Profile – Gregg Kresge – Small Steps Towards Big Change

Small Steps Towards Big Change: An Interview with Gregg Kresge

“As educators, we have to take small steps in order to make big changes,” says Gregg Kresge, the man responsible for implementing the plastic bag ban passed by the Maui County Council. Gregg has pretty strong opinions on the state of the environment and the depletion of the planet’s resources. But he can also back up his talk with years working in the environmental field, from hazardous waste clean-up to assessing the cause and effect between pollution and increased incidences of cancer.

“Our behavior affects the global community. Kids will be burdened with depleted resources. They many not have some of the things we take for granted,” says Gregg. Looking for an example, he focuses on the recent oil spill in the Gulf. “People were outraged about the oil spill, but oil dependence hasn’t lessened any.” Gregg believes we need to get back in touch with the basic processes of where our goods come from, how they are manufactured and what resources it takes to get them to us. Living amongst the most remote population on earth, environmental impact and carbon footprint takes on a whole new meaning when you have to pay to have goods shipped to Hawaii. Gregg believes in focusing on the locally grown goods and figuring out how to work sustainably with what you have.

The ordinance to pass a ban on single-use plastic bags was approved two years ago. It went into effect in January of this year and the complaints haven’t stopped yet. “The biggest problem is people don’t want to give up their conveniences. They don’t realize that their disposable goods are polluting the environment, the air and the water. We need to change people’s perceptions about where things come from and where things go. People need to realize that the state of our world is each individual person’s responsibility,” says Gregg. “Most consumers are far removed from the process. For example with beef, we don’t see the animals, how they are raised, we don’t see their slaughter, so it doesn’t affect us. We don’t see the conditions these animals have to live in, or how their conditions can pollute water and use precious resources. So it’s easy to demand cheaper beef. Americans don’t want to pay a lot of money for what they purchase, so they buy products made in China but get upset when there aren’t enough jobs in America. Our buying decisions need to be based on more than price and convenience. If the air cost money to breathe, we would be much more likely to not only demand clean air, but to do something to keep it clean. The air and water have no value attached to them because we assume they are limitless, but there is a limit and we may be nearing it. Clean water is running out. And while we have systems for treating wastewater so we can reuse it, the system isn’t flawless. Pharmaceuticals, like birth control, leave traces in the water we drink. There are chemicals we can’t clean out of the water without great expenditure, processing and an increased carbon footprint.”

So how do we start to make a change? There are three criteria Gregg weighs everything against, without which change will fail.  Each step has to be:
•    Feasible
•    Reasonable
•    Attainable

With these three criteria in mind, small change can eventually add up to big changes. The plastic bag ban, for example came as a result of a tree near the municipal landfill. This tree with its thorny branches would catch plastic bags in it and became a symbol for the pollution bags can cause as well as how far they can travel.

Plastic bags are a blight on the environment, desecrating natural beauty. They can harm marine life and birds. Thinking plastic bags are food, marine life and other aquatic species try to feed on them and can either get sick or can get tangled in them. It’s not that they aren’t pretty,; they can cause serious damage. Even bags that claim to be recyclable often need to be composted at high temperatures in order for them to be biodegradable. That most often doesn’t happen naturally.

So far the biggest complaints they have had are on the vendor side. Plastic bags are very cheap and you can store a case or 1,000 in a shoebox. The ban is not a ban on every plastic bag, but on plastic bags that don’t have handles and are not at least 3 mil thick. On the residential side, people use these bags as garbage liners or to pick up animal waste. They complain that the alternatives are unreasonable. Gregg’s response to the complaint that wet foods soaks through paper bags is to use  a reusable and washable bag. Bags without handles are still allowed for produce and raw meat items, but up until 15 – 20 years ago, these plastic bags didn’t even exist. Society got by just fine with paper bags or reusable cloth bags. It’s one of the many indulgences we have in society that aren’t necessary. The harm to the environment greatly outweighs the benefit to society.

And paper bags aren’t the best solution either. Paper mills have a notorious history of polluting waterways and causing harm to the wildlife that depend on those water resources, as well as the communities that live around them.

The good news in Hawaii is that Kauai has also passed a ban on plastic bags and the rest of the state is trying to follow suit. Small steps for big change.

Gregg has moved on from his position as Deputy Director for the Department of Environmental Management. He’s currently working on an MBA in sustainability and getting certified as an LEED Green Associate. But just like Gregg’s philosophy of one step at a time, his background has step by step led him to where he is today.

Gregg was always interested in science. He went to UC Davis originally focusing on chemistry with thoughts of going premed, however he was disillusioned with the impersonal class sizes and the impersonal environment that was created. Late in his second year, he switched his majors to Economics and Communications. His background as a Boy Scout and Eagle Scout taught him at a young age about respect and care of the environment. That was part of their mission and that mission resounded in Gregg’s future.

After college he worked for a marking and labeling company but he wanted a career change. He met his wife Nicole and he later embarked on a Masters Program in Environmental Management. Gregg already had the science foundation so only had to finish an upper division course in environmental chemistry to qualify. During his qualifying course, he took a temp job with an environmental consulting firm to make sure that environmental science was a good fit as a future career. At the end of the job, he made a deal with them that if he got into the graduate program they would put him on projects as an analyst. It happened and they kept their word.

The company Gregg worked with was the one of the biggest consultant companies brought in to clean up Treasure Island in the San Francisco Bay area. Because it was a WWII defense base, it contained all sorts of hazardous materials and wastes like heating oil, jet fuel, diesel, kerosene and other toxins. That was 1992 – 1993. He then went on to work as a hazardous materials inspector in Napa and worked in leaking underground storage tank removals.

From there, life took Gregg and Nicole to Saipan where Gregg got a job as an environmental planner for the Commonwealth of the Northern Marianas government-run utilities (water supply, wastewater treatment and power supply). Gregg also studied resource conservation and did work studying reef and coral health. They lived there for 9 years of which the last few Gregg worked for the Assistant Attorney General’s Office as environmental investigator consultant to determine potential PCB contamination suspected to be the cause of increased cancer rates among local inhabitants. His work resulted in the Commonwealth getting tens of millions of dollars in clean-up money from the federal government. Through examination of historic records the cause of cancer was believed to have been from Villagers, not knowing the toxic effects of oil and other leftover bins of waste, would dump them on the ground and use the bins for BBQs.

Nicole got a job offer in Hawaii and with their two kids growing up, they decided to move in order to provide their kids with better opportunities without giving up the island lifestyle. Soon after moving, Gregg started work as an Assistant Environmental and Natural Resources Manager/Senior Scientist for Parsons on the Kaho’olawe Island Unexploded Ordnance Cleanup Project.

With the real estate market booming, Gregg tried his hand, successfully, at real estate sales, but then ended up once again in the environmental field when he was appointed by the Mayor of the County of Maui to head the Department of Environmental Management.

Gregg has spent his fair share of time talking to school kids, imprinting upon them how much the sustainability of the future will rely on their actions. He tells them our resources are not sustainable at the rate we are using them. “It’s almost as if we need a series of crises to force people to wake up,” says Gregg. “As educators, it’s our job to create small steps for bigger change. Each small change can and will build up to bigger change.”

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