08/16/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

A Kick in the Career: My Interview with Sustainable Dave

Stepping toward green-activist Dave Chameides' front door, I found myself hesitant to even ring the doorbell--it seemed a needless waste of electricity. It is hard not to check in with oneself on such matters after going over the background materials on Sustainable Dave's Web site. That's the online portal through which he gets the word out--about using less and being aware of the impact our role as consumers has on just about everything.

The first thing you notice upon entering Dave's home is that it is dimly-lit, relying only on what sunshine spills through the windows. This guy clearly walks the talk. Chameides has received his share of media attention recently for saving an entire year's worth of his household trash. (Learn more at At the same time, he began vermacomposting (that's right, using live worms to eat through food waste).

One cannot help but form an image of how a guy who saves his garbage might look, but Dave fits none of the stereotypes. He is a lanky, bespectacled everyman without a hint of pretension or self-conscious hippy-dippy flair. (Although I could swear I saw a worm crawl out of his shirtsleeve just before I turned on the tape recorder.) At heart he is an educator. When not giving talks on sustainability, he consults at a local school, where he is spearheading an initiative to eliminate plastic water bottles from the campus. The thing that struck me the most about Dave was not just his sincerity, humanity and commitment to the good fight, but his compassion and willingness to understand that many of us are still behind the curve. Picture Jimmy Stewart playing Gandhi and you're almost there.

In conversation with Mr. Chameides, I was inspired to emulate the man, and felt like I wanted to do everything I could to be socially responsible when it comes to energy. Suddenly, just owning a hybrid vehicle doesn't seem to cut it.

Tom Stern: It's so sophisticated, when you begin to examine the things that you are involved in. Even where there are products made from recycling, often times it's downcycling, when in fact those products have required so much energy to create that they have defeated the entire purpose.

Dave Chameides: Yeah and I mean, downcycling is a great way to put it because [with] plastic water bottles everybody goes, "but they are recycled." I say no, they are not turned into plastic water bottles they are turned in to park benches, that's downcycling. So people say, "so, you think recycling is bad?" And I say, "well, no recycling is not bad, it's just not good." I mean, throwing something out is probably the worst thing you can do. Recycling is maybe a little bit better but not using it in the first place or reusing it is obviously better than that because there is no extra energy [or resources] involved in that

Tom Stern: We are really challenging the industrial revolution. which is in essence the modern world, and it is something we are so proud of. So it's as if a young boy brings to his mom the greatest thing he has ever made and she tells him "this will kill you."

Dave Chameides: Yeah, I mean, that's a very good place to go.

Tom Stern: Maybe it's inaccurate or --

Dave Chameides: No not because it's inaccurate, it's because people have said to me before, "sir, do you think that consumption and capitalism are the evil here?" And I think, they are in one level and I think they aren't on another level. I mean, if you look back to the 1950s and 1940s before credit was available and people made money and then they purchased products and there wasn't this rampant consumption that we have now. Now we are sort of trained at least in Los Angeles, America, in the big cities and what have you that you can have anything you want, you should be able to have anything you feel you desire but there is no ramifications. I mean, even look at the economy that's going on right now, it's basically because people said, well I want a house, it doesn't make a difference if I can afford that.

Tom Stern: That might being a little corny to say, but it's almost a financial ecosystem there. You know you have this chain --

Dave Chameides: Absolutely. And I just think that the ability to go to the store and buy anything you want cheaply without understanding the full cost of it, without understanding what you are causing, I think that's the root of it. I mean, if you go back a thousand years, everything that someone had in their hut, in their house or whatever, cave whatever they lived in, they could pretty much tell you where that came from, what went into it, what they are going to do with it, what was done. They understood the full life cycle of most of the things they owned and they didn't own a lot for a lot of different reasons.

Tom Stern: So how do we navigate a system that is designed to defeat you?

Dave Chameides: I try to break things down in very simple terms. I don't think people want to be part of the problem. I know that they want to be part of solution. So number one to me is education and it's education not in a way of saying, "hey, you are a bad person". It's education in saying, "you may not be aware of what you are a part of, so let me show you some of the facts". And when I speak, I actually always say to people: "and by the way, don't believe me. Feel free to look it up and actually I request you to prove me wrong because I don't want to be right about this stuff and I'm not happy about it."

I wish I was wrong, but you either have to believe me or prove me wrong because once I have put this out there, if you are not comfortable with being part of that system like say plastic water bottles, then you have the responsibility to do something about it. We will just use [plastic water bottles] as an example because a lot of people talk about it. Every plastic water bottle uses a quarter cup of oil to simply create it. For every plastic water bottle, you drink five plastic water bottles worth of water are destroyed in the process of making it. And there is the health aspects of things leaching into my mineral water, and there is the environmental -- I mean three million plastic water bottles go into the landfills in California everyday.

