Ritu Primlani and the Green Restaurants Movement
By Gar Smith
October 29, 2004

Ritu Primlani, founder of Thimmakka's Resources and the spirit behind the Green Restaurant movement. CREDIT: Photos courtesy of Thimmakka.org
Ritu Primlane is a bright-eyed whirlwind of mirth and energy. One minute she's talking about watching a swan and mimicking the bird's gait by craning her neck. The next minute, she's telling a joke about an experience she had during one of her rock-climbing expeditions.

Dressed casually, Primlani glides through her sunny Oakland apartment like the dancer she is. Her face breaks into a smile and her voice suddenly lifts into a soaring, plaintive ghazal -- an Indian love song. Primlani eagerly repeats the lyrics in Urdu and then translates the lover's lament into English. "Isn't that wonderful?" she marvels.

"Hey! Would you like to see my new painting?" Jumping up, she throws open the door to a nearby room and points to a bed-sized canvas featuring the image of a seating woman cradling a tiny woman in her cupped hands. The painting includes a fall of leaves that turn out to be the real thing. Primlani recounts how she found these intricate, fragile, vein-laced sketches of once-living leaves at an import store and just knew they belonged in this painting.

Ritu Primlani is not your average Earthling, Primlani is the founding force of the Oakland- and Los Angeles-based environmental group, Thimmakka's Resources for Environmental Education (TREE). She is also the celebrated creator of the Green Restaurants Movement. She's an eco-activist on a spiritual mission to save the Earth, one meal at a time.

The Greening of Grub
The average US restaurant serves 1,200-1,500 customers a week and generates enough waste to swell two 24-foot-long dumpsters with trash and food waste. Another two dumpsters would be needed to haul away the unwaxed cardboard. Finally it would take a 50-gallon barrel to handle the glass bottles and another three-to-four barrels to cart off all the plastic, tin and aluminum.

These waste by-products pollute waterways with oils and grease that can, eventually clog the gills of same ocean fish that could wind up on a restaurant's menu. Paper and Styrofoam can contain chlorinated compounds, petroleum distillates, organochlorines and Dioxin.

Restaurants produce one-fifth of the waste that winds up in California's landfills. It doesn't have to be that way. More than 80 percent of this solid waste can be recovered by recycling or composting.

When Ritu began her campaign, in 2002, there were only two green-certified restaurants in all of California. Today, her organization has managed to shepherd more than 80 restaurants to certification.

The results have surpassed expectations. Restaurant owners report an average 25% reduction in solid wastes, a 15% reduction in water use and a 15% reduction in energy consumption. Every ton of 100 percent post-consumer waste paper used to replace virgin paper products saves 17 trees, 7,000 gallons of water, three cubic yards of landfill, 4,100 kW hours of electricity and eliminates 60 pounds of pollution.

Green Graduation Day
In front of Thai Delight restaurant on Shattuck Avenue in Berkeley, California, I open my car door and owner Tuanchai Supsuwan slips in. She sidles up to next to Samten Chodon, the owner of Café Tibet. Although both women run ethnic restaurants in Berkeley within a few blocks of one another, they have never met. As we barrel north on Shattuck Avenue, they immediately began sharing personal histories and restaurant stories. Both women laugh over the common experience of customers offering advice on how to make their restaurants more successful. "One customer told me I should offer tuna sandwiches," Chodon sighs. "We don't have tuna in Tibet." By the time we reach the top of Solano Avenue, the two women are fast friends.

It is December 17, 2002 and our destination is the Ajanta Indian Restaurant in Albany. It's a special night. Inside, Mary Ortendahl of the Alameda Country Office of Economic Development is waiting to present historic certificates to the owners of California's first "green restaurants."

Primlani has shucked her casual day-time duds and is decked out in the resplendent folds of a sari. With her mid-brow bindi, her bright eyes and white smile, she looks like she's about to break into a Bollywood aria. "This is a huge win for the environment and for these progressive business owners," a beaming Primlani tells the packed roomful of restauranteurs and supporters. "We are excited about the success of our culturally sensitive approach to help these businesses reduce their environmental impact, save money and become environmental leaders in their industry."

