When Paul Gardner saw thousands of plastic bottles and cardboard boxes being tossed in the garbage at a community festival seven years ago, he took it upon himself to organize an ambitious recycling operation for the following year, and last fall he rode his recycling expertise to the Minnesota House of Representatives.
His opponent, one of the most fiscally conservative members of the legislature and anything but an environmental champion, was a heavy favorite, having defeated Gardner in 2004. But Gardner "organized like crazy, worked smart, and outhustled" the 16-year incumbent, winning by 51 votes.
Starting in 1997, Gardner spent nine years as Executive Director of the Recycling Association of Minnesota, and served as well on the Shoreview Environmental Quality Committee in that suburb of Minneapolis/St. Paul. His work caught the eye of Minnesota Sierra Club organizer Margaret Levin, who in 2005 enlisted Gardner to help organize a Green Community Campaign in Shoreview, going door-to-door to sign people up for green power.
Gardner's approach to environmental policy was shaped by a 1989 college semester in Moscow, where he witnessed horrendous environmental problems. "Environmental regulations were poorly enforced, and there was virtually no citizen participation," he says. "Those four months turned me into an avowed capitalist."
Gardner says being someplace where the government "owned everything and valued nothing" motivated him to find ways to use market forces to heal the environment. "If you can get consumers to vote with their feet, it makes the job so much easier." He cites responsible investing and the enormous growth in organic foods that has captured the interest of mainstream grocery chains.
In the Minnesota House, the 39-year-old Gardner serves on the Environment and Natural Resource & Energy Committees. In his first committee meeting, he introduced himself by talking proudly about his Sierra Club work in Shoreview. He has already co-authored a bill to establish a statewide 25 percent renewable portfolio standard for electricity, which became law in February.
Gardner says it helps to have a niche in the legislature. "As soon as I got here, colleagues began coming up to me and saying, 'I want to do something in this area—what can we do?' I explain how recycling has done well in Minnesota, and why. I talk about past efforts in electronic waste recycling so we can pass an e-waste recycling bill this year without having to reinvent the wheel."
He encourages his colleagues to do better in their own building by using energy-efficient light bulbs, printing double-sided copies, and using recycled paper. "We can link all these things to energy conservation and climate change and save money in the process. Legislators in both parties like that!"
Photos used with permission.