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Mercy Ridge taps residents' life experiences to achieve green status

Residents gather in the main entrance at Mercy Ridge retirement community last week for the center's 10th anniversary celebration. The center has been named a LEEDS-certified community for its environmental features.

Officials at Mercy Ridge said this week that as the center celebrates being the first retirement community in America to meet guidelines for LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) Silver Certification for existing buildings, it's a collaborate honor between administrators and residents.

The designation from the U.S. Green Building Council — being celebrated this week as part of Mercy Ridge's 10th anniversary — is the result of a two-year process that saw the facility institute a new recycling program, establish a green cleaning program that uses organic materials, install Energy Star lighting, improve air quality and make the outdoor areas sustainable and organic.

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But it also tapped a lifetime of knowledge and experience from Mercy Ridge residents, who played an important part in the certification.

"The recycling program was one of the biggest areas they were instrumental in, as the success is directly related to the residents' cooperation," said Gary Pfeifer, director of facility services at Mercy Ridge. "We saw significant modifications in our waste stream based on resident participation."

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No recycling program existed when Bob Gifford, 91, moved to Mercy Ridge from Lutherville almost six years ago. He estimated that 80 percent of Mercy Ridge residents were from Baltimore County, and brought their recycling bins to the curb every week at their old homes.

It was only natural that their new home establish a recycling program, so he and other residents pitched the idea to management.

"Management was supportive of the idea, and the majority of the residents were very quick to get involved," Gifford said.

While complicated at first, the recycling program was made easier by the county's switch to single-stream recycling, which eliminated the need to sort through recyclables.

For many residents, the concept of conservation and recycling stretched farther back than their Baltimore County addresses.

Gifford, who was a child during the Great Depression and served in World War II, said that era helped him learn "that we have to preserve what we've got."

"If we aren't careful to recycle and save energy where we can, we will squander our birthright," Gifford said. "I have grandchildren, and I want to see that they live in a world as good as the one I have enjoyed."

Resident Trixie Nordberg grew up in Europe during WWII, and said conservation was a key part of her family's life.

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"We reused everything," Nordberg said. "Every newspaper became toilet paper, and the little garbage we had was used to feed the pig. Everything had a purpose. Some of us older people are a little more sensitive to it than younger people who aren't used to doing that."

Nordberg, one of the first residents to move into Mercy Ridge, became a master gardener after she retired, and used her knowledge to make the outdoor areas of Mercy Ridge more sustainable.

She and Pfeifer, who work together on the environmental and landscape committee that Nordberg chairs, agreed that only regional plants should be used at Mercy Ridge, even if they aren't as visibly appealing as other plants.

"I've had discussions with residents who wanted dogwoods and azaleas," Nordberg said. "But they're very prone to insects, diseases and need tons of water. We had to discourage that."

The plants at Mercy Ridge don't require much water or pesticide, one step to make the outdoor space more sustainable. In addition, Nordberg said, the committee works closely with landscapers, right down to minor details such as proper grass height.

Gifford said management is taking small initiatives to support the residents' desire to make Mercy Ridge more sustainable while not affecting the quality of life.

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Styrofoam carryout meal containers have been replaced with recyclable plastic. Motion sensors turn off lights in empty rooms and hallways. Instead of using personal vehicles, residents now take a shuttle system.

The results can be measured. Richard Anderson, principal of CQI Associates, the Columbia-based consulting firm that assisted Mercy Ridge with the certification process, said that energy efficiency was improved by 21 percent, water efficiency improved by almost 25 percent, and that 45 percent of all waste is recycled.

But the process isn't over yet.

"They have identified other things they'd like to do in the next three to five years," Anderson said.

"With additional investment and time, it wouldn't be hard for them to re-certify at the Gold level now that they've been through the process," he said. "They've made a lot of progress."


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