As for the current status of the facility, the K2 Commons developers — Dick Sontgerath and Truman O’Brien — have reported that their discussions with K2 Corp. to purchase the site have been on hold for several months pending resolution of a rezone challenge. However, both have expressed interest in the possibility of bringing environmentally sustainable light manufacturing to the site, should their vision for the facility come to fruition.

Since first proposing it, I’ve shared the VEGI proposal with experts in green manufacturing and chemistry in the United States and the United Kingdom — and I’m happy to report that I received one particularly substantive response. Indeed, it came from one of the world’s most informed and influential experts in the field of sustainable manufacturing.

Professor Paul Anastas is about as close to the top of the field of green chemistry as anyone. He practically invented the field. Founder of the Environmental Protection Agency’s Green Chemistry Institute, Anastas is now a chemistry professor and director of the Center for Green Chemistry and Green Engineering at Yale University. Recently, Anastas was nominated by the Obama administration to serve as the head of the EPA’s Office of Research and Development.

“I’ve been involved in setting up green chemistry operations and organizations in 27 countries around the world and honestly, yours is one of the most exciting possibilities I’ve seen in years,” he said in an e-mail to me. “If we do it right and get things off to a good start, I believe this can not only meet the goal of sustainable jobs and innovation, but also serve as a model for so many others.”

Sounds good to me!

— Jack Barbash is a Vashon musician and environmental research chemist.

Find out more

The June 2007 VEGI presentation, an updated version of the original VEGI proposal and a diagram showing the K2 facility and its technical specifications are available online.

Interested in helping to make the VEGI dream a reality? If so, e-mail Jack Barbash at AhimsaFirst@earthlink.net.

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