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A Conversation With ... Errin Kemper

Director of Environmental Services, City of Springfield

Posted online

How has the coronavirus pandemic affected the environment?
Most of the measures that we use to gauge success are related directly to our facilities. We’re always monitoring the quality of the treated wastewater that we put back into the stream. And a lot of that hasn’t been impacted by COVID-19. We’re still producing the same high-quality effluents from a wastewater treatment plant. We’re still doing all the same things on a land disturbance site to control erosion from occurring and dumping into the stream. When you look at the status of the environment, you tend to look at things over a longer period of time and see which way things are trending. It’s a little bit hard to tell from a very kind of nerdy, scientific perspective. But if you step back, we’ve seen a whole lot more people that are spending time outdoors and maybe finding a new appreciation for the natural environment.

What about the impact of businesses being closed and employees working from home?
We track wastewater use across the community. Overall, it’s probably about what you would expect during COVID-19. You’ve seen slightly less wastewater production from the commercial sector, especially with so many restaurants and bars being closed, and then it appears that there’s a slight increase in overall water usage on the residential sector. During the height of the pandemic shutdown, traffic volume in Springfield looks to about being cut in half. That means half as much fuel usage.

As companies are reworking policies, what are some changes businesses should consider to reduce their footprint?
COVID-19 has had the effect of slowing things down for a lot of people. That’s going to give us a great opportunity to be a little more mindful of how we can impact the environment. A lot of how we’re going to move the needle in environmental protection comes down to the individual actions of everybody here. As people are slowing down and they’re doing things like spending more time in their yard, this is a great opportunity to begin the habit of composting your organic waste rather than sending it to the landfill. It would also be a good time as you’re doing your landscaping to build a rain garden, to try to capture runoff from pollutants before they get down into the stream. As businesses are building back up, one of the things that adds resiliency to a business is to build in some of those sustainable practices that save money over the long haul. One thing that would help both save costs for a business and contribute to environmental protection is to look at ways to increase materials that they’re recycling – if you’re a restaurant and you have a way to separate out some of your compostable waste. Also, one of the big issues is making sure that we put the right things down the drain. The sewer utilities spend tens of thousands of dollars a year chasing the backups that occur because of things like fats, oils and greases that get put down the drain. If we’re going to throw less dishes away, the grease we washed off of those dishes needs to get captured in an appropriate grease removal device so that it doesn’t go down the sewer system, clog up a pipe and cause that wastewater to run out of a manhole and into a creek.

Pre-coronavirus, there was a renewed push for reducing the use of single-use plastic and recycling. With the health concerns surrounding COVID-19 causing food and beverage establishments to hit pause, is it going to take time to build that up again?
We do a lot of talking in environmental services about building the recycling habit – once you get into the swing of it. The big fear is, well, what happens when you stop? Will they maintain those habits when that becomes an option again? Early on in the COVID-19 crisis, we closed all of our recycling sites for obvious reasons. Of all the things that we got public comment on in terms of services here at the city of Springfield, that was one of the top ones. I’m happy to say that when we opened those sites back up, we got an enormous flood of recyclable materials. We’re seeing more business in our recycling sites today than we were seeing pre-COVID-19. I hope that that’s a sign that the recycling habit has sustained through all of this and maybe has even increased a little bit.

Errin Kemper can be reached at ekemper@springfieldmo.gov.

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