GSAR has found and filled a unique niche. After spending a year working closely with more than 20 restaurant owners, 14 had won green certification. The pioneering eateries included some of the most popular dining spots in Berkeley -- Ahlishan, Ajanta, Breads of India, Café Tibet, Papa's Persian Cuisine, Bombay Cuisine, India Chaat and Sweets, Thai Delight, Khana Peena, Kamal Palace, Saika, Razan's Organic Kitchen and the Macrobiotic Café. The graduating class Berkeley ethnic eateries had reduced their waste stream by 83%, reduced water and power consumption and saved more than $29,000 in the process. Half of the restaurants had saved 473,000 gallons of water using GSAR's free water-saving devices. PG&E helped lower the business owner's power needs by providing subsidies to cover 95% of the cost of installing energy efficient lighting and cooking equipment. GSAR had made its mark as the only full service environmental agency devoted to "greening" the restaurant industry.

"I care about the environment," Kamal Palace owner Chintala Reddy declared but he hastened to add that becoming a Green Restaurant also had cost-benefits. "I will be saving upwards of $6,000 a year on my energy bill and more than $1,000 on my garbage pickup fees."

The winners of the first Green South Asian Restaurants certifications celebrate at the Ajunta Restaurant in Albany, California.
Growing Up Green
After leaving a position at the Environmental Defense Fund in Oakland, Primlani was looking for a way to have the greatest possible positive impact on bringing environmental consciousness to the people in the Bay Area's Indian and South Asian communities. She quickly realized that the swiftest pathway to eco-enlightenment ran through the kitchen. She began taking a long look at the local restaurant scene.

TREE's Greening Ethnic Restaurants program began with 44 establishments. Greening South Asian Restaurants (GSAR).has been hailed as "the first environmental outreach program of its kind." Forged alliances with the Alameda County Green Business Program, the Association of Bay Area Governments, PG&E, Cal EPA, the East Bay MUD. Thimmakka also partners with the Indo-American Community Service Center and the Bay Area chapter of the Association for India's Development.

Who Is Thimmakka?
Ritu started Thimmakka's Resources for Environmental Education in 1998 to provide "practical, economically viable environmental solutions for every community, everywhere, regardless of income, color, race, language or culture." In its inception, however, Thimmakka was primarily a South Asian, grassroots nonprofit that catered to the needs of the South Asian community. The mission statement was clearly thinking ahead.

TREE was named to honor Saalumurara Thimmakka, a poor Indian spinster from Kulikal Village in Karnataka. Primlani explains, how this remarkable woman eventually "tired of her neighbors' taunts for being infertile" and decided to "adopt" 284 Banyan trees as her "children." She planted the saplings and tended them day after sweltering day. Today these trees have grown into a small forest stretching 1.57 kilometers and it is the pride of the village. Saalumarara Thimmakka went on to receive the Prime Minister's Award for Social Forestry.

Primlani made a pilgrimage to Thimmakka's home and was greeted "like a daughter. When I left her, it was like leaving my own mother. I was proud to eat off her plate." This last statement is a mark of high honor since Saalumurara Thimmakka is a Dalit and, in the minds of some, an "untouchable."

Speaking Many Tongues
Until GSAR came along, outreach had been conducted only in Spanish and, occasionally, Chinese. With limited budgets and scant language skills, existing agencies were hard-pressed to reach out to ethnic communities. Thimmakka provided a low-cost solution to this long-sought need. A host of volunteer multi-lingual environmental specialists soon fanned out across the Bay Area, raising environmental concerns across a linguistic spectrum that included Afghani, Persian (Farsi), Hindi, Urdu, Punjabi, Nepali, Sinhalese, Telugu, Tamil, Gujarati, Vietnamese, Thai, and Tulu GSAR's coordinators "talk the walk." Amoolya Singh, a PhD candidate in computer sciences at UC Berkeley, speaks five South Asian languages as well as Spanish and English.

