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Does the Vatican Practice What it Preaches When it Comes to Sustainability?

This is the first of a two-part series which explores the implications of Pope Francis’s recent call to action on global warming and climate change. Read part two here.

Even if you’re not Catholic, news of the recent release of Laudato Si’, Pope Francis’s Encyclical on the Environment, was hard to miss. Political pundits immediately began speculating on its potential to impact global and U.S. policy. The Pope takes on topics that run the gamut from climate change to ocean debris, clean water and energy resources, as well as solid waste management.

The timing of the release, just prior to Francis’ upcoming visit to the U.S., is no accident. The trip includes an address to the United Nations on climate change, a proposed presentation to a joint session of Congress and a visit to Philadelphia for the World Meeting of Families. (What better place to pitch a grassroots message like recycling?) Accordingly, it is also comes as individuals in this country are positioning themselves to be selected as their party’s presidential candidate.

Not being a political prognosticator, I’ll leave odds-making on the Catholic vote to the folks at CNN, Fox News and MSNBC. The Pope’s encyclical does make me wonder about some other things, though, which both directly and indirectly are related to the waste and recycling industry.

In spite of being influenced by a team of advisors made up of 80 of the world’s top scientists, including at least one Nobel laureate, the document is purposefully written in relatively plain language (at least for papal speak).That is to ensure that it touches people personally.

Francis specifically directs individuals to act on issues within their control. He advises us to carpool, recycle and turn out the lights. But let’s not delude ourselves into thinking that the Pope wrote this historic document just to tell us that. No, these are just the warm-up exercises. Once he gets folks to bite, he’s convinced that he can steer them toward his much loftier goals.

But does the Vatican practice what it preaches?

Vatican City faces some unique waste management challenges for a city its size.  Of course, headquartered there is the Roman Catholic Church, which like all bureaucracies, produces and discards an unfathomable amount of printed material. A very small example of the total paper that passes through the complex is the weekly delivery of 30 large mailbags of personal letters addressed to Pope Francis himself.

Then there are the tourists. Waste resulting from the steady flow of visitors typically amounts to 2,100 pounds per day, which can triple during events. That escalates the amount of waste in this little city to almost 2,400 tons per year, or based on the 800 people who currently reside there, 16.43 pounds per person per day. That’s almost four times the U.S. per capita generation rate. 

Although a late-comer to the game by European standards, the Vatican started a formal waste and recycling collection program in 2008, a year before the city of Rome launched a collection program in the nearby Trastevere area. Prior to that, Romans in general simply placed bagged garbage and broken household appliances on the street corners in the hopes that a garbage collector would pick them up. (Talk about having faith in your waste hauler!)

More than 200 drop-off containers for household trash and recyclables were strategically placed throughout the 110-acre Vatican City complex to launch the program. Of those, 42 percent were designated for source-separated paper, and glass, plastic and aluminum containers. No information was available regarding whether these have grown or decreased in number since the program has been in operation.

Because lush gardens and lawns cover more than 50 percent of Vatican City, composting plays a big role in the overall program. This is probably fostered by the fact that the Vatican’s head gardener is also in charge of sanitation. Additional on-call services are provided for bulk waste, white goods, tires, household hazardous waste, outdated pharmaceuticals, fluorescent bulbs and renderings from the butcher shop. Overall, the Vatican’s waste and recycling program includes is a pretty impressive array of services by anybody’s standards.

On the sustainability meter, when it comes to vetting the Vatican’s practices, the reports are favorable. Francis’ predecessor Pope Benedict XVI saw to that. He led the way by installing 2,400 solar panels that power a significant portion of Vatican City. He also replaced the old gas-guzzling Pope-mobile with the now legendary Mercedes hybrid version.

Francis followed suit with the installation of 7,000 LED bulbs in the Sistine Chapel, accompanied by a climate control system that is sensitive to body temperature and movement. At normal intensity, the energy-saving bulbs and the automated cooling system will cut the Vatican’s electricity bill by more than 80 percent. Both also are designed to preserve the priceless works of art housed there.

Rounding out the Vatican’s local sustainability initiatives is Castel Gandolfo, located in nearby Lazio. The operation itself is a tip of the hat to a trend for smaller organic farms and the movement away from large industrial agriculture. Castel Gandolfo is anything but modest, though. It still retains all the lavishness one would expect from a 400-year-old papal palace.

The farm has greenhouses, a herd of 25 pampered dairy cattle who have their own lavender milking room, and chickens that live in coops adorned with majolica tiles. There is even an official papal bee-keeper who, because of the organic nature of the farm, currently participates in a global research project to determine why bee colonies are collapsing. The $330,000 harvest, which includes olive oil made from the olives grown on the property, is delivered for use in the papal kitchen and to be sold to resident’s in the Vatican’s local supermarket.

The evidence seems to confirm that the Pope talks the talk, and that, at least as far as the Vatican is concerned, also walks the proverbial environmental walk. Whether or not he can sway the world of public opinion to recognize global warming and climate change is yet to be seen. We’ll discuss that next time.

Michele Nestor is the President of Nestor Resources Inc., based in the Greater Pittsburgh area, and chair of the board of directors, of the Pennsylvania Recycling Markets Center, Penn State, Harrisburg. She helps private and public sector organizations develop strategic plans to survive in a transitioning marketplace.

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