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Anti-trash tactician

Tuesday, Aug 9, 2011

-By Darren Schenck

Leslie Tamminen ’88 discovered a passion for protecting the environment during a childhood trip to Lake Havasu in Arizona. On a stroll through pristine wilderness just minutes from her family’s rented houseboat, Tamminen climbed a hill and came upon mounds of garbage dumped in a gully.

“I was horrified,” she says. “I bagged it all up and dragged it to our houseboat, but my parents said we couldn’t take it all. I had to leave some of it behind.”

Leslie Tamminen
 Leslie Tamminen '88

Today, Tamminen still fights to remove pollution, but at its source — and on a much larger scale.

In 2007, Tamminen and her husband, former Secretary of the California Environmental Protection Agency Terry Tamminen, founded Seventh Generation Advisors, a Santa Monica-based not-for-profit organization focused on sustainability issues. The name was inspired by a tradition among some Native American tribes to assign a councilperson to represent the interests of descendants who would inherit the land — and potential problems — the current generation would leave behind.

Tamminen promotes legislation and regulatory policy that would ban plastic grocery bags, polystyrene packaging and other single-use items for which there are sustainable alternatives. She says the science indicates that such products are a significant component of marine plastic pollution.

But Tamminen is no tree-hugger.

“I’m not a warm and fuzzy, flora and fauna person. I do this for people, for you and me,” she says. “The earth doesn’t need us to protect it; we need to protect ourselves so we can stay on it.”

Before working at Seventh Generation Advisors, Tamminen spent 15 years at the not-for-profit Heal the Bay in Santa Monica, Calif., and she led the creation of the first state board-approved K-12 curriculum for environmental education.

Heal the Bay President Mark Gold praises Tamminen as an “extraordinary advocate” who was “relentless” in ensuring funding, quality work and progress for AB 1548, California’s Education and the Environment Initiative.

“But her success stems from her willingness to sit down with anyone and try to find common ground,” he says.

California State Senator Fran Pavley also has worked closely with Tamminen.

“Working on behalf of Heal the Bay, Leslie not only faced down opposition from state agencies and others, she also worked for five years behind the scenes to ensure that the quality of the educational materials was top-notch,” Pavley says. “The people of California are lucky to have such an environmental champion working for them.”

Tamminen says her legal training was valuable during the regulatory hearings and court cases she fought over water pollution. But after years of long court battles and even some victories, including passage of the state’s first trash pollution limit, she changed tactics.

“We keep educating, and we keep cleaning up and that’s not fixing the problem,” she says. “I thoroughly believe we need to regulate, legislate and, if necessary, litigate.”

But Tamminen is also convinced that pollutioncurbing laws and regulations ultimately are good both for cash-strapped governments and businesses.

“If you do source reduction as a city, you don’t spend so much money land-filling and cleaning up pollution,” she says. “And if you make manufacturers pay for the life cycle of their products, which Europe does with extended producer responsibility, you end up creating sustainable California jobs.”

Among the colleagues who can attest to Tamminen’s effectiveness in this legislative arena is Richard Baum, former executive director of the California Commission for Economic Development.

“Leslie is incredibly bright and has a real generosity of spirit that allows people to connect with her,” Baum says. “Her ability to listen carefully and articulate a course of action makes her a very effective advocate for ideas.”

Although her legal skills helped prepare her for a career of long-fought battles, Tamminen had never intended to go to law school. As a young adult, she had planned to follow her inclination toward science into medical school.

“Then I failed organic chemistry!” she says.

She turned her eyes to law school and USC, and she’s glad she did.

“USC had a scholarly reputation, and the skills I learned are useful even in a non-courtroom, non-corporate arena,” she says.

Despite the glacial pace of change, she will continue using those skills to help rid the oceans of trash, ensuring future generations will have a safer, less sullied environment to live in.

“This is such an important topic,” she says. “It deserves my focus. I want to be the queen of cleaning up trash."

-As seen in the Summer 2011 USC Law Deliberations

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