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Cooking Oil to Community

Jenny Ammon | February 9, 2023

It was a cool, overcast, drizzly, January holiday morning; a holiday celebrating a historical and monumental human who stood up for what was right at every chance. Dr. Martin Luther King Junior day fell on this foggy Monday and with this observance came the privilege of a day off for me to spend with family. I finished the last toasty sips of coffee in my Midwest Girl mug and placed the used coffee grounds into the compost container.  Through the kitchen window I saw that the drizzle had subsided. Miss Mickey, our black lab, gave a wanting look at the leash, at me, and then back to the leash: a not-so-subtle nudge to get moving and get outside for our morning walk.

Miss Mickey’s eagerness to smell the scents of those critters that had come before her was palpable. We worked together to attach her leash and grab the pet waste bags to accompany us on our adventure.

Miss Mickey the black lab on a walk, posing by a stormdrain with a bit of debris and litter on the grates.

Our first turn out of our street leads up a small hill then down a steep hill to a local city park, where she happily smelled all the grass, sidewalks, kiosk posts, and humans while we enjoyed a break in the wet weather. In our next hill climb out of the park into an established quiet neighborhood I couldn’t help but notice how noiseless everything seemed. It was as if these folks might be on their first cup of joe versus their last cup. Nonetheless, as we turned right and up a slight incline I saw an older woman bent down on the side of the street. When I first saw her my instinct was to think, “She must have dropped something in the street and is retrieving it.” I continued to watch as my pup and I made our way along the sidewalk. A car approached from the opposite direction and the woman quickly moved off the street to the other sidewalk as the car passed. She then moved back to same spot and bent over again. Just then another car approached, so she responded by moving back on the sidewalk. 

At this point, I was within 20 feet of her and could see her move back to her bent over position. Now I could determine that she didn’t need help picking dropped items up: she was pouring something down a storm drain. My instant internal reaction was, “What in the world is she doing?!?” So, without filter or hesitation, I questioned “What are you pouring down the drain?” She nonchalantly responded with “Cooking oil.”

I have to break in the story to tell you that two years ago I would have walked right on by after checking to see if the woman bent over in the street needed help with the imagined dropped items due to my complete lack of knowledge about the direct relationship between the health of our waterways and storm drains. I would not have questioned what she was doing because I did not see or feel how important our everyday actions are to the ecosystem we are part of. Ok, back to the story.

After her response, I could not help but ask with some passion and assertiveness, “Do you know where that drain goes?! It drains to our local stream and then to the Willamette River, completely untreated.” She responded, with passion equal to my own, “Well, it is just oil and it is just me doing this, it won’t hurt anything!” I felt my jaw drop in utter disbelief.

I was surprised that I responded as directly as I did, without a plan of action, no thought to ways the interaction could have gone south or ways to less passionately and more eloquently explain why dumping cooking oil was bad and she really was hurting something, cooking oil can prevent oxygen from entering the surface water and can create oxygen demand which consumes dissolved oxygen that fish and aquatic life depend on. I was beyond dumbfounded to hear her say she wasn’t hurting anything.  I had no more words as this point so Mickey, my lab, and I kept moving forward.  With each step I took I moved through several emotions. First, I was stupefied, I could not believe I witnessed that. Then I was angry to think that this likely happens FAR more than I realized. Finally, I felt rage to think that a majority of people do not think they are harming anything when they dump grease, oil, chemicals, who knows what! down the storm drain I also experienced despair for a few days (ok it was close to a week) until I landed on the emotion of inspiration. 

What if instead of responding with anger I would have taken time to connect with the woman and ask her what she cared about? Maybe I could have helped her see the linkages between ecosystem health and the things she cared about. Perhaps an approach like this would have enabled her to comprehend that what she does matters; her actions do have impacts. What if instead of passionately accusing “What are you dumping?!?” What if I had gently asked if she knew how to better dispose of oil? I could easily have told her to “pour used oil and grease into a container that gets hauled to the landfill, because the storm drains empty directly to our local stream and Willamette River?”

I spent the majority of that day and the rest of the week calculating…if even half the population is doing what I witnessed on a semi-regular basis then I have a lot of education work to do! This acknowledgement felt like a heavy weight to carry as my role is to foster connection with the environment to inspire stewardship of it. The ultimate processing connection materialized for me when I was re-reading some of Dr. King’s philosophies.

Dr. King imagined a different future for America in relationship to discrimination. He believed in the “beloved community,” which required a shift in human understanding, looking beyond external differences to the union of all humankind, finding ways to resolve grievances without animosity, allowing us to all move forward together. This is where my focus should be, in the assumption that we all have room to learn and grow…together. 

Our natural environment is a thermometer for our society in that, the more we connect and care for it; the more ability we have to connect and care for each other. My hope is that with education and connection we can sustain each other and the natural systems that support us.

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About the Author

headshot of Jenny smiling and wearing a green vest.

About the Author

Jenny Ammon
Environmental Education Coordinator

I became a Natural Resource Educator because I have witnessed the power of teaching adults and youth about local natural resources.  The connections provided during outdoor conservation education are cross-curricular and build a scaffolding for higher level thinking.  It is a blessing to work in a field I am passionate about on a daily basis. I am currently working for the City of Keizer as the Environmental Education and Outreach Coordinator where I have the opportunity to connect the community with their water resources, inspire awareness with the goal of driving action of protecting/improving water resources.

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