St. Patrick Loves a Sustainable Parade

Monday, March 9, 2009

As the patron saint of all things verdant, it should be no surprise that St. Patrick's eyes would smile at the thought of a truly green – or sustainable – parade in his honor.

Professor of Biology Michael (Patrick) McCann, Ph.D., associate dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Saint Joseph's University in Philadelphia, urges organizers of the world's St. Patrick's Day parades to consider the three Rs – reduce, reuse and recycle – when planning their celebrations.

McCann, who is also chair of the University's sustainability committee, says there are steps that parade organizers can take to make the festivities eco-friendly. He suggests that organizers assess the environmental costs associated with the parade – in terms of materials, energy and waste generated – in the same way that they would think about use of their financial resources.

"If there are floats, of what are they made?" he asks. "Are they fabricated from materials bought locally – like sustainably harvested wood – or do the plastic shamrocks and paper streamers come from China, which means an outlay of energy to get the goods here? Can the materials they use be successfully recycled?"

St. Patrick's Day parades wouldn't be very Irish without marching bands and bagpipe players performing "The Wearing of the Green" and other rousing favorites. But how sustainable is that tradition?

McCann says that marching bands have a head start on sustainability in that organizations probably reuse uniforms and instruments. But does this hold true if the bands are brought in from across the country?

It is a matter of perspective and balance, according to McCann. "The impact of 30 high school students driving by bus to participate in a parade are minimal compared to the impact of constructing a massive float that will be used once and then discarded to linger in a landfill."

The most recent U.S. Census reports that 36 million Americans claim Irish ancestry. If even a small percentage of them – and their friends who become honorary descendents of the emerald isle for that day – walk or take public transportation to and from the parade, McCann says these modes of transport make sense from both an environmental perspective and convenience.

Finally, McCann advises bringing drinking water in reusable plastic bottles to the parade, and if bringing a lunch, make a sandwich – perhaps on Irish soda bread – and carry it in a bag made of post-consumer materials, instead of toting the popular pre-packaged meals of crackers, cheese and lunch meat.

"Pre-packaged foods are incredibly wasteful," he says. "They are made with materials that cannot be reused or recycled. For instance, juice boxes are almost impossible to recycle, because they contain a mixture of paper, aluminum foil and plastic."

McCann is convinced that taking small, sustainable steps every day will bring great rewards. "It's like rain drops," he says. "Each one is little and insignificant in itself, but put enough of them together, and it's hard not to notice."

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