Every evening when the sun goes down, a timer automatically clicks on atop the building at 2175 K St. NW, connecting to a nearby spotlight which then roars to life, illuminating the European Union flag that flies from the roof.
This may seem fairly insignificant to most, but for those working at EU Delegation to the U.S. (located at 2175), it is a small action that stands for a larger goal. The timer is powered only by solar energy that it collects during the day, the extent of which it then spends overnight to light up the EU flag.
A goal of pledging sustainability is nothing new to the EU, which recently reconfirmed that it fully intends to uphold its commitment to the Paris Agreement and continue leading the global fight against climate change. But “going green” is a local value as well.
“Ensuring sustainability is in our DNA as citizens of the European Union,” says EU Ambassador to the U.S. David O’Sullivan. “But it is also our duty as residents of the city of Washington and as advocates for a clean planet to promote environmentally conscious solutions in every way we can.”
“That falls to the Delegation,” explains Trevor Howard, Deputy Head of Administration. “The EU’s actions at a macro level pave the way for us to attempt to do the same on a micro-level as well.”
Placing a solar-powered flagpole atop the roof was one of the first of such attempts — and plenty more have followed, including the installation of water heater timers and more efficient light motion sensors that save on energy costs and the formation of an internal “Green Team” that monitors existing achievements, reviews ongoing initiatives, and generates new ideas for sustainability. Such ideas range from simple and effective measures such as lowering and raising office blinds to help with temperature control, to more complex (and exciting) prospects like joining a solar farm later this year as part of a State Department and Washington Gas initiative. As a major tenant of 2175, the Delegation also works closely with the landlord, Deka, who succeeded in earning the building the EPA Energy Star Award to complement its existing LEED Gold Status from the United States Green Building Council.
Recycling is a primary focus of the Delegation. Commercial-standard recycling bins have been installed in every office, public signs urging visitors to recycle have been placed in every conference room, and larger comingled containers that meet DC’s single stream guidelines have been installed on each floor. The Delegation also hosts a biannual e-cycling event where the office recycles out-of-date IT equipment and staff members bring in used old electronics to be repurposed. And, perhaps above all else, the EU has actively partnered with local charities to reuse its old furniture and donate it to those in need:
“In years past, we provided furniture for officials moving to Washington,” explains Sylvia Massa, manager of physical resources for the Delegation. “We ended up with a lot of extra home furniture — beds, dressers, tables, chairs, mattresses…and they were all in great condition.” Seeking a way to not only recycle the furniture but also support local aid organizations, Massa approached KEYS and Changing Perceptions (two DC groups that offer services for the homeless and recently incarcerated, respectively), offering the furniture as a donation. For her, the goal of this initiative was twofold: “First, we wanted to donate these items to people in need right here in DC. Second, we knew that recycling would not only benefit them — it would actually benefit us as well.”
What Massa is getting at is that there is a strong economic case for being environmentally conscious. Whether through small acts like recycling or large initiatives like investing in renewable energy, “going green” isn’t just a smart and ethical decision — it’s a financially beneficial decision as well.
EU Delegation Deputy Chief of Mission (DCM) Caroline Vicini emphasized this point at Green Diplomacy Day last fall. “Sustainable management of resources is not only good for the environment, but good for business and economy,” she said, citing numerous studies that support this statement. “Achieving ambitious EU energy and climate targets by 2030 could add 900,000 jobs and $220 billion to the economy.”
While such numbers speak to a global scale, the efforts of the Delegation prove them to be applicable on a local scale as well; for example, by filling three 53-foot containers with recycled furniture, Massa’s initiative is saving the Delegation 77% of its annual storage costs.
These incentives have not only extended to 2175 K St as a building, but also to those who work there. 15% of the EU staff now bikes or rides electric scooters to work every day, with the Delegation providing Capital Bikeshare passes for getting to meetings around town. Meanwhile, participation in group initiatives is also prevalent; along with the aforementioned “Green Diplomacy Day,” the EU Delegation also joined 12 Embassies and the U.S. Department of State out at Chesapeake Bay on World Environment Day last year, transplanting seaweed that staff members had grown in the office as part of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation initiative.
“Events like these are where we can show that we are taking concrete actions on the ground. Every green step counts — be it at local or global level,” describes Irina Markina, Senior Energy Advisor at the Delegation. “Currently 100% of our energy use is offset with renewable energy credits, but we are trying to take it up a notch. Ultimately, we would like to see the EU Delegation as a carbon-neutral facility, and as a facility that generates renewable electricity on site.”
“Plus, we have plenty more on deck,” adds Research and Innovation Officer Karin Peeters. She’s correct: future plans for the EU Delegation include the installation of solar panels on the building’s roof, an audit of local hotels with a commitment to use only energy-friendly ones for official visits, and more.
For Trevor Howard, it’s all steps down the correct path — but a path that still requires a long way to go. “These are big things and they take time,” he says, “but we are confident moving forward, because we recognize the progress and increasing enthusiasm, interest, and support in our greening mission. It’s in our EU DNA, yes, but it’s in our EU colors as well: blue and yellow…when you merge them together,” he adds with a grin, “you get green!”
Curious for more on how the EU and U.S. work together toward a greener future? Check out our infographic: