Angela McDowell likes to talk trash… and recycling.
As UTMB’s sustainability coordinator, she’s passionate about promoting environmentally conscious attitudes and planet-friendly habits across the institution. It’s an ambitious endeavor, but she’s up to the challenge.
“We all carry a carbon footprint,” she says, noting several statistics. “The average American uses about the equivalent of one 100-foot-tall Douglas fir tree in paper and wood products each year. And last year, the average American used 167 disposable water bottles, but only recycled 38.
We need to be mindful of that and always ask ourselves, ‘What can we do here at UTMB to be a part of the solution?’”
It’s only fitting that I meet up with McDowell during UTMB’s 26th annual Earth Day celebration in April, outside the Moody Medical Library on the Galveston Campus. The annual festival was started by Ken Steblein, a UTMB employee who lost his battle with cancer two years ago. For McDowell, the event is more than just a one-day celebration, it is a call to action—to encourage people to live by the “Three R’s” (reduce, reuse and recycle) while honoring the legacy of Steblein.
“Ken started the event in 1992 with only a couple of tables in the main hallway of the John Sealy Towers—and it just grew from there,” she says. “This year, we have 26 vendors, more than 80 volunteers and 60 kids visiting from local schools—it’s fantastic.”
McDowell joined UTMB in 2017, and this was her first time in charge of coordinating the popular event, with the help of a steering committee. It’s hard to keep up with her, as she energetically bounces from one vendor booth to the next, checking in with people and ensuring the program runs smoothly. She says “thank you” to several volunteers who are running the “office supply swap shop.” Then, she begins lining up a group of people next to a repurposed carpet “runway” for the “Recycle in Style” fashion show. A large crowd gathers in the plaza to watch.
“Each year, UTMB employees showcase their outfits made from recycled and reusable products like duct tape, bottle tabs and compact discs,” explains McDowell. “The fashion show is always a big hit and a great reminder of how we can repurpose everyday materials in creative ways.”
After the winner of the fashion show is announced—this year the crowd favorite was the “King and Queen of Hearts,” aka Tami Divine, an acquisition specialist at UTMB, and a colleague’s grandson, who wore elaborate outfits made out of old playing cards—the event starts to wrap up. McDowell says the five months of planning was well worth it, as it’s been a successful event and an opportunity to highlight sustainability initiatives at UTMB and throughout the community.
“Angela has really jumped in with both feet and taken control of our Earth Day event and recycling initiatives across UTMB’s campuses and clinics,” said Neal Cooper, UTMB’s sustainability director. “She’s already taken the lead role in promoting the use of blue bags for recycling, using less paper through double-sided printing and implementing water bottle refill stations. I’m really proud of her and the hard work that she does every day—and I’m excited to see where she takes UTMB’s recycling program.”
McDowell, who has a background in environmental compliance, says while her job is challenging, it’s even more rewarding. This year was the first time UTMB finished No. 1 in cardboard recycling and No. 2 in paper recycling in the RecycleMania competition, which pits hundreds of colleges and universities across the country in a head-to-head contest to see who can recycle the most. However, McDowell doesn’t like to take the credit for UTMB’s success, instead pointing to dedicated employees who incorporate sustainability into their everyday work.
“Our employees have shown they care about recycling and reducing our waste stream not just during the competition, but throughout the year,” said McDowell. “Just within the last five years, we have gone from a recycling rate of 36 percent to nearly 42 percent, which is phenomenal. We have also seen a reduction in our total waste stream, which means people are reducing the amount of waste they produce on the front end—that also sends a very good message!”
When she’s not making presentations to departments about sustainability initiatives or explaining how blue bags work—you can actually put cans, plastics, Styrofoam, toner and cardboard in them, as well—she’s on the lookout for new opportunities to recycle or reduce waste. She recently worked with the Student Government Association to implement more than a dozen water bottle refill stations on the Galveston Campus and is looking into securing grant money to do the same on the League City and Angleton Danbury campuses. McDowell also is currently working with UTMB Correctional Managed Care to determine the feasibility of starting a pill bottle recycling program at its central pharmacy in Huntsville.
“It’s a large, busy pharmacy and unregulated pill bottles that need to be discarded are being thrown in the trash,” she says. “So why not take this opportunity to see if we can start recycling now?”
No visit with McDowell would be complete without a trip to UTMB’s Recycling Center, where all recyclable items are taken to be processed and sorted. Blue bags fill the warehouse and McDowell explains how the process works as two employees stand next to a conveyor belt. They dump the paper contents of a blue bag on a table, picking out any non-recyclable items. Any paper that is deemed recyclable travels up the belt to be shredded, bailed and loaded onto a truck to Houston. Outside the warehouse, bails of cardboard are stacked and ready to be picked up by an 18-wheeler.
“This is where a lot of the action happens,” she says, pointing to the operations supervisor and a worker with Republic Services, a partnering environmental services contractor. “These employees help make my job easier.”
Of course, McDowell takes her passion for recycling home from work, as well. You won’t see her using a plastic water bottles and she makes sure her family recycles whatever they can’t reduce—she keeps four large bins in her laundry room.
“If you can’t tell by now, I’m pretty energetic about ‘green’ living and practicing it every day—at work and at home,” she says. “I’m grateful to work at an institution that has the same values and encourages sustainable practices on a much wider scale.”