Saturday, December 10, 2011

Texas Bottle Bill

This is me with the bottles and cans I collected in only 30 minutes at Mankin's Crossing near Jonah, Texas.

Published in the Sun December 10, 2011

The historical marker at Mankin’s Crossing near Jonah says the low water bridge is “a popular recreational site for area residents.”  People like to fish there, but the most popular recreation at the site appears to be beer-drinking, or maybe beer-drinking while fishing.  I recently travelled to Mankin’s Crossing to satisfy my curiosity about roadside litter and how it might be affected by the Texas Bottle Bill, otherwise known as the Texas Container Recycling Initiative.  Readers of a certain maturity will remember that long before recycling was a household word, Coca-Cola and other soft drinks used to be sold in glass bottles.  You would drink your six-pack of Cokes and then take the bottles back to the grocery store to be reimbursed a few pennies a bottle for your trouble.  The Coca Cola company would collect the empties and refill the sterilized bottles with another delicious cane sugar beverage.  The bottles would be used over and over again until they were too scuffed to be appetizing.  Beer was sold this way also.

But then in the 1960s aluminum cans and plastic bottles came along.  Now the beverage companies could bottle their wares more cheaply, and not worry about all that nasty collecting and cleaning and trucking back to the factory.  The bottles were labeled “No deposit, no return” to inform the consumer that it was OK to just throw it away.  And throw them away we did.  This year alone, almost 120 billion beverage containers have been littered, landfilled, and incinerated in the United States, about twice as many as have been recycled.  Beverage containers make up about 40 to 60% of all roadside litter.

Bottle bills resurrect the practice of redeeming empty beverage containers for a deposit refund, but these days the used containers are recycled rather than refilled.  All beer, carbonated sodas, sports drinks, and bottled water are covered, whether made of aluminum, plastic, or glass.  Ten states currently have bottle bills.  The bill proposed for Texas would work like this.  Beverage distributors would charge retailers 5 cents per container, a fee the retailer would then pass on to the consumer.  At this point the distributor has an extra 5 cents per beverage, which is contributed to a special fund.  The consumer is out one nickel, but he will get that nickel back if he chooses to return the can or bottle to a neighborhood redemption center.  The redemption center will be reimbursed 5 cents, plus a one and a half cent handling fee by an independent board that is financed by all those nickels collected from the distributors.  It is only fair after all, that since the distributors are the ones making money on all the drinks they sell, they should bear some responsibility for disposing of the waste, rather than shifting the entire burden of clean-up to city and state governments.  Since not all containers will be redeemed there will be enough nickels to cover those handling fees.  The redemption center is also allowed to keep all proceeds from the sale of the recyclable materials.  These proceeds can be significant, especially in the case of aluminum cans, which can fetch 60 or 65 cents a pound.  Redemption centers could be run by independent businesses, retailers, municipalities, or even churches and schools.

Last month the US Senate, in an almost unbelievable moment of bipartisanship, unanimously passed Senate Resolution 251, which “expresses support for improvement in the collection, processing, and consumption of recyclable material throughout the United States in order to create well-paying jobs, foster innovation and investment in the United States recycling infrastrtucture, and stimulate the economy of the United States.”  But this is a resolution; it doesn’t actually do anything.  To do something actual bills are needed.  The Texas Bottle Bill will be introduced to the state legislature in 2013.

States with bottle bills have decreased their container litter by as much as 80% and have increased recycling rates above levels achieved with curbside recycling alone.  Most provinces in Canada have bottle bills, and they achieve remarkable recycling rates with deposits as high as 20 cents.  Michigan’s bottle bill created jobs for 4684 people in the redemption industry, New York added 3800 jobs.

In addition to creating jobs, reducing litter, and saving resources and energy, the adoption of a bottle bill transforms empty beverage containers from trash to treasure.  People with time on their hands will start gathering bottles that others have discarded in order to collect the deposits.  People who do this a lot are called “canners.”  And that brings me back to Mankin’s Crossing.  I wanted to see how many deposits a motivated canner could gather up in a short time.  Armed only with a large trash sack and a pair of gloves, in thirty minutes flat I collected 21 glass beer bottles, 19 plastic bottles, and 52 aluminum cans.  That would be four dollars and sixty cents in deposits, if Texas had a bottle bill.  Had I been willing to wade into the cold water I could have snagged at least ten more cans.

