Meet Dan Hansen: From Entomologist to Environmentalist

Last week, I was lucky enough to interview Dan Hansen about waste reduction and sustainable operations. Dan is the facilities maintenance technician at the Mill City Museum, however, his passion and experiences in natural history and sustainability go far beyond this job title. You can tell from a glimpse of his exquisite worldwide insects collection and his wide range of reusable materials storage at his workshop.

Born in Minneapolis in 1965, Dan was deeply influenced by his mother’s interests in natural history, especially plants, mosses, lichens, insects and frogs. With a bachelor degree of individualized studies in Art, Entomology and Biology from the University of Minnesota, Dan focused on collecting insects data in Costa Rica, Brazil and Australia. Most times, he can identify insects by sight. “Just this morning we had a cockroach in the elevator vestibule. It’s an Australian type. Could be accidentally brought  by a traveller with his/her luggages.” This enthusiasm for insects does facilitate his work in certain ways. For example, he was able to identify the decay of wood embedded in the brick wall when beetles (commonly known as "wharf borers") started to emerge. “This is not a conservation issue though. It’s just a nuisance. Some people just don’t like flies,” Dan added.  

                      image: example of Dan's worldwide insects collection        


Dan adopted a recycling and garbage pickup ethic in his pre-teen years. Starting with building his first two-bin outdoor compost container in his late teens, Dan eventually became a lifetime composter. His philosophy for waste reduction could be realized in the following ways:

  • Systematically store materials and components that have potential for reuse;
  • Don’t buy extra products that you already have;
  • Borrow products that won’t be frequently used from others.

“There are certain fasteners that I might be able to use. So I save them in a container. Maybe if I just need one, then I’ll have it and I don’t have to get in the car and go to the hardware store and buy just the right screw with that time and with that expanse,” explained by Dan. In fact, Dan has stored a wide range of the recyclables: aluminum pieces (“which will get lost in the landfill for sure if put in garbage”), wood pieces, screws, wires, etc. This storage, for example, enables Dan to repair his lamp instead of purchasing a new one. To make this scheme succeed, organization is a key issue according to Dan. Limited storage space is another challenge. There is also a trade-off between waste reduction results and the time it takes to achieve the results as well. While people like Dan tend to be inspired by the surrounding storage, others might just find this approach disruptive to their routine. So choose wisely based on your own ways of thinking.

Sharing resources and communication is another effective method to achieve waste reduction. Craigslist, for instance, is a nice platform to resell tools you no longer use to someone who happens to need them. It could also be as simple as posting something on facebook like “I’m looking for this thing. Does anyone has it?” Or just knock on your neighbours’ doors. “If you need anything, just ask;” Dan summarized. At northeast Minneapolis where Dan lives, there’s a tool lending library where members could check out tools and get safety training. They bring the tools back after they finish using. As a result of this organization, tools are constantly being circulated and used. “If the tool goes to the basement and never got used again, it’s a sadness,” said Dan.

At the Mill City Museum, Dan pointed out that “with a new construction in the shell of an old building”, the building itself is the best example of sustainability. After losing its initial function after the fire, the old mill factory was reused as a national historic site to correspond with the mission of the new museum. Inspired by the building, staff here have also effectively contributed to the achievement of sustainability. “Everybody recycles here,” said Dan, “especially organic recycling.” In fact, in the last 8 months, over 56% of the waste at Mill City Museum has either been diverted to been recycling or compost according to Laura Salveson, the director of the Mill City Museum. Dan noted it’s very important that we keep materials in the loop - “Cradle to Cradle”. Even a piece of five-dollar aluminum piece could save a lot of energy compared to producing new materials.

                       image: Mill City Museum (from millcitymuseum.org)      


The materials and products we use now have circulate globally during their lifespan. Dan described how plastic recycling occurs between the United States and China. When recycled plastic bales from United States were contaminated with garbage, harbors at China started to reject the shipping containers and sent those bales back to the States, as a result of the “Green Fence” policy. After undergoing losing markets, the States developed more appropriate and cleaner packaging methods and China began to accept them again. More information at http://www.pri.org/stories/2014-02-18/chinas-green-fence-cleaning-americ.... “It’s really amazing that the processing of the recyclables goes all the way around the earth. It’s truly a global phenomenon,” said Dan. Think globally is also a key to shape sustainable living. “When people start thinking more globally, they develop more respect for materials and greater empathy for other people, who might be suffering from our wasteful choices.”

Like most environmentalists, Dan found his motivation from children - not just his own children, but the world’s next generation. “I think about what we are passing… what we are doing to our offspring. They are children after all and they will become like us. If we give them a crappy system, that’s too bad.”  

His sense of sustainability also goes beyond the environment to touch on personal lifestyle as well. In earlier years, he clocked over 6300 miles of bicycle travel throughout Colorado and Pacific Ocean areas. His cycling has  ends up evolved into unicycling, now a key hobby in his life. If you see a unicyclist near the Mill City Museum, that might be him!