As Primlani is quick to point out, small family-owned businesses are inherently "greener" than most operations. They tend to honor cleanliness and economy, use only the best produce and operate with family-scale efficiencies. Even before GSAR's eco-make-over artists get to work, these family owned operations averaged 69 out of 100 points on GSAR's environmental audits.

Still, these small-businesses need incentives to comply. In addition to free resource-pinching technologies and subsidies, GSAR also provides Green Restauranteers with free publicity, websites and even free performances by ethnic arts performers to draw customers through their doors. The artists have ranged from the Chitresh Das Kathak Dance Company and the Kalanjali School of Indian Dance to classical Indian singer Rita Sahai.

Ritu is a prizewinner. In addition to support from the San Francisco Foundation, much of the funding for the work has come from prizes Ritu has won -- including an $165,000 Ashoka Fellowhip and a $10,000 National Volvo for Life Award.

Saving Money while Saving the Environment
CSAR provides less expensive, more environmentally friendly alternatives. Raising funds so that small businesses don't have to worry about being unable to participate in the program. . "What we do is we save restaurants money by saving the environment." By the middle of 2004, GSAR's "greening" makeovers had collectively saved the owners $1.5 million in reduced operating costs.

The most important payback, of course, is the lessened burden on the biosphere. Primlani estimates that, by 2007, GSAR's first 44 restaurants will have saved enough water to top off every bathtub in Berkeley two times over and saved enough electricity to power a typical US home for 98 years. Ritu's most colorful simile holds that, over the next five years, these Green Restaurants will have diverted enough landfill wastes to equal the mass of 516 male elephants.

It costs about $5,000 to audit and transform the average restaurant but the work is provided without cost. GSAR runs interference with various bureaucracies and brings in experts -- from PG&E, EBMUD,: the Smart Lights Program -- right out to the restaurants to work with the owners. Consulting with small restauranteurs in their own languages in their own kitchens is a big part of the program's success. "They can close their eyes and we'll do all the running around," Primlani grins.

There are four areas of compliance: solid waste, water conservation, energy efficiency and pollution prevention and 57 specific measures that can be implemented depending on individual needs.

Once a restaurant completes its certification program, it qualifies to display two logos in its windows. On is the Alameda County Green Business symbol; the second is the Thimmakka Green Restaurant symbol. "We have a very high success rate," Ritu says. "Our recruitment rate is 95% and 99% of the restaurants who join our program get certified green."

A year after founding the program, Ritu was awarded the EPA's Individual Outstanding Environmental Achievement Award. That was followed by an invitation to Sacramento to receive the California Governor's Award. As to the future, Ritu claims: "We aim to green the restaurant industry in the US."

Taking the Green Restaurants Campaign Global
Primlani's perspective is global and not limited to the atypical experience most Americans are born into. "The problem is rooted in first-world consumption patterns," she notes. "Development has been intrinsically tied with conspicuous Western capitalist consumption." Unfortunately, "excessive consumption and highly toxic products" are heavily promoted through dollar-driven media advertising while "environmentally sound products have not been sufficiently introduced into mainstream consumerism."

"ItÂ’s time for us to take care of our mother, the Earth," Primlani insists. She draws inspiration from Margaret Mead's enduring observation: "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful people can change the world. Indeed, it's the only thing that ever has."

Ritu's goal is to "get every single restaurant certified green the US. And the, of course, internationally." And there's no doubt that she intends to keep this promise. As Primlani puts it: "If you gave me an award or hit me over the head, it's the same thing. I'm like an ant, just going and going -- crawling over whatever falls in my path in order to continue my work."

Another version of this article appears in the November issue of Common Ground Magazine (www.commongroundmag.com) for a list of Green Restaurants in the Bay Area, go to www.thimmakka.org.

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