DEVENS — Dona Neely is a busy woman.
As the sole employee of the Devens Eco-Efficiency Center, she helps to save the planet from environmental damage while also saving businesses from unnecessary energy costs.
The nonprofit has grown since its inception in 2007, with 16 local business members reaping the benefits of savvy business sustainability through the center’s Eco Star Program. The center offers workshops and roundtables for topics such as compost and environmental health and safety.
“There’s a lot of mentoring that can take place at those roundtables because there’s a comfortableness in sharing your challenges and your success,” said Neely, the DEEC director.
It’s a different sustainability scene than the one she found herself in at Devens years ago.
“It was very hard when I first started because sustainability wasn’t as talked about back then,” she said. “A lot of companies were of the mindset that to be green, there’d be a significant cost associated with that.”
But part of what Neely does — identifying energy-saving techniques, reducing waste disposal, reusing office furniture — can actually end up saving businesses money.
Now, she said, businesses are aware of the cost-saving opportunities of sustainability.
“Each year it gets better because of the familiarity, because of how well the center is established,” she said. “It’s got a story to tell now.”
The center grew from the Eco-Star Program, an initiative originally created in 2005 that aligned with the sustainable development goals of the Devens Reuse Plan. While funded mostly from the Devens Enterprise Commission, the center also operates on money from membership fees and grants. On average, the center’s operating budget is about $90,000 per year, Neely said.
It’s not just Eco-Star members that benefit from the educational opportunities. Local businesses can still sign up for a small registration fee. Last year, 58 businesses benefited from DEEC services, Neely said.
The center’s “Great Exchange” program allows businesses to donate their unwanted items — Neely calls them “treasures” — for others to pick up. The free-for-all contains everything from office chairs to giant plastic bags.
“One business saves on their waste disposal cost, the recipient entity doesn’t have to incur the expense of purchasing the material and we’re making better use of our resources,” she said. “So it’s a win all the way around.”
Neely said one of the most popular items is the large plastic bags that come from Cains, which the company throws away. Now the bags will go to municipalities to be used in recycling programs or as trash bags.
And the demand doesn’t stop there.
“Periodically, the Salvation Army will actually send in a tractor-trailer load and take pallets of these bags away,” she said.
Last year, the exchange repurposed nearly 72 tons of material with an estimated savings of about $30,000.
Neely also spends her time on technical assistance, pinpointing ways that businesses can adapt sustainable practices.
“I’ll tour their facility and help identify opportunities to conserve energy, conserve water, maybe strengthen recycle programs,” she said.
As a one-man band, Neely splits her time between organizing educational roundtables, collecting treasures for the Great Exchange and helping businesses with sustainable development.
But now Neely is crafting a strategic plan to do even more, including an enhanced marketing strategy and partnerships with universities. After receiving approval for an additional $200,000 for the fiscal 2015 budget, the DEEC will have the ability to accrue another valuable resource — another employee.
The initially part-time employee will allow Neely to spread the word about the center even more, she said. The extra money will help expand on the DEEC’s programs, including the roundtables for human-resource professionals and senior executives that Neely envisions.
A future partnership with a university, Neely said, could provide student interns for sustainability projects at different businesses. The interns could research the type of technology appropriate for the project, the return on investment and the overall evaluation process, she said.
“Often businesses are aware of a potential opportunity to do something in a more sustainable fashion, but they just don’t have the time and the resources to really stop and step back and evaluate what would be the return on that type of investment,” she said. “So an intern team can help them do that a little more efficiently.”
Neely said handling the DEEC alone has not been easy, but fortunately, she really enjoys what she does.
“It’s very rewarding when I have the opportunity to work with a business to develop a successful sustainability program that benefits their bottom line,” she said, “as well as protects either ecological or material resources in the long-term.”
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