By the way, the fishermen at Mankin’s Crossing prefer Bud Light.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Metal Recycling

Was supposed to be published in the Sun today but wasn't, probably because Al and Hwy 195 Metal Recycling parted company, and photos were subsequently unavailable.  (Actually it turns out there was enough space in the paper.  It got published the following Wednesday.)

Al Newman rarely needs his magnet to distinguish between different metals.  Instead he relies on color, weight, and even texture to tell him what is steel and what is aluminum.  Al is a metal artist, and he looks the part, tall and lanky with a silver-gray ponytail and one long feather earring.  Some people might not appreciate a job sorting scrap at Highway 195 Metal Recycling, but to Al it is a wonderful opportunity to scavenge discarded treasures for his art.

My husband (Bill) and I have loaded up our pickup with buckets of used screws, rebar, an old aluminum screen door, a fan stand with the fan missing, and some short pieces of insulated copper wire and have taken a short drive out Highway 195.  The Metal Recyclers are located far back in an active quarry, but a series of signs with arrows point us through a maze of gravel roads and heavy equipment.  We finally arrive at a trailer perched beside a large truck scale.  Perilously close to the trailer an enormous excavator with a grapple hook is plucking old water heaters from a mountain of steel scrap onto a container truck, carefully placing them onto the top and pounding them into place.

We drive across the scale, weighing in at 5580 pounds, and then down the ramp where Al is waiting for us.  Bill backs the pickup toward the steel mountain – the opposite side from where the excavator is still working – and we throw out all of the steel, fitting as much of it as we can into an old dishwasher so the excavator will be able to pick it up.  Al says there is never any shortage of old dishwashers, and they make great boxes for steel scraps.

After we get rid of the steel, Al weighs our aluminum and copper.  The base of the fan is cast aluminum and weighs 24 pounds, so at 42 cents a pound it is worth $10.  We only had two pounds of copper wire but it is worth $1.20 a pound.  There are large signs posted around the yard stating that stolen goods will not be purchased under any circumstances, but because copper is such a theft-worthy item, new customers bringing in copper wire must provide a drivers’ license and be fingerprinted.  Bill swipes his index finger across an electronic device.  In a classic case of gender discrimination, I escape suspicion of copper thievery.  We walk away from the trailer with $48.44 in cold, hard cash.

Over 83% of American steel is recycled, including 100% of junked automobiles.  This success story of recycling is accomplished not because of environmental concerns, but because it is economically advantageous to do so.  Every year we recycle more steel than paper, plastic, and glass combined.  Not only is recycling steel cheaper than mining raw materials, but it requires 75% less energy.  Recycling aluminum is even better, using only 5% as much energy as producing aluminum from bauxite ore.  Aluminum cans, which are worth 65 cents a pound, can be discarded, shredded, reformed into new cans, and be back in your fridge filled with a refreshing beverage in about 60 days.  Unfortunately, only about 58% of aluminum cans are recycled.

Having completed our business, Al invites us to come see his metal art.  Al used to be a Seattle real estate broker, but has clearly left that career path for a less encumbered lifestyle.  He lives at the back of the quarry in an old Greyhound bus which is elaborately decorated with his creations.  On the patio an assortment of colorful metal animals watch over a cast iron bathtub and a metal fire pit.  A salvaged candelabra completes the outdoor hot tub experience.  On the grill of the Greyhound is a colorful mermaid.  On the back of the bus is the perfect metaphor for metal recycling:  a red and blue Phoenix bird rising from the ashes.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

If You Don't Measure It, You Can't Manage It

Published in the Sun November 12, 2011

Imagine your favorite big-box store invited you to go on a shopping spree. To make it more exciting, they took all the price tags off the goods.  “You don’t have to pay now.  Come back tomorrow and every day to get whatever you like, and we’ll send you a bill at the end of the month.”  Although the shopping would be great fun, the sticker shock at the end of the month might be a rude surprise.

Now think of the way we buy electricity.  We can have as much as we want, 24/7.  There are no price tags on the electricity flowing to our many machines.  If I want to leave the lights on all day while I’m at work, I can do it.  If it is more convenient to turn on a space heater than to put on a sweater, that’s OK too.  The bill won’t show up for weeks.  To use an animal psychology metaphor, it is kind of like if the dog barks every night, but you only spank him once a month.  He just doesn’t make the connection on an emotional level.  The consequences are remote from the action.

