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Marin County, California: Setting an Example for Sustainable City Planning

Marin Independent Journal


Marin's sustainability coordinator leads by example By Rick Polito IJ reporter Saturday, April 16, 2005 - Dawn Weisz doesn't live in a treehouse. She doesn't weave her own hemp clothes on a backyard loom or bathe her children in carefully collected rainwater.

She lives like any other mom, just a little greener.

Weisz coordinates Marin County's sustainability team, a position in the planning department that is part of refocusing the county's environmental policies and shaping a sustainable future for Marin. But she still lives like any other mom.

Just a little greener.

"My children give me a passion for my work," Weisz says of her 4-year-old son and 1-year-old daughter.

Her work coordinating a staff of in the county's planning department is central to Weisz's life philosophy. Born in Kenya to activist parents - "My parents were in the Peace Corps avoiding the draft," she says - Weisz has been concerned about the environment since she was a teenager. She started a recycling club with a trailer and set of secondhand bins when she was a student at the University of Northern California. "The year I graduated, the city took over the program." She was director of the Environmental Forum when she was studying at the University of California at Los Angeles.

But it's not just her life philosophy. It's her life at home.

She uses washable rags instead of paper towels. She buys her clothes and toys for her children at thrift stores to reduce the need for new goods. "They're all hand-me-downs and second use," she says.

She buys organic foods from local growers.

She rigs a trailer and a child's seat to her bike to get to the grocery store and other errands. Her kitchen table was made from wood recovered from benches from a horse track. The Marin Sanitary Services rates her as an "intensive recycler," allowing her a garbage can half the size of the compost bin. Her kids eat organic raisins out of bowls made of recycled plastic.

And she uses cloth diapers, washing them in a water-miser front-loading washing machine and drying them on the clothesline. Her daughter Hannah is the fifth child to cycle through the same set of white cloth diapers. "These diapers came from a friend who raised three children in them," Weisz says. It's all part of "treading lightly on the planet."

It's not so difficult, Weisz says. She has built it into her life. Weisz and her husband, Tripp Brown, live just blocks from a community gardening "farm." "Walking to the farm and getting vegetables doesn't take any longer than jumping into my car to drive to Safeway," she says. She telecommutes to her county job most days. "This is my office right here in the hallway." Living greener is possible, she says.

And you don't even have to do all of it.

"Do what you can, when you can," Weisz says.

Too many people are intimidated by the idea that living green is an all-or-nothing proposition. Being more environmentally conscious around the house is always a work in progress.

Weisz and her family moved into their San Anselmo home a year ago. They still have a lawn. "That's my shame," she says. "We haven't gotten around to doing anything about it."

But they do have water-saving drip irrigation, and time the watering cycle to reduce evaporation and waste.

Weisz and her husband have two cars and the kid factor keeps her from biking into the office like she used to.

But her husband still bicycles to work at Industrial Light and Magic when he can. Weisz is committed to "at least three car-free days a week."

The redwood trees that shade her house make solar panels impractical, but she uses fluorescent bulbs and low-energy lighting.

It's all a work in progress.

And everything is progress, she would say. It all adds up. The adage that "all politics is local" is even more true with the environment. All environmentalism is local. Weisz works in local government because she thinks she can have the most impact there. The county has a green-building program now. Her sustainability team has certified 86 businesses as "green." The choices people make here in their daily lives impact the world they experience on a daily basis.

Those choices can make changes.

"If everybody bought local organic food," Weisz says, "that would drive the market."

The 35-year-old mother doesn't set herself up as an arbiter of all things green. She's not applying for sainthood. "There are days when the vegetables don't make it into the compost pile if the kids are falling apart and I have to make it to a meeting," she says. She lives by example. She doesn't preach. She doesn't bore her friends with tips and nagging.

"If they come here they might see a different way of doing things," Weisz says.

But it's a different way that doesn't look all that different.

Weisz doesn't live in a treehouse. She lives in a suburban neighborhood on a quiet street. The diapers on the clothes line and a smaller trash can might be the only visible sign that a deeply ingrained environmental ethic is at work.

