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Earth Day is over, but in Arlington, being environmentally conscious is a year-round proposition

UPDATED May 16: The Capitol Theatre, in East Arlington, has a historic and successful legacy – and now the almost century-old cinema is looking toward the future with modern developments. 

capitolEarlier this spring, 303 solar panels were installed on the roof of the Capitol, making the building entirely solar-powered. These panels are expected to promote both the theater’s business and environmental protection in town. 

In a recent email to YourArlington, Theater owner Richard Fraiman wrote that the installations started in January 2023, but it wasn’t until March of this year that the theater, at 204 Mass. Ave., became fully powered. 

“The size of The Capitol Theatre building, with its long flat roof, made it the perfect candidate for a substantial solar installation -- significantly larger than you would find on a typical residential rooftop,” wrote Fraiman.

According to Fraiman, whose family has owned the historic theater for more than 50 years, the panels were installed by the Lowell-based company NRGTree. The company optimized the number, array and angle of the panels to maximize the amount of power generated, as the Capitol is not the only cinema benefiting from this green energy.

“We’re generating the equivalent of 100 percent of the Capitol’s electricity needs and then some, allowing us to also reduce our electricity bill at our other historic theater, the Somerville Theatre in Davis Square,” Fraiman wrote. “We are the only movie theater [company] that we know of doing that!”

'A substantial investment'

According to the "News" page of the Capitol’s website, only a handful of cinemas throughout the nation are powered by solar energy. In 2019, the Cinemark Theater industry assembled a roster of roughly 20 solar-equipped theaters across California, New York, New Jersey, Texas and Utah. In 2021, Connecticut joined the list, adding two solar-powered theaters in the state.

The decision for the Capitol to go solar was motivated by both its positive environmental impact in Arlington as well as the financial benefits it would bring the business. According to their owner, the Capitol and Somerville theaters are already seeing their electricity bills reduced.

“Electricity is a big expense, so, by becoming more energy-efficient, we’ve made it possible to re-allocate resources previously needed to pay for electricity,” Fraiman wrote. 

He described this renovation as a “substantial investment" but believes the renovation will pay off itself within four years, according to the website. “We see this as an investment in the future of the Capitol Theatre, so it can continue to be enjoyed by generations to come.” 

'We all need to do our part'

In 2019, The National Theater, a touring theater company that performs for audiences worldwide, declared a climate emergency and set a goal to become a carbon-neutral facility by 2050. According to its website, the worldwide theatrical company acknowledges the harmful impact that the entertainment industry can have on the environment due to its high use of heat, light and sound to produce a “temporary” product, which requires people to travel. 

“We all need to do our part to protect the environment,” Fraiman wrote. 

According to the owner, the solar panels are monitored through an app which tracks their performance both in powering the buildings and pumping clean energy into the environment.

“In the six weeks of being solar-powered, we’ve planted the equivalent of 300 trees, prevented 33,000 pounds of CO2 emissions and produced more than 23,000 kw/h of electricity,” Fraiman wrote. “We get to be stewards of a neighborhood landmark and the environment …. We hope others look at what we’ve done here and consider the possibility of doing the same at their home or business.”

Other solar efforts in Arlington

As it happens, other local agencies, groups and companies now practice "green" policies. According to the town website, six public schools in Arlington have solar panels installed on their roofs. The panels first started producing solar energy in 2015 with the estimate that in 20 years, the emissions of 11,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide would be prevented; this is about the equivalent of eliminating more than 2,300 cars, YourArlington previously reported.

The panels on top of Arlington High School are to be transferred over to the new AHS, as per the town’s net-zero action plan to become carbon neutral by 2050, the new 415,000-square-foot builidng  is to be entirely electric. Town employees at the 2015 Dallin School solar panel installation. 

As of May 21 of this year, the town plans to be enforcing a fossil fuel free bylaw (FFF), which prohibits the installation of fossil fuel infrastructure and equipment in new construction or in major renovations of older properties. 

