Local Environmentalist Targets Ethnic Restaurants

Friday August 08, 2003

Ritu Primlani has a simple message: Environmentalism isn’t just for rich, white people with fancy degrees. 

“You don’t have to have a Ph.D. in environmental science,” said Primlani, a North Oakland environmental activist. “And you don’t need to be Bill Gates to afford it.” 

For the past year-and-a-half, the straight-talking, 30 year-old native of Delhi, India has been putting her philosophy to work. In just 17 months, Primlani, president and executive director of an Oakland-based nonprofit called Thimmakka’s Resources for Environmental Education, has knocked down language and cultural barriers at 44 family-owned ethnic restaurants in Berkeley, Oakland and San Jose and put all of them on the road to environmental responsibility. 

Twenty-three of the restaurants, including 12 in Berkeley, are officially “certified green businesses” and the rest are on their way. 

Primlani, working with a host of non-profits, utilities and other agencies, has installed hundreds of low-energy light bulbs at the restaurants, diverted tons of solid waste to recycling and composting and blocked a deluge of soaps and cooking oils from pouring down street sewer drains and into the ocean.  

In the meantime, the activist, who has won an award from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for her work, has saved the restaurant owners a bundle of cash on electricity builds and trash removal. 

“I talk to them about what every businessperson talks about—money,” said Primlani this week over an Ethiopian lunch at Cafe Colucci on Telegraph Avenue. “Saving the environment becomes incidental and not the primary interest at all.” 

According to Primlani’s own projections, the first 30 restaurants she helped to change will save more than $1 million over the course of five years. 

Those restaurants will also redirect 1,710 tons of solid waste (or, as she pointed out, the equivalent of 518 Asian elephants) to recycling and composting and conserve 5.2 million gallons of water—enough to fill a bathtub for every resident of Berkeley, according to Primlani. 

Chintala Reddy, owner of Kamal Palace Indian Cuisine on Allston Way in Berkeley, is a believer. He said he has saved $200 to $300 per month on electricity and about $1,000 total on garbage removal since he went green about a year ago. 

Reddy said the economic incentives and the environmental benefits of what Primlani calls her “Greening Ethnic Restaurants” program convinced him to make the shift. But it was the diligence of Primlani and her cast of experts and volunteers, from city of Berkeley employees to student interns, that made the change happen, he said.  

“They come here more often than I do,” he joked. “They did an excellent job.” 

Reddy, who speaks English and the Indian languages of Hindi and Telugu, said Primlani also made a difference by using volunteers who spoke Punjabi, the Indian language of his wait staff. 

“If someone can explain to them what is the advantage—in their native tongue—it sinks in,” he said. 

Primlani said cultural sensitivity is a key to the success of her program. She makes an effort to greet restaurant owners in their own languages, learn the correct pronunciation of their names and tap volunteers who know the culture and native tongue of the workers. 

“She’s very friendly,” said Senne Belete, owner of Das Cafe on Milvia Street, a small shop that sells bagels and falafel sandwiches. “She’s like family.” 

But some of Primlani’s work, she said, is translating environmental lingo that no restaurateur, regardless of language and culture, seems to understand. 

“If you say ‘stormwater management’ to someone who is fluent in English, they don’t know what the hell you’re talking about,” she said. 

Primlani uses a simpler, more evocative term—“the ocean sewer”—to explain to restaurant owners that they should wash their rugs far from the sewer drains on the street, preventing soaps from pouring into the Bay. 

Jennifer Cogley, eco-business coordinator for the city of Berkeley, said Primlani’s work has been vital in getting a total of 27 Berkeley businesses—from restaurants to auto repair shops—certified by the Bay Area Green Business Program. 

The figure places Berkeley firmly in the lead among cities in the six Bay Area counties that participate in the program. Oakland is second with 17 businesses. 

Cogley said Primlani, who works 80 to 100 hours per week, is a dedicated activist who has proven that environmental progress and economic development can go hand in hand. 

“The debate has always been either-or. Either you can make environmental gains or you can have economic improvement,” Cogley said. “She really collapses that paradigm.” 

Primlani, who emigrated to the United States nine years ago and earned a combined masters degree in geography, urban planning and law at UCLA, said she has targeted restaurants because they gobble up food, electricity, water and resources at prodigious rates and because they are very public, accountable places—drawing thousands of customers per year who can flex their economic muscle to demand environmentally-friendly business practices. 

Primlani also sees restaurants as a powerful way to reach ethnic Americans. 

“Where do they congregate? Where do they gather?,” she asked. “If you’re religious, you go to church. But everyone goes to restaurants.” 

Primlani said she hopes “green business” stickers in restaurant windows and brochures on tables will get immigrants from Thailand, India, Ethiopia and elsewhere, who frequent their favorite local haunts, to talk more about environmentalism. 

“Most of them have environmentally-friendly lifestyles, but they gave them up to embrace the American, disposable lifestyle,” she said. 

In the end, she said, people, no matter what their language or culture, need to protect a planet that nourishes them. 

“We have a saying in my language: ‘You don’t make a hole in the plate you eat on.’”