If there is a mythical superhighway to sustainability, Mesa has been driving around on side streets, wondering how to find an on-ramp – and being frustrated by the detours thrown up by a recycling crisis.
But now the city is in the early stages of creating a climate action plan – what some call “a road map to sustainability.”
At a study session last month, Mesa City Council charged Environmental and Sustainability Director Scott Bouchie to begin crafting a climate action plan.
That makes perfect sense to Tempe Sustainability Director Braden Kay.
“Mesa’s really at the heart of what the sustainable East Valley can be,” Kay said.
Mesa is hardly alone in not having a formal climate plan, Kay said. Tempe was the first Valley city to come up with a climate action plan, and is in the process of revising and expanding the plan Kay helped create in 2019.
“The advice I’ve been giving to Mesa about a climate action plan is it’s about meeting residents where they already are. I’ve been contacted by youth and nonprofit organizations in Mesa about building a cleaner economy.”
“Local governments need to join the movement that already exists in their cities. Mesa’s a perfect example of that,” Kay said.
“Sustainability” is a broad concept covering everything from solar power, which Mesa is basking in, to recycling, a recurring roadblock for the city.
Mesa lacks an all-encompassing plan to reduce its carbon footprint, though Bouchie said the city has been making strides in conservation and alternative energy.
Though the city has a sustainability committee, new Councilwoman Julie Spilsbury said she had not yet attended a meeting.
Records show the Sustainability and Transportation Committee has not met since Sept. 23, 2019.
At that meeting, Energy Resources Program Manager Anthony Cadorin reported an even split in an online survey, with half of the city’s customers not willing to pay more for renewable energy and half willing to shell out more money for alternate sources.
Cadorin also noted rooftop solar now generates 980 kilowatts in Mesa.
And, according to Cadorin, from July 2009 to July 2010, the electric bill for all of Mesa’s customers was $16.5 million. A decade later, through “increasing competition and reducing costs with innovative ideas,” Mesa electric users paid $11.6 million, a 25 percent decrease.
At the Feb. 18 study session, Bouchie gave an update on the city’s “solar portfolio.”
“Over the last 12 years, we increased to 6.5 megawatts power solar. That accounts for about 12 percent of our retail power,” he said, referring to city operations only.
“There are plans in place of more solar being added,” he noted.
“Mesa does not have a climate action plan,” Bouchie noted, before showing a slide showing several cities that have plans: Phoenix, Tempe, Salt Lake City and Houston.
Mayor John Giles said he would like to add Mesa to that list.
“I would like to see us adopt a formal climate action plan,” Giles said. “I have been asked by organizations … to what extent we’re making progress in terms of climate emissions. A lot of big organizations and cites we admire are adopting goals to get to 2050 carbon neutrality.
“What are some tangible things we can do to get on the path to carbon neutrality?”
When Giles asked council members for their thoughts on a climate plan, several supported the idea.
“It’s our responsibility,” said Councilwoman Jen Duff. “We should establish what our goals are … And then do annual reviews to see how much progress we’ve made.”
Giles then directed Bouchie to “proceed with a formal climate action plan,” which will be brought back to council for approval.
Like many other American cities, Mesa has been scrambling to figure out recycling since 2018, when China banned imports of mixed paper and plastic.
Last year, Mesa suspended its recycling program for six months before resuming recycling pick up in October.
But many of the items Mesa residents put in recycling bins for pickup end up in landfill dumps.
Mesa’s recycling is also still reeling from a fire that burned down a Republic Services recycling facility in 2019 and companies either cancelled contracts or raised rates.
A contract with United Fibers remains in effect, but the contractor will only accept up to six tons of materials. Mesa generates more than 30 tons, leaving a shortfall until Republic rebuilds their plant by the third quarter of 2021.
Giles told the Tribune getting rid of recycling is not on the table.
“I don’t think that’s an option,” he said. “When you talk to young people, the priorities people place are on being respectful of our planet. To me, I don’t see the public giving us a pass on not figuring this out.
“People who live in Mesa expect us to figure out how to have a sustainable recycling program.”
He stressed Mesa is far from alone: “There’s not a city that has got this figured out because China, who used to buy our plastic and glass, is not doing that anymore. So we have to figure out a way around it.”
He said the city is considering building its own recycling facility or partnering Phoenix and other cities.
Giles stressed recycling is just one part of what can be called Mesa’s green puzzle: “The broader topic is sustainability and what goals the city can or should make when it comes to using renewable resources, carbon emissions, where we fit on the global effort … I personally would like to see us set some thoughtful but aspirational goals.”
Giles said the key for him is to not just set goals but show how they can be achieved.
“I don’t want to have an aspirational goal that doesn’t have an explainable path.”
Bouchie, Mesa’s environmental management and sustainability director since 2015, said his department is up to the challenge.
“We’re excited to get to work on this and take the city of Mesa’s sustainability to the next level,” he said, noting the city is already doing multiple things that contribute to sustainability, even without a plan. “This is not the beginning of our sustainability program.
“I think we’re doing the right things, but we haven’t had it under the umbrella of a climate action plan.”
Bouchie confirmed that Mesa is spending around $1 million a year on recycling, even though “a large portion” of potentially recyclable material is going to landfills, due to the lingering aftermath of the recycling plant fire.
But, he added, even with a solution to Mesa’s recycling crisis,
“We’re not going to be able to recycle our way out of this,” he said. “The mentality of single-use items is going to have to change. It’s reduce, reuse, recycle – in that order.”
Mesa, he noted, has been part of a sustainability cities network for more than a decade.
“We’re chatting with other cities and learning from their processes,” Bouchie said.
While Mesa is behind the curve on recycling, it is far ahead of many other cities on solar power.
“When it comes to solar I think we’re doing a good job,” Bouchie said.
He noted a huge advantage is “us owning our own electric company.”
Tempe’s Kay acknowledged that unique strategic positioning: “Mesa having its own electric company is a huge opportunity.”
Bouchie noted Mesa’s electric generation is relatively small, covering about 5 square miles downtown. SRP provides energy to the vast majority of Mesa.
“They’ve been a fantastic partner with renewable energy,” Bouchie said.
The Zero Energy Project website lists scores of cities that have climate action plans, ranging from Amesville, Ohio, population 154, to Chicago, population 27 million. According to zeroenergyproject.org, 38 cities with populations of at least 500,000 have climate plans. Mesa estimates its population is 518,000.
Bisbee, Flagstaff, Phoenix and Tucson join Tempe as the only Arizona cities with climate action plans.
Anna Mohr-Almeida – an 18-year-old Arizona State University freshman who was a member of Westwood High School’s Earth Club and the Sierra Club and started a Kids Climate Action Network – said she is looking forward to her hometown getting on board.
“I really want to see Mesa and the region invest in climate action: transportation like bus rapid transit and streetcar, energy like the Mesa (electric) utility investing in solar and resilience to extreme heat by investing in urban forestry, green infrastructure and neighborhood projects,” she said.
After lobbying council members to support a climate action plan, “Our next step as of now is we are planning to go into the Mesa City Council meetings to speak on a climate action plan. Our job is to keep pushing for this plan and that’s what we’ll do.”