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Hungry to Send a Message, Eco-Friendly Bus Makes Most of Leftovers

December 17, 2009 By:
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Rachel Playe and Pesach Stadlin feel great about what they're doing for the environment.
Penn Valley native Jeremy Stadlin, who often goes by his Hebrew name Pesach, is crisscrossing the country in a school bus that's fueled by vegetable oil, but he's not exactly vegging out.

The 31-year-old, along with four other staff members of the Teva Learning Center -- a New York-based organization devoted to Jewish environmental education -- is hoping their tour raises consciousness about global warming. And what better time to think about using less oil than Chanukah?

They just happen to be getting paid for traversing the nation in a vehicle that at first glance looks like any other school bus, except that it's got the body of a second bus piled on top, upside down, with tires facing toward the sky.

"It's radically different from any other vehicle anyone has ever seen," Stadlin said, reached on the road in Texas. "It's about flipping old paradigms, old ways of being. We have just got used to doing things in certain ways."

The message is simple: People can live without producing inordinate amounts of waste, he contended.

The group is visiting Jewish institutions, along with universities and green festivals across the country, demonstrating the vehicle's grease and composting systems. They're also showing off a bicycle-powered generator, and offering kids and adults practical tips on how they can reduce their carbon footprints. One suggestion: Build a solar-powered oven at home, like the one used aboard the eco-bus.

The two-month-long odyssey had an official send-off in October, complete with a blast of the shofar, outside the United Nations headquarters in New York. The road trip started in earnest in mid-November, when the bus stopped at Ohev Shalom of Bucks County, Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel in Elkins Park and the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Wyncote. The schedule is winding down at the Hazon Food Conference in California.

The trip was designed to coincide not only with the international Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen, but with the Festival of Lights as well.

'A Model of Efficiency'

"That's a model of efficiency -- of resource use -- that is unparalleled," Alexandra Kuperman, assistant director of Teva, said, referring to the oil lamp that lasted for eight days.

To some, it might seem like a minor miracle that they can get from point A to point B in a vehicle that runs on waste discarded by eateries.

Roughly three times a week, they have to refill the yellow apparatus. The five men and women aboard must make a "grease run," where they politely ask a manager or owner if they can tap into the restaurant's drum containing excess vegetable oil, converting waste into gas.

The bus -- which remains idle on Shabbat -- lacks showers. The passengers bathe when they get the chance, often when they are hosted in other peoples' homes or at a Jewish center. Stadlin said that he was thrilled when he had the chance to jump into a hot tub recently at a Jewish community center in Texas.

The bus was originally commissioned by Ben Cohen of Ben & Jerry's ice-cream fame; it has been used to promote a variety of causes over the past decade. Kuperman said it was donated to Teva earlier this year, but needed to be reoutfitted to run on vegetable oil instead of diesel fuel.

Rachel Playe, a 23-year-old Temple graduate, is another participant with Philly ties. A photojournalist, she's documenting the trip on film and video, and helping to maintain its running blog (jclimatebus.wordpress.com).

"I've always been interested in living with the least amount of objects. Living very simply is a very healthy feeling for me," she said.

For Stadlin, the message to young people is not only about the environment, but about the importance of finding a passion: "I only want to be doing things that are really meaningful."

Stadlin -- who said that, as of now, the bus is his permanent address -- acknowledged that his choices have been far from conventional. He's camped out in the Sequoias to prevent the giant trees from being cut down. In Israel, he studied "permaculture," or permanent agriculture, an approach to city planning and agriculture that mimics the ecological balance found in nature.

"I designed a life for my passions," he said, "and it's really scary for some people."

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