I mean it's astonishing, the numbers. So if I show you all of that and you believe me and you verify [it], then you have a choice to make and if you can say back to me, "you know what, I don't care." Then I can say, "okay, well, then there is a fundamental problem with your thinking, but actually I respect that because you are saying I have assessed it and it doesn't bother me. But most people will say, you know what, I actually don't feel comfortable being a part of that and you've given me another solution.

Tom Stern: You are a very curious guy. How [do you help people] navigate this level of detail and do they become curious?

Dave Chameides: Yeah. I work part-time now at a school where I am the Director of Sustainability. I will tell you, at the end of the year, what that means--because nobody knows yet. But one of the things that we're doing is in the hallway, we are putting up a map by the light switch at school and saying, "do you ever wonder what happens when you turn on the light switch?" So the thing is I think once you connect the dots, people start to think a little bit about it. I mean I have gotten emails...I spoke at a high school [and got a letter] from this girl who said that was the greatest talk I ever heard, and I went home and talked with my parents [about it] and I never do that. And she said, I want to let you know -- I have never slept with my lights off, before in my life. Tonight I turned them off, because I realized that my fear was not as important as the energy that I was wasting. [And I was] in tears, when I read this.

Tom Stern: And are there ways that money can be made, either as an individual like you, or as a corporation, by spreading this kind of information?

Dave Chameides: Yeah. Well, I think there is so much money to be made in "Green" that it's unbelievable. I mean because everybody wants to be green, everybody wants to be part of that. So the question is, is the idea or the concept of the product or whatever you come up with actually something that is good for the environment, or beneficial, or replaces something that was harmful? So I think number one, there has to be so transparency and you need to be honest about that.

Tom Stern: Well, like in your case, have you been able to monetize your efforts? Are you focused on that?

Dave Chameides: A little bit, but to be perfectly honest the fact that I am in a business magazine is kind of shocking because I am not a businessman. I was not designed to want a lot of money and therefore to try to make a lot of money. So I have made some money on this. There is a couple of other things that are pending. I have been offered a lot of things that would have made me a fair amount of money but I just didn't feel comfortable with and I didn't want to be a part of those things.
I am writing a book called "365 Business Solutions" and the truth of the matter is, do I hope that will make me some money? Sure, because then I can give more time to write [my blog]. I am writing it because the idea is no one can do everything, everybody can do something.

Tom Stern: Even if you don't have an MBA and don't think in terms of regression analysis and demographic market penetration, every business person needs to have passion, needs to have a sense of purpose and needs to be able to execute and have the courage to take a chance and you have demonstrated all of those. So I think you are worthy of a business magazine and that's why I am here. So, can corporations, which could be seen [with mass production] as part of the problem, can they be part of the solution?

Dave Chameides: No question they can be part of the solution. I was just talking on the phone the other day with Burt's Bees, it's a company, of course, that makes environmental products, but they are working on a zero waste policy in their plant. They are doing community outreach. Now, Burt's Bees you would expect them to do this. But what if their parent company Clorox started doing that, which is what they talked to me about doing. Well, then suddenly Clorox looks a little better, doesn't it? And maybe they are making a little cleaner product and using less plastic. So I think companies, absolutely, and if nothing else out of pure self-preservation. There is so much waste in the average company as far as energy that's not being reclaimed as far as waste of water, as far as waste of whatever. The school that I am working at and I just started -- in my first day I just took a walk around the school and they have five photocopiers, and it's just a small school, five photocopiers. I went up to them, I said, "Who turns these things off, who comes and turns them on?" "Oh, the guards do." So I went and talked to the guards, I said, "Who does it at the end of the night?" They said, "Oh! It is this [other] guy." So I went and talked to him and I said, "Hey! when you take your round at the end of the night, you turn the copiers off?" And he goes, "No, I don't even know how to turn the copiers off, I just turn the lights off." "And so the copiers are usually on?" He said, "Yeah." So I have this little gizmo that tells me how much energy something is using and I figured out it takes 8 cents an hour to turn on a copier. It doesn't seem like much. So 12 hours a night, five days a week, 24 on the weekends, nine months out of a year, that's $1,200 for those five copiers to be left on. So my first day I said, if you turn the copiers off, you can save $1,200. Now, to a business that's nothing, to a school, $1,200....

Tom Stern: Right. In a tiny school that's a savings, but in a global corporation, you find the same process and that could be $12 million.

Dave Chameides: Yeah. You change one widget you've saved $120,000 in shipping or whatever. So I think just more stringent...looking at all these different areas would be important and [at Burt's Bees] they said, "you know what, if we didn't have someone like you already here, we would hire someone like you."