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Inaugural parties' theme color: green

Lots of organizations are throwing celebrations Jan. 20 to highlight their pet causes. But the environment will be cleaning up. (No Styrofoam in the House of Representatives.)

January 11, 2009|Richard Simon and Jill Zuckman

WASHINGTON — For the inauguration of a president who promised to be a friend of the environment, what would you expect but carbon-neutral inaugural balls, hybrid Lexuses, organic menus and valet bicycle parking?

Political correctness will rule the day.

Two Green Inaugural Balls are planned, including one featuring a green carpet made from recycled rug. Official invitations to the Jan. 20 inauguration are being printed on recycled paper. The homeless will be handed used furs.

With millions of visitors headed to Washington for President-elect Barack Obama's swearing-in, "our goal is to create an unforgettable evening while treading lightly on the Earth," said Jenna Mack, an organizer of one Green Inaugural Ball -- not to be confused with another Green Inaugural Ball featuring Al Gore.

Correctness will not only be Earth-minded. Nearly every group that promotes a cause is planning an event.

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals plans to give away fur coats to the homeless while offering hot soy-milk cocoa in cups that read: "Thank You for Not Wearing Fur!"

"We expect that the only fur on the streets on Jan 20 will be on homeless people," said Bruce Friedrich, PETA vice president.

The group collected furs from people who didn't want them anymore, and the wraps will be marked with black paint before they are given away so that they cannot be sold.

But the greening of the inauguration is drawing a special effort, because Obama has made green projects a centerpiece of his economic stimulus plan and is expected to highlight the environment in his inaugural address.

"Not only are we committed to holding an inauguration that is the most open and accessible in history," said Linda Douglass, chief spokeswoman for Obama's inaugural committee, "but we are also committed to making sure that it is as environmentally friendly and sustainable as possible."

The Environmental Protection Agency has provided a liaison to the Presidential Inaugural Committee to advise on "best practices" -- a first, Douglas said.

"We're obviously not going to have paper towels in the bathroom," said Shelley Cohen, helping organize the green ball featuring Gore, the ex-vice president who shared a Nobel Peace Prize for efforts in raising awareness about climate change. "We're going to have air dryers."

"Making the inaugural balls as low-energy and low-carbon as possible won't stop global warming, but it is a very important symbol about the direction of the incoming administration," said Dan Weiss, director of climate strategy for the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank.

To reduce the inauguration's carbon footprint, attendees are being encouraged to carpool or ride public transit, even in evening gowns and tuxedos. If they must drive, they are being encouraged to use a hybrid vehicle or purchase carbon offsets.

Organizers of a number of balls plan to use energy-efficient lighting. But no one yet has figured out a way to hook up to a wind turbine exhibit on display near the U.S. Capitol.

Jimmy Carter made an attempt to be eco-friendly during his own inauguration: The White House reviewing stand was supposed to be solar-heated. It did not work out as planned, says Albert Nason, archivist at the Carter Library. Rosalynn Carter wrote: "Though it is supposedly a solar booth, something has happened to the sun this day and the booth's heater doesn't work."

"People have forgotten what a difference presidential leadership can make" in promoting environmental awareness, Weiss said.

Not everyone is buying it, though.

"We've had the Christmas season, and it appears we're entering the silly season, with efforts by many to look as if they're saving the environment when they're really not doing anything but engaging in feel-good politics," said Brian Darling of the conservative Heritage Foundation. "In reality, this whole inaugural is going to have a massive carbon footprint."

Darling expects to see far more gas-guzzling, carbon-emitting SUVs than bikes as people head to inaugural balls.

"If they really want to be environmental, maybe they'll take measures to invite fewer people to Washington," he said, noting the huge carbon footprint that millions of people will leave.

Still, even if it's a practical matter as opposed to an environmental statement, some people plan to rent bicycles and Segways to get around town.

"Part of it really is to help people transport themselves, because the traditional efforts are going to be overwhelmed," said Stephen Marks, owner of Bike & Roll Washington.

"It's just a great way to get around the city. I don't think so much about green."

At Segs in the City, which rents out Segways, a third of the fleet has already been reserved. One business needed a way to make deliveries downtown without using cars, which will be prohibited. Other people need to get to work.

As inaugural organizers try to promote a new sense of green-being, all receptions and catered events in the House of Representatives will feature compostable or biodegradable containers, plates and utensils, many made from corn resin.

All plastics and Styrofoam are banned. Caterers put food scraps, containers and utensils into a "composting stream" for a facility in Maryland, an effort going on for more than a year.

Perry Plumart, deputy director of the Green the Capitol office for the House, says: "It goes from trash to dirt in 90 days."


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