Matthew Mehalik used a famous piece of art Wednesday night to sum up the collaborative effect of the Green Workplace Challenge he helped coordinate.
It was appropriate, not just because the competition’s awards ceremony was underway at the Andy Warhol Museum. It symbolized the sometimes small steps participants took to cut energy use, reduce waste and expand environmental awareness.
Like the small dots in Georges Seurat‘s “A Sunday on La Grande Jatte,” those steps, “when people repeat them, it leads to a coherent, bigger picture,” said Mehalik, a program director for challenge organizer Sustainable Pittsburgh.
Much of the evening served as a celebration of steps people and companies and government agencies can take to make the world around them a little nicer. In one year, 50 participants combined to save 18 million kilowatt hours of energy and diverted 436 tons of waste from landfills
The night ended with the naming of the winners of the challenge, including some of the biggest businesses in the area, which earned points over the past year taking those small steps.
Before then, the crowd heard encouraging stories of progress.
Entrepreneur Tom Szaky talked about how he turned a desire among him and some college buddies to find uses for hard-to-recycle waste into the international firm TerraCycle.
Sustainability efforts such as the challenge — which wrapped up its third installment — have “put this area on the map for young people,” said Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald, whose office again took home an award.
There were some discouraging thoughts shared, too, though. Most of them came from Philip Johnson, program director for science and environment at The Heinz Endowments.
The Endowments, a patron of the Green Workplace Challenge, also funds the Breathe Project, a nonprofit devoted to efforts to monitor and reduce air pollution in the region.
Pittsburgh’s air is no doubt cleaner than it once was. But that doesn’t mean it’s actually clean, Johnson said. In fact, it remains among the dirtiest in the nation, he said, in large part because of tiny dots of pollution known as fine particulates coming from industry and vehicles.
It’s striking to consider how much business goes on every day between the sources of that pollution and some of the top finishers in the competition (BNY Mellon, University of Pittsburgh, Allegheny County, etc.).
As for those young people lured to this sustainable region? Johnson said they have been taking to the Breathe Project’s Facebook page to complain about the air and say it’s driving them away.
“Nobody told us the most livable city would smell like metallic sulfur,” Johnson said these young idealists have written.
The disconnect between the picture Johnson presented of the region’s progress in cleaning up its collective act and the larger, celebratory tone of the evening was stark.
Perhaps it shows how trying to paint a true picture of the region’s environmental health, and how both businesses and the nonprofit advocates need to work together, involves a lot of connecting the dots.