As printed in The Marketplace - May/June 2018
Kitchener group helps build more sustainable communities
By Mike Strathdee
Kitchener, ON — Mary Jane Patterson takes a long-term view when she describes the work of the environmental charity that she heads.
“It grows out of caring,” says Patterson, executive director of REEP Green Solutions. “Caring is in our vision. We believe by acting today we can leave our children a community that is more sustainable, vibrant, caring and resilient.”
A Catholic who is active in her local parish, she sees her work as being grounded in an expression of her faith. “There’s a sense of social justice in environmentalism, and recognizing that we have an impact on others in the way we live our lives. That is also faith-based for me.”
Patterson left a career in television production to enrol in a master’s degree in Environment Studies at the University of Waterloo in 1999. The environment faculty was using home energy evaluation software to do residential audits. Patterson was one of two people hired for the Residential Energy Efficiency Project (REEP). Audits cost only $25 back then, but drumming up business wasn’t easy in the early days, even with on-campus acquaintances. “People started ducking when they saw us coming down the hall,” she recalls.
Two years later, she became REEP’s manager, part-time at first. As the organization grew, it moved off campus, incorporated as a non-profit, and a few years later, became a registered charity.
REEP Green Solutions now provides services in many communities adjacent to the region where it was founded. It is one of a score of environmental organizations that are part of Green Communities Canada, a national association of community-based groups working with homeowners, businesses, governments, and communities for a sustainable future.
A nimble, highly entrepreneurial organization, REEP Green Solutions is often exploring new areas to provide service and generate funding for that work. About half of its budget comes from fee-for-service work and contracts with municipalities to provide services such as domestic water-use audits.
In addition to home energy efficiency audits and providing advice about worthwhile improvements, REEP Green Solutions advises homeowners on water conservation, RAIN Smart landscaping to manage runoff, waste reduction and related education around environment issues.
Storm water management is increasingly a concern for cities across North America. U.S. organizations working to educate people about best practices in this area include Blue Thumb in Minnesota, Riversmart Homes in Washington D.C.- Maryland, RainReady in Chicago, and the Watershed Management Group in Phoenix.
REEP Green Solutions operates and maintains the REEP House for Sustainable Living, a century-old property in a Kitchener residential neighborhood that has been upgraded to top level (LEED) energy efficiency. The site is a demonstration property where people can view several types of insulation, ground source heat pumps and other energy efficiency measures. Patterson is pleased with “all the things we show in the house that you can do in your own house (to reduce energy consumption).”
Solar panels, two large rain water cisterns that are used to flush toilets and irrigate plants around the house, and permeable paving are features of the property.
REEP House is also home to tours of school and university groups, as well as lecture series dealing with home energy use, upgrades and a variety of topics related to sustainable living, including green burials and electric vehicles.
The latter speaker series was “the beginning of opening our mind up to a broader vision of what we offer to the community.”
Wanting to reach people who aren’t homeowners, REEP launched a Zero Waste Challenge in 2016. This annual event asks people to try to send less waste to landfill. For five days, participants use a mason jar to hold all home garbage that would be destined for the trash. Refusing or reducing packaging, recycling and composting are all steps toward that goal.
“The more we make requests of our vendors, the closer we will get to zero waste.”
REEP Green Solutions partners with Sustainable Waterloo Region (a group that helps businesses become more energy efficient) and the cities of Kitchener, Waterloo and Cambridge in Ontario in a collaboration known as Climate Action WR. That group will present a plan to area governments this spring on ways to achieve an 80 per cent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions from 2010 levels by 2050. Several other Ontario communities, including Toronto, Hamilton and London, have already set similar targets.
Patterson has seen her organization change and expand in reacting to what people say they need, or what municipalities or utilities are doing that they can support. Some programs have come and gone, including solar assessments, audits of church buildings, and helping rural landowners ensure their wells were being safely maintained (in response to a water contamination crisis in Walkerton, a rural Ontario community.)
New areas of emphasis include green infrastructure, helping people to put native plants in their yards and plant trees. She hopes the program will help people know what species to plant, where to put them and how to keep the trees thriving on their property.
REEP Green Solutions is as much part of a broader movement as it is a purveyor of individual services. Patterson acknowledges that staff efforts are multiplied by the support of a network of engaged volunteers, including the organization’s board, local students and community members. Even REEP’s volunteer co-ordinator is a volunteer. “This is work that is really meaningful to all of us working on it.”
Patterson is encouraged to see senior levels of government paying attention to climate change, “looking it in the eye and figuring out what we have to do.”
At the same time, while senior governments come and go, “the municipal level is where it’s at. This is where the work continues. That is really inspiring to be part of, and to see.” ◆