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Spotlight: Think Globally, Act Locally

By Payal Fadnis Email By Payal Fadnis
January 2023
Spotlight: Think Globally, Act Locally

GREEN CELL, a highly successful nonprofit, is an impressive role model demonstrating that each one of us can make a lasting, generational impact on halting and reversing mankind’s nonstop assault on Mother Earth.

 [Left Photo]  © Jacob_09 BK | Dreamstime.com

In just a year, Green Cell, an environmental nonprofit based out of Johns Creek, has served more than 90,000 healthy meals from food that was otherwise destined for landfills. Not only were there fewer hungry people in the city due to their efforts, but this also reduced almost 41,000 pounds of carbon dioxide which would have otherwise been emitted into the atmosphere. In just the last couple of years, Green Cell helped eliminate 100,000 single-serve utensils used in events.

As Indian Americans continue to make an impact in areas of technology, health, education, policy, and more, many from the community are also stepping up to give back to their local communities in their adopted homeland. Started by Sandesh Shinde and Pankaj Rajankar, Green Cell is such a role model of an organization demonstrating that assimilation is a two-way street: even as we wish to be heard and seen in the country, we are also ready to step up and contribute to our communities.


[Top] Mayor of Johns Creek, John Bradberry, recognizing Green Cell for its efforts in the city.

And what better way to contribute then to help towards one of the most pressing crises of our times—climate change and environmental disaster? “My 10-year-old son was a big motivation to get Green Cell started. I realized that the lives of my son and other children his age will be significantly impacted because of climate change, and I wanted to change that story. I could see the big problems all over the planet but did not see real ground-level work happening around us. I decided to tackle that by hands-on collaboration with like-minded people like Pankaj Rajankar,” says Shinde.

Big changes start with small actions

At a time when we are all faced with the dire consequences of climate change and environmental issues, the work of Green Cell is a reminder that big changes start with small actions that involve everyone. What may seem like a drop in the ocean for each of us in isolation may well become the ocean when done collectively. “Our challenge was to get people to start believing that the problem, while daunting, is solvable. As we started communicating with friends, families, and colleagues, it became apparent that people think that this problem is too big and their efforts too small. Spotlight_3_01_23.jpgWe had to lead by example and demonstrate that individual efforts can make a difference. Starting with making our homes zero-waste households to turning vegetarian to growing our own food to going dairy-free, we continued to reduce our own carbon footprint,” says Rajankar.

[Right] Green Cell volunteers collecting recyclables at the Vibha Dream Mile 2021 race.

Generational commitment

Green Cell emphasizes on generational commitment and desire for a better future to motivate. As sustainable practices require a change in long-held habits and letting go of conveniences, the biggest challenge faced by Green Cell has been trying to get people to accept that the most convenient lifestyle options are generally not the best ones for the planet in the long run.

Initially, recruiting volunteers for climate change efforts turned out to be challenging. When the effects are not immediately visible, nor are the consequences, it is easy to lose sight of the goal—a challenge that all environmental organizations face. “We tackled the challenge of abstractness by adding new initiatives like food rescue that have both tangible (helping people in need) and intangible (taking food out of landfills and reducing methane) results. We also started publishing metrics in an easily understandable manner, like saying that your effort is the same as planting 100 trees,” explains Shinde.

Spotlight_4_01_23.jpg[Left] Green Cell volunteers collecting trash for recycling from the adopted section of State Bridge Rd in Johns Creek.

Say the duo, “We host educational sessions on how our guests can make sustainable changes in their lifestyle. We invite domain experts to conduct webinars and in-person sessions. Often, we organize booths at the events we volunteer at.” Even as the pandemic loomed, they continued their work online with over 2000 people attending their sessions in the past three years.

Winning with volunteers

Soon Green Cell was able to mobilize a core group of volunteers. From a handful of volunteers in 2018, they have grown to a group of over 100 volunteers with additional 50 active youth volunteers. Says Rajankar, “Our service offerings have grown significantly and our impact in the community has increased too.” They now have a sister chapter in Charlotte, NC, that they are helping to grow. Although the volunteers are largely of Indian origin so far, they are beginning to attract diverse communities. “Very significantly, almost two third of our volunteers are women. Some are stay-at-home moms with young ones, some are professionals balancing careers and family, and some are empty nesters seeking a sense of purpose and fulfillment,” says he.

A multipronged impact on the environment.

As more people are getting engaged with the organization, they are now running several innovative programs, all geared towards being exemplary stewards of reducing our carbon footprints, saving our natural resources, and overall prevention of the rapid deterioration of our environment.

Utensils loaning: Eliminated over 100,000 single-use items

An interesting initiative by Green Cell has been its utensil loaning program which allows households to borrow various dinnerware items such as plates, bowls, tumblers, etc. for family events. Through this initiative, they aim to reduce the usage of single-use or disposable items. The program has been estimated to have eliminated over 100,000 single-use items and has catered to over 300 events in the past three years.

Green Cell has also partnered with various Indian associations such as the Indian American Cultural Association, the Greater Atlanta Tamil Sangam, and the Maharashtra Mandal of Atlanta for over 40 events to reduce the use of plastic bottles by providing water dispensers. Green Cell is now planning to ramp up to the increasing demand. “We are working on diversifying the items available and implementing non-steel utensils for wider adoption,” says Vijay Desai, a spokesperson for Green Cell.

