10 questions with Dona Neeley: ‘I was born interested in the environment’

Dona Neeley
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By Stephanie Michaud

Correspondent

AYER — Fifteen years ago, an inspired and environmentally curious Dona Neely decided to change a major aspect of her life and pursue a career in addressing the environmental crisis. Having obtained a degree in business, Neely knew she wanted to do more than just practice commerce.

She took a risk and decided to return to college to study environmental policy and planning.

Shortly after graduating, she became director of the Devens Eco-Efficiency Center in 2008. The nationally recognized nonprofit organization assists businesses with sustainability initiatives making them more efficient and aware of economic resources. Neely reflects on how her decision contributed to running the successful organization.

Q: When did you first become interested in the environment?

A: I was born interested in the environment; I’ve always been kind of a tree hugger at heart. I made the decision to leave the high-tech sector to pursue a master’s degree at Tufts in environmental policy and planning. …we were becoming such a throwaway society. I wanted to pursue ways to apply my businesses experience and help industries make better use of their recourses.

Q: When did you first come up with the idea to create Devens Eco-Efficiency Center and how did you go about it?

A: When I first started at Devens 11 years ago, I was finishing up my degree at Tufts and I heard a presentation on a voluntary stewardship program that was being developed specifically for businesses within Devens to promote sustainable development practices. It, Ecostar, sounded like the ideal opportunity for me.

I started with just the voluntarily program for three years and over that time there was a growing interest among the businesses so it was the ideal time to take things to the next level; 2007 began the transition from just one program to a whole nonprofit entity that would provide a broader variety of programs and services to the business community as well as to the nonprofit organizations such as local schools and food pantries.

Q: What does a typical day for you look like?

A: What I love about my job is that there is no typical day. Some days are dedicated to either organizing or hosting educational forums. Other days I am going on site into businesses to do a walk through review where I get an understanding of what types of activities take place in their operation and then provide them with some insights about sustainability and the economic benefits from those sustainable practices.

Q: Have you ever had a business not take your sustainable advice?

A: I am very careful to present opportunities that will help them become more successful in managing that business. It’s not the matter of putting the environment first but how becoming better environmentally aware they can become a more sustainable business.

Q: What is your greatest accomplishment in environmental practices?

A: Creating the center is really my greatest accomplishment because the programs and services that the center provides help businesses learn about the opportunities and strategies to operate more sustainably and with economic efficiency. The majority of the businesses in this area are small to medium so they don’t necessarily have the internal recourses focused on these types of issues. These programs have helped more than 70 businesses operate more sustainably which makes me feel good and that I am making a difference.

Q: So what exactly is the importance of recycling?

A: The majority of our resources are limited and it’s really important that we maximize their value and keep them in circulation for as long as possible.

Q: Where do you find the commitment and passion to promote what can be a controversial topic?

A: There is a much better understanding today of the benefits of being a more responsible entity.

Q: When do you feel the environmental crisis originally began and have we passed the tipping point?

A: I would say that alarms started to ring 20 years ago particularly when we had the launch of earth day and we had new clean water regulations. I think those milestones started to get businesses to pay more attention to their operation practices. As far as the tipping point, I don’t think we’ve passed it but I think we are at an exciting turning point where it’s more common for a business to look at an environmental regulation or realize that it’s something that won’t cost them money but actually save them money.

Q: Fill in the blank: One daily thing anyone can do to improve the environment is _____?

A: Think about how they can make better use of the materials that they are using either at home or at their work environment. How can you reduce the amount of waste that you are generating? Can you use it longer or more efficiently or pass it on to someone else when you’re done with it?

Q: If you could control one thing to aid in the environmental crisis, what would it be?

A: I would get a stronger voice to better communicate how valuable our recourses are to inspire everyone to appreciate them more.

For information on the Devens Eco-Efficiency Center, visit http://www.ecostardevens.com/.