Dawn Weisz lives like any other mom, just a little greener.


The four members of the Marin County's "sustainability team" are bringing it home. They live what they preach, each in their own way.

Sustainability coordinator Dawn Weisz breaks down her routine below. Also, we asked Weisz's three teammates to tell us: 1) two things that they do at home and 2) two things they wish more people would try.

Dawn Weisz, sustainability coordinator

- Appliances: electric mower; Energy Star-rated front-loading washer and dryer (energy- and water-efficient); bagless vacuum cleaner.

- Floors: no carpeting in living areas except for wool rugs (healthier for kids).

- Cleaning: uses rags instead of disposable paper towels; cloth napkins instead of paper; non-toxic, biodegradable dish soap, laundry detergent and stain remover; paper products (toilet paper, tissue) recycled and non-bleached.

- Children: cloth diapers, air-dried when not raining; uses water and washable cloths instead of "baby wipes" for cleaning bottoms; 90 percent of toys and clothes are hand-me-downs or secondhand; teaches her children about the cycles of the Earth, growing food and caring for the Earth.

- Food: buys organic fruits, vegetables and other products; purchases other foods in bulk to eliminate packaging; belongs to Community Supported Agriculture and walks to neighborhood farm for eggs, vegetables, flowers, etc.; buys milk in glass returnable bottles to eliminate waste; grows fruits and vegetables at home with no pesticides; uses reusable water, drink and lunch containers and utensils for school/work meals.

- General home: kitchen table made from second-use wood; chooses home furnishings for durability and low or no toxicity materials from sustainable practice manufacturers.

- Outdoor: uses no pesticides or herbicides in yard/garden; uses drip irrigation; waters in in evening to reduce evaporative water loss.

- Transportation: minimizes automobile use; telecommutes to work two days a week; bikes or walks to shopping, parks, hiking and other services; buys locally produced products when possible to minimize fuel used for shipping.

- Waste: applied for "intensive recycler" status to use smaller garbage bin (and pay less); minimizes packaging on products; composts food waste; avoids disposable items; donates or gives away unneeded or outgrown items, clothes and toys; avoids disposable plates, cups and napkins when entertaining, using washable items instead; uses toothbrush with replaceable head.

Dana Armanino, green business coordinator

1. Armanino doesn't just turn the thermostat down. She turns it off.
Armanino says she stays warm enough and cool enough with a combination of sweaters and heavy blankets in the winter and strategic fan placement and open windows in the summer. "I've never actually had to use my air conditioning," says Armanino, who admits to turning on the heat when she has guests at her Corte Madera townhouse.

But even when she turns it on, she pegs the thermostat at 65 degrees.

2. There are "one or two" incandescent bulbs in Armanino's home, but their days are numbered. When they burn out, they will be replaced with compact flourescents bulbs. It's an easy fix but it's a big one. Flourescents use a fraction of the energy.

Sam Ruark, green building coordinator

1. Ruark uses natural, nontoxic cleaning and toiletry products. He believes everything from toilet cleaners to dish soap affects the environment, the environment right in our homes. "Indoor air quality can be 10 times or 100 times worse than Los Angeles on the smoggiest days," Ruark says.

2. Ruark busy only organic produce and foods and thinks everybody else could, especially in Marin where it's easy to find. Organic food helps minimize "the environmental degradation from industrial agriculture" and it's good for you too, says Ruark who sets an example by "going into the farmers market in my biodiesel car."

Gwen Johnson, solar project coordinator

1. Johnson doesn't just walk the talk. She drives it. Johnson has a VW Golf than runs on biodiesel fuel - "a domestic renewable fuel source," she says. And with the approach of the $3-per-gallon barrier on gas, it does something even more green. "It gets 50 mpg," Johnson says.

2. Johnson lives on a boat off Sausalito. She has made certain adjustments but at least one of them more people could make. She uses an "on-demand" water heater. Instead of keeping a tank of water hot 24 hours a day, the unit heats the water almost instantaneously and uses less energy.

Rick Polito can be reached at