Itâ€™s not easy being greenâ€¦all the time. Sure, youâ€™re environmentally conscious when you shop for groceries and cook at home â€“ making sure to buy organic, supporting local farmers, buying cage-free eggs. But every once in a while, a gal feels like putting down her re-usable canvas grocery bag, hopping into her Prius, and going out to eat. And who knows whatâ€™s going on behind the scenes at your favorite Thai restaurant or Indian place? Youâ€™d like to think theyâ€™re environmentally friendly, but sometimes itâ€™s hard to focus on that when youâ€™re inhaling yummy bowls of tom kha or chomping on a samosa.
Enter Ritu Primlani of Berkeley, California-based Thimmakka, an organization that helps local ethnic restaurants become green certified with its Certified Green Business Program. Thimmakka gives restaurant owners access to information, assistance with paperwork, and, according to their website, helps by â€œconsolidating and simplifying the guidelines of over 284 environmental agencies. By personally reaching out to businesses in ethnic communities and setting up easy environmental programs for business owners to follow, Thimmakka makes environmentalism convenient.â€
Founded by Primlani in 1998, Thimmakka was named after a South Indian woman whose grassroots environmental activism, in the way of planting banyan trees around her village, slowly attracted national attention. Primlani created the organization when she realized through a conversation with a friend that â€œpeople donâ€™t know the basic things about the environment. People are not taught that when you use this product that the workers are going be exposed to carcinogens, or when you buy this product that it may contain neurotoxins. Thatâ€™s when I decided to start the organization in our backyard, the South Asian community.â€ Her original goal, she says, was to help people see the â€œimmediate effectsâ€ of environmental action, and to provide constructive things they could do to help.
Primlani, who was born and raised in Delhi, says her interest in environmental issues came from a variety of sources. â€œAs a city kid I had no exposure to forests or wildlife,â€ she muses. â€œI just had that love of nature, especially animals, in me.â€ However, days spent reading comic books such as the Amar Chitra Katha series, Tarzan, and The Phantom did play a part. â€œTheir relationship with animals was fascinating,â€ she recalls.
Another major influence was Primlaniâ€™s father, a botanist. â€œI remember he told me, â€˜When you pass by a plant and have negative thoughts in your head, it is negatively affected; if you have a positive thought, they feel it.â€™â€
After leaving India, Primlani received a Masters degree from UCLA in Geography, Urban Planning and Law. Upon moving to the Bay Area about seven years ago, she decided to focus Thimmakkaâ€™s environmental outreach on ethnic restaurants. According to the site, she â€œrecognized the importance of helping restaurants adopt environmentally friendly practices since they consume more resources per square foot than other retail businesses.â€ Though she initially began by focusing on the South Asian community, â€œthat has changed,â€ she says. â€œWe now work with all communities.â€
When Thimmakka began its green business program in 2002, there were only two restaurants in the Bay Area that were green certified. Today, the organization boasts a success rate of 95 percent, with nearly 70 participating restaurants of all flavors â€“ including Indian, Italian, French, Thai, Mexican, Ethiopian, and Vietnamese. The numbers speak for themselves: 19.4 thousand tons of solid waste diverted from landfills; 10.8 million gallons of water saved; 1.3 million dollars saved by participating restaurants â€“ itâ€™s truly incredible.
Accomplishing all this wasnâ€™t always simple. There is, of course, the stereotype that ethnic minorities in the U.S. donâ€™t care about the environment. This is a common misperception, says Primlani, but at Thimmakka, â€œwe believe the opposite is true. Other countries often have a more environmentally friendly lifestyle, but when they come to the U.S. they have no idea how to navigate the system.â€
Take recycling. In India, â€œa guy comes on a bicycle to pick up the recycling and he takes it away.â€ In the U.S. itâ€™s a different story. â€œSome cities have recycling programs, some donâ€™t. You have to call the solid waste department,â€ there is paperwork involved, â€œin some cities it is free, in others you pay for it. How they expect ethnic businesses to navigate this bureaucratic morass I donâ€™t know.â€
Whatâ€™s more, â€œethnic restaurants, being small mom-and-pop businesses generally do not have environmental outreach conducted to them. The government generally sends literature written in PhD level English. When I talk about issues like â€˜safe storm water managementâ€™ â€“ fluent speakers have no idea what Iâ€™m talking about. [For an English learner] itâ€™s not going to make sense. Their method of communication is not designed for their audience.â€
In addition to helping restaurant owners navigate unintelligible legal jargon, Primlani feels that Thimmakkaâ€™s success can be attributed to her organizationâ€™s ability to connect with people on a basic human level, in a way government-based programs canâ€™t. She cites one example of a notoriously reclusive restaurant owner who â€œactually hugs my staff of his own volition. [Government workers] canâ€™t go around hugging people. People ultimately respond to sincerity â€“ you know what youâ€™re talking about, you mean what you say, and foremost that you care for them. Itâ€™s such a privilege to work with these people.â€
Since earning acceptance into the global Ashoka fellowship in 2005, which gives funding and support to social entrepreneurs, Ritu has replicated the program in Miami, and Vancouver, British Columbia, and plans to expand to at least 10 more North American cities by 2010.
â€œEnvironmental concerns are truly global,â€ Primlani states. â€œItâ€™s my staunch belief that if people have not been engaged [in the environmental movement] itâ€™s because we as environmentalists have not done our job. Everyone cares, they just donâ€™t know how to make a change. Itâ€™s not them, itâ€™s us. It is our responsibility to let people know.â€
– Vandana Makker
For more information about Ritu Primlani and Thimmakka, visit thimmakka.org.