Practically speaking, no die-hard environmentalist sees Harrisburg as a marvel of urban sustainability. In late May, only a few weeds peek through the concrete of downtown’s main drag, Cameron Street, a gesture to the vines that climb further and further up the street’s warehouses every year. The downtown’s buildings are dark, brick, and for the most part empty; the air smells fifty years past its prime.
And yet I found myself in Harrisburg on a pretty May morning preparing to perform the most sacred of environmental rituals: recycling. The morning began when my dad peaked his head into my room with a request: help him bring a truckload of empty beer cans, piled in white trash bags behind our family business, down to a metal recycling facility called Consolidated Scrap Resources (CSR) in Harrisburg. “They pay for aluminum,” he tells me, “and you’ll get half the profits.”
And so my Tuesday morning had been filled. Pulling off Cameron Street into a nondescript, flat-roofed warehouse, its windowless brick walls plastered with “WE BUY” signs, I knew we had arrived at CSR. The name “scrap metal yard” hides no secrets—it is a dirt yard strewn with heaps of metal, each bearing its own character. To the right, a modest pile of high-gloss window frames and lawn chairs, in front of me, a dome with fridges, stoves, and the type of bulky microwave in your grandma’s kitchen. A crane pulled a rusted station wagon onto a conveyor belt, dropping it into what the CSR website describes as a “4000 horsepower metal shredder.” Next to the metal piles, the lot’s chain-link fence seemed like an unqualified guard.
It’s impressive, to say the least. I can tell my dad is pleased by my interest—like the rest of my family, he was antsy about me losing my taste for all things not gothic and not ivy-covered when I left for college. He motions to an employee named Paul, who he lovingly refers to as his “contact,” shouting, “Hey, this is my daughter! She’s fascinated by this place!”
It’s true that I was fascinated by CSR, but I was more amazed by how it all seemed too good to be true. From 40 bags of empty beer cans, we made $65. I got half. I felt a bit like Jesus driving down Cameron Street—turning a heap of trash into three crisp $20 bills. That’s the perk of scrap metal recycling. When we left CSR, there was no nagging question of whether our recyclables would actually be recycled, because of course they were—the stakes were clear, as palpable as the crisp bill tucked away in my pocket.
Money is rarely neutral, but the money flowing through CSR seems at least ambivalent towards any greater virtues of recycling. You’d have to think a bit to see CSR as having anything to do with sustainability. It doesn’t announce itself as such, and with the creaky feel of an industrial junkyard it doesn’t look the part either. But that is exactly what makes CSR a good case study for environmentalism—it doesn’t have to market its environmental impact to have an environmental impact and doesn’t need a certain “look” to be an effective facilitator of sustainability.
As I write, I’m sitting on the fifth floor of one of the largest environmental non-profits in the world, housed in a cavernous white complex in the heart of corporate D.C.. It’s only two hours from Harrisburg, but it feels like a different planet. Filled with wildlife posters and compost bins, the office space meticulously coordinates with its world-saving mission, underscoring the fact that “environmental non-profit” hides no more secrets than “metal scrap yard.” My coworkers are Ivy League graduates who spend their weekends gardening and mingling with Nat Geo writers. The people are friendly, dedicated, and passionate; they do good things, at least as far as the annual report is concerned.
Here, money is never neutral. This class of environment organizations has a distinctly ironic component. To whatever extent they can push money towards a certain cause, no matter how many dollars they can charm from millionaires or grants they can secure, there is never enough. My first week, I asked an employee for his best piece of advice; he snickered and said, “Learn how to fundraise.” The financials are both tight and loose, money both abundant and scarce, and as much as the work is about conservation, it is about money—if not how to fund your own work, how to convince the IBMs and Denones of the world to sacrifice some of their profit. At the office, money is the elephant in the room. Where does it come from and is there enough? There’s a feeling that the whole operation walks on shaky stilts.
While they worked to preserve tigers in far-off-mountain ranges, another D.C.-based company had secured a $25-million Environmental Impact Bond to overhaul the city’s water infrastructure. Their green infrastructure installation reduced runoff in the city’s Rock Creek Park by nearly 20%. That’s not to say that either of the two environmental NGOs’ work is innately more important or difficult; we need people advocating for the world’s endangered species just as we need people concerned about urban infrastructure. But there is a difference in posturing and reception: One is a valiant cause “fighting for the longevity of our planet” and one is a construction business.
But does the “look” of sustainability, a glamorous image expressed in the carefully crafted brand of environmental nonprofits, obscure all the unassuming pockets of sustainability? It is easy to forget that environmental action is often dirty, industrial, and unglamorous. Environmental engineers don’t study coral reefs. They study waste-water management, getting cozy with the ins-and-outs of sewage plants in their morning lectures. Somewhat ironically, industry is frequently the answer to industrial pollution.
Environmentalism can’t be a patrician cause contained to the sanctuaries of nonprofits and universities. It must be embedded and automatic, one of those “boring” mechanisms that can fly under the radar like mortgages and savings accounts.
In Central Pennsylvania, there is a distaste for hippies, liberals, and the imposition of anything that could be accused of being “cosmopolitan,” but there is no distaste for practicality or making a few extra bucks. In these spaces, environmentalism is not a show of status and is certainly not a trend.
But it still works. That’s why my dad makes the trek down to CSR to save a few hundred aluminum cans from the dumpster, and why year in, year out, CSR rescues thousands of tons of metal from sitting in landfills. And it’s why, in downtown Harrisburg, an unremarkable warehouse could be a sweet spot of sustainability—you just have to look.