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Taking Green to New Heights

Rachel Vocaire and the Environmental Affairs team look for new ways to help make United's environmental awareness soar

Author A. AVERYL RE

RACHEL VOCAIRE TAKES the environment seriously. So seriously, in fact, that she pursued a degree in environmental geology from Cleveland’s Case Western Reserve University and spent six years developing decontamination strategies for companies cleaning up decades’ worth of ground and water pollution.

Now, as United’s Manager of Environmental Compliance for the Midwest region, Vocaire approaches pollution from a different angle: preventing it altogether. She oversees a region that includes the Midwest, Canada, Mexico and the Pacific, and works with a team of environmental specialists and coordinators who collectively ensure the airline complies with environmental regulations regarding air quality, spills, waste handling and water issues.

“We use a lot of materials to run an airline — fuels for jets and ground-service equipment, various oils, paints and other chemicals for maintaining aircraft and support equipment — and we have to report to local, state and federal agencies,” Vocaire explains. “It’s a rapidly expanding field. You get your arms around it one day, and the next day there’s something new.”

Vocaire and her team oversee the storing and handling of waste; pollution prevention plans for stormwater; and plans for how to respond to a spill. They also handle recycling, which does not involve government regulation but which Vocaire sees as critical to the company’s environmental responsibility as well as its bottom line.

“Recycling at the airport terminals has proven very effective,” she says. “We made a small change, but it has a huge impact. Think about all the people traveling every day. They produce a lot of waste. I see them looking for ways to recycle. People want to do the right thing.”

And that caring attitude isn’t limited to passengers. “Employees at United care too,” she says. “Being environmentally friendly benefits the planet and our futures, but it’s also cost-effective. If we reduce our fuel burn and improve our fuel efficiency, we save money. It’s an all-around good move.”

Vocaire says United maintains a team of 37 people to oversee environmental issues, plus hundreds of environmental coordinators at United stations, which shows how seriously the company takes its role as an industry leader and even an innovator in keeping our surroundings clean. She also is looking forward to the airline launching Eco-Teams at its hubs on Earth Day, April 22, which will give employees a way to focus on environmental issues not covered by regulations, and provide community-based volunteering opportunities like stream cleanups and tree planting. (To learn more about Eco-Teams and other United initiatives, go to united.com/ecoskies.)

“We have done a lot of work reducing fuel burn, buying newer, fuel-efficient aircraft,  adding winglets, and testing and advancing biofuels. We also started in-flight recycling. We did a big rollout to recycle cans, bottles and newspapers,” Vocaire says. “And the company does a lot behind the scenes — recycling used oil and a whole laundry list of products, as well as finding ways to minimize the materials that we use in the first place. Wherever we can, we reduce our waste and our costs by recycling as much as possible.

“But we can never get complacent. We always have to look at how we can do this better. What’s the next phase? We can celebrate what we’ve set up, but we can’t just settle for the low-hanging fruit.”

The drive to recycle and cut down on waste extends beyond Vocaire’s professional life to her private life, too: She and husband Jay recycle and compost, buy local food and use cloth diapers for their 10-month-old son, Silas (for whom they also make baby food from scratch). “I’ve found that having a child causes me to focus on what I want to pass on,” Vocaire says. “It’s worth it to go through the effort to make the world a little better for my son.”

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