Food rescueSpotlight_5_01_23.jpg

One of Green Cell’s most notable programs has been its food rescue initiative. Volunteers rescue leftover produce from Indian grocery stores, grains, and non-perishables from Indian temples, and bagels in association with Bagel Rescue to deliver to food banks, ministries, and other food distribution centers in the metro Atlanta area. “Food rescue is a unique opportunity that provides much-needed food security to the most marginalized members of our communities. It also provides both—immediate satisfaction to the volunteers as well as has a significant long-term impact of reducing carbon dioxide emitted by food in landfills,” says Desai.

[Left] Green Cell youth team educating other youth on composting at Autrey Mill Nature Preserve in Johns Creek.

In 2022 alone, the organization is estimated to have served almost 91,000 meals and reduced the equivalent of more than 49,000 pounds of carbon dioxide. The founder of Bagel Rescue, Erin Stieglitz, says, “From strategic planning to meticulous execution, Green Cell has been a tremendous partner in keeping hundreds of thousands of bagels out of landfills to put them to good use in the community.”

Echoes Melody Fortin, the director of the Food Pantry at the North Fulton Community Charities, “I really appreciate this donation from the Indian stores because we have families from India coming into the pantry and being able to offer a variety of fresh items that they are familiar with makes them feel like they are being treated with dignity.” Other organizations, such as Meals By Grace that offers a no-cost meal program, have also benefitted from Green Cell initiatives in this area.

Recycling glass and other hard-to-recycle materials

Many curbside recycling companies no longer accept glass even though it is one of the easiest materials to recycle. Green Cell volunteers have been helping their neighbors by taking their glass items to county recycling centers. Through this program, Green Cell and its volunteers have recycled over two tons of glass per year. They also take items that cannot be recycled curbside, such as Styrofoam packaging, to the Center for Hard to Recycle Materials (ChaRM) in downtown Atlanta. Says Kathy Reed, Executive Director of Keep North Fulton Beautiful, “At a time when waste haulers had just recently announced that they would no longer accept glass in curbside recycling collection, Green Cell sprang into action! They created a grassroots solution that involved their amazing volunteers collecting glass and taking it to local drop-off facilities. Since then, they have become an Adopt-A-Road sponsor, and enthusiastically clean their one-mile stretch of road in Johns Creek.”

Composting service

Green Cell has also taken it upon itself to teach people to compost through webinars and live hands-on demonstrations in neighborhoods. They are now running a Composting Learning Center in partnership with Autrey Mill Nature Preserve in Johns Creek. “Unfortunately, even the most environmentally conscious people tend to thumb their noses, pun intended, at composting. So, we are beta testing a program of community composting where we will compost our neighbors’ refuse for them. This is along the lines of our other community-based services like recycling of glass and other materials.” This is one initiative that has drawn the attention of the Mayor of Johns Creek, John Bradberry, who has applauded the efforts of the organization. According to Dilip Tunki, a member of the Johns Creek Council, the City of Johns Creek is working towards a Green Communities Certification and its sustainability initiatives are simply “complementing what the Green Cell team is already doing.”

Continuing their work, Green Cell has also lent support to local initiatives such as Solarize Forsyth, a program to garner support for solar roof implementation in Forsyth County.

Youth engagementSpotlight_6_01_23.jpg

With over 40 middle and high school volunteers reaching out to a network of more than 500 students, the youth have been an important part of all initiatives including recycling, food rescue, organizing educational events, and other advocacy initiatives. “Our planet’s future is in the hands of our youth. Through our youth program, we want to empower the next generation to come up with innovative solutions to initiate social change. And that’s the amazing bit—all project ideas originate from the kids,” says Ramya Shivkumar. 

[Right] Green Cell’s winter coat collection drive 2020 for Forsyth County Fire Station.

Green Cell is helping schools set up eco clubs and support teachers in introducing environmental challenges in the STEAM curriculum. This includes initiatives like summer camp where kids teach kids about climate change and action, introducing green missions for elementary school kids, youth onboarding and orientation classrooms, kids advocating for ocean climate action, and helping start new eco clubs with hands-on, easy-to-execute tasks. Says Terry Gates of Kiwanis Club of Forsyth County, “As a member of Kiwanis, which focuses on the well-being of children, one thing that stands out about Green Cell, for me, is their engagement with the youth in the community. Their grassroots approach to addressing environmental issues at a local level with individual actions and empowering our youth to participate and lead these efforts really serves as a model for other organizations.”

Says Lavanya Hariharan, a member of the Green Cell Youth Board, “In Green Cell, everyone is given an opportunity to shine during every meeting and event we have. With environmental conservation, this is so important in creating leaders who will create change in their own way in their own communities.” The

same sentiment is echoed by other Youth Board members such as Mahitha Pothuri, Surya Anand, Neha Srinivasa, and Akhila Kothapalli and younger volunteers like Srividya Shivashankar who believe they are more aligned with the environment as well as themselves through their work at Green Cell.

Ken Kirby, a chapter leader of the Citizens Climate Lobby, sums up the impact of this organization well when he says, “Green Cell is the epitome of the phrase ‘think globally and act locally’—this is exactly what they are doing every day.”

Payal Fadnis is a recent graduate of the University of Georgia with degrees in English and anthropology. She is an aspiring researcher and writer who feels passionately about socio-cultural issues.


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