“This marks an important milestone in the Town’s journey to net zero,” Town Manager Jim Feeney said in a news release. “Community members have been working for years to enable Arlington’s leadership on fossil fuel-free buildings. We are excited that our experience throughout this pilot program will support continued learning across the state and the country.”  

More about carbon neutrality

Those looking to achieve carbon neutrality are taking steps to create a balance between the amount of carbon emitted into and absorbed from the atmosphere. Carbon can be removed through “carbon sinks,” such as forests, soil or oceans. 

Climate-change activists typically urge the public to focus on reducing their emissions rather than rely on the influence of carbon sinks, however. According to the European Parliament, these natural sinks can remove between 9.5 to 11 gigatons of carbon dioxide each year -- but yearly global emissions are reaching well above this rate. In 2023, a record high emissions rate of 37.4 gigatons was reached.

Mitigation efforts to achieve Arlington’s goal of carbon neutrality also include reducing pollution in town — an area in which local businesses can make a great impact. For example, the Roasted Granola Cafe, 1346 Mass. Ave., recognizes the restaurant industry’s contribution to waste and has enacted policies to make the business more sustainable. They started with to-go containers. 

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Covid-19 and the environment

Takeout packaging and food waste typically end up in landfills, where they generate methane, a greenhouse gas far more powerful than carbon dioxide. Each year, more than 145 million tons of waste are landfilled across the United States; more than half of this waste is organic, or biodegradable -- and food waste is the single most common landfilled material, according to the Rocky Mountain Institute.

And the increase in the number of meals being “to go” since the pandemic only intensified the issue.

“The pandemic made the necessity even more apparent, as takeout increased and everyone's cupboards filled up with plastic containers (many, like black plastic, not recyclable),” wrote Margie Bell, co-founder of the company Recirclable, in an email to YourArlington. The reusable container company began working with the Roasted Granola cafe in 2021.

“[The Roasted Granola founders] shared our vision to reduce waste and were very open to working with us, as were several of their regular customers,” Bell wrote.

Recirclable partners with businesses and provides them with containers that can be washed and redistributed. The company has its own app; using it, consumers can keep track of which containers they’ve picked up in order to eventually return them.

“Think of the Recirclable app like a library card, enabling customers to borrow and return reusable takeout containers,” Bell wrote.

According to Roasted Granola Cafe co-founder Emily Patel, the cost of the containers is free as long as the customer returns them on time.

“The program works extremely well and it’s exciting to be a part of it. I believe it’s only a matter of time before everyone will be using reusable containers for takeout,” Patel wrote in an email.

"Our residents have been longtime champions of the town's goal to become carbon-neutral by 2050, and it's always encouraging to hear about the sustainability efforts made by our local businesses,” Director of Planning and Community Development Claire Ricker said in an email from Joan Roman, Arlington's public information officer.

Anniversary on the horizon

“The Capitol Theater has been an Arlington landmark for nearly 100 years and we look forward to more innovative projects like this from the business community," wrote Ricker.

This new chapter for the Capitol comes right before the theater celebrates its centennial in 2025.

“It and the Somerville Theatre are still here because we have never been afraid to adapt and try new things to ensure that these community gems survive and thrive,” Fraiman wrote.

Since Earth Day, the town has been hosting events and activities that promote sustainability and a greener future in Arlington. Details about "Ecofest," which has activities planned through Sunday, May 19, can be read here >>

A list of solar panel installations across the state can be viewed here >> 

Those interested in finding out what is involved in switching to renewable energy can learn more information here >>

This enterprise repoort by Brynn O'Connor, assistant to the editor, was published Monday, May 13, 2024, based on information from the Capitol Theater, Town of Arlington Public Information Officer Joan Roman, YourArlington's files and online sources about environmental issues. It was updated Wednesday, May 15, 2024, with references about landfills and methane from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Rocky Mountain Institute. It was most recently updated May 16 to add information about Ecofest.

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