Making trash bloom with Sari Carp

Sari Carp (Photo courtesy of Sari Carp)

The Shenandoah County Landfill is a dump, quite literally. But where some see trash, Sari Carp saw opportunity.

Carp, 48, is executive director of Sustainability Matters, a nonprofit that promotes environmental conservation and education. Last year, her organization launched “Making Trash Bloom. Volunteers planted native wildflowers on a 20-by-100-foot plot at the landfill in Edinburg, Va., about 100 miles west of Washington.

This pollinator meadow will help support wildlife like bees and butterflies. The plan is to eventually expand it up to five acres and do similar plantings at other landfills.

Environmental work is good work, she believes. But whether she’s talking about a field of colorful wildflowers, making aliyah or bringing her brood of feral Israeli cats to the Virginia countryside, Carp remains a professor of behavioral finance: detail oriented, pragmatic, dispassionate.

“[Moving to Israel], as a Jew, was something I was interested in and cared about for a long time,” Carp said. Israel also happened to be the center for research in behavioral decision making, which is the broader field Carp’s work fell under.

She moved to Israel in 2006 and became a dual citizen. Gradually she got tired of office work. She said most of her time was spent staring at a computer screen and with little human interaction. And she spent years working on a research paper, only for its impact to be “fairly limited.”

“I decided that I did not want to be spending the rest of my life in academia,” Carp said. “I wanted more access to nature, and to the outdoors and to be able to garden.”

In 2013, she moved to Edinburg and did consulting work online. Five years later, she and her friends started hosting conservation educational events.

“We thought that this was going to be a fun little volunteer activity,” Carp said. “And it became apparent within the first few months of starting that it had taken over my life.”

The project became Sustainability Matters and Carp became sole staffer. It’s a 100-hour-a-week job. She teaches workshops, applies for grants and does Sustainability’s marketing. “Making Trash Bloom” was her idea.

The nonprofit is hosting an Earth Day summit to discuss environmentally friendly business practices. And next month Sustainability Matters will launch its Backyard Food Bank, to teach members of low-income households to grow vegetables.

Then there are those Israeli cats. There are 2 million stray cats in Israel, about one for every four Israelis. Carp started to care for a few of them while teaching at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

“The only way that [these cats] really survive is by individuals taking care of them,” Carp said. “The cats are everywhere, right? They’re clearly skin and bones and you start feeding. And then more cats pass through looking for food, and shelter, and someone to care about them. And that becomes you.”

When she moved to Virginia, Carp brought 15 of her “tribe of Israeli street cats” with her.

“It was quite the project,” Carp said. “And the bureaucracy on the Israeli end was actually worse than the American. You would have thought that they had too few cats and were not to let them leave the country.”

Yet it was a Virginia stray that Carp named the organization’s mascot, or “official spokes-cat.” Found close to the Fourth of July, Carp named him Haym Salomon, after the Jewish Revolutionary War financier.

Carp said she’s more able to see the impact of her work at the nonprofit than in academia. The classes she’s led have resulted in participants planting pollinator meadows on their properties or switching the pesticides they spray to something more eco-friendly.

“This is so much more meaningful than anything else I’ve ever done. I can see the impact on a day-to-day basis, the difference that it’s making in people’s lives,” Carp said. “It sounds really trite to say you’re making a difference. But for me, that’s a huge motivator. I mean, that’s what gets me out of bed.”

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