On my kitchen counter I have a little monitor called The Energy Detective.  It looks like an electric clock, but instead of telling time, it tells how many watts of electricity my house is using at any given moment.  It plugs into the wall and communicates through the wiring with a measuring device installed in the breaker box.  Right now, as I type on my computer, the Energy Detective reads 280 watts.  Those watts include the computer, the refrigerator, and some electric clocks.  The Energy Detective is not the same as the city electric meter.  The meter, if you can figure out how to read it, tells you how many kilowatt-hours you have used over a period of time.  The meter is like the odometer in your car; it tells you how far you have gone.  The Energy Detective is like the speedometer.  It tells you how fast you are using electricity right now.

If I turn on my electric oven, the Energy Detective jumps up to 3200 watts.  In hot weather the air conditioner could make it shoot up to 10,000 watts.  Those are the big power hogs, but all the little things add up too.  The television uses almost as much electricity when it is turned “off” as when it is on, because it is really in standby mode.  I tried unplugging every single electric thing I could find in the whole house, but I could only get the Energy Detective down to 50 watts, because some of the kitchen appliances that I can’t unplug are also in standby mode.  Fifty watts doesn’t sound like much, but every house in America is using 50 to 100 watts of electricity even when everything is supposedly turned off.  This persistent drain of power is called “phantom load.”  A phantom load of 100 watts adds up to 876,000 watt-hours of extra electricity per year, equivalent to an extra month of electric charges.  About 10% of all electricity generated in the United States is used for phantom loads.  That’s a lot of coal plants burning just so our TVs can be ready for us without warming up.

It turns out that when you can see how much electricity you are using, there is an immediate motivation to turn something off.  You can’t help yourself; you just want to turn something off.  It’s like operant conditioning.  The bell rings and the dog salivates.  Most people automatically decrease their energy usage by 5 to 20% once they see what they are using.  After all, the lights burning in an empty room don’t improve your quality of life, so why pay for them?  The best alternative energy is the energy we don’t use at all.

Home energy monitors are made by several different companies (Blue Line, Black and Decker) and most cost in the range of $50 to $120.  Fancier models can communicate with your computer or smart phone and notify you when usage is high.  A monitor will pay for itself in just a few months by decreasing your consumption of electricity.

Saturday, October 29, 2011


Published in the Sun October 30, 2011

Sometime around 1880, a Walburg farmer hand-dug a cistern to collect rainwater off his roof.  The cistern is big, about eight feet across and thirty feet deep, and completely lined with large stones.  It was built to last, and it has, for 130 years, but it is no longer used to collect rainwater.  If that farmer were to visit today he would be astonished to see what Bob and Janine Hall are doing with his cistern.

It starts with the Halls washing machine.  With several kids at home they run about twelve loads of laundry a week.  The graywater from the washing machine runs directly into the cistern.  There is a five foot opening covered with wire mesh at the top of the cistern, so you can easily look down and see the water, which looks very clean.  (Janine uses Seventh Generation laundry detergent, which is phosphate free.)  From the cistern the water is pumped into three 330 gallon tanks.  The tanks provide water for two raised gardening beds about the size and shape of pool tables.  But there is no soil in these beds; they are filled with river rock and crushed granite.  The first bed is crowded with lush, dark green tomato plants.  The other bed is newly planted with strawberries.

Both beds are equipped with an ingenious drain that allows them to automatically fill with water and then drain completely every two hours.  The surface of the gravel stays dry in the sunshine so that algae will not grow.  The tomato bed drains into a plastic pond stocked with forty small goldfish and some aquatic plants.  The pond water, which contains waste from the goldfish (and goldfish are prolific with waste) drains back into the cistern.

The ammonia waste from the fish provides nitrogen and other nutrients for the plants.  The plants, by consuming the nutrients as fertilizer, clean the water for the fish.  This symbiotic relationship between gardening and fish is called aquaponics.  The word aquaponics is a combination of the words “aquaculture”, which means fish-farming, and “hydroponics”, which means raising vegetables in nutrient-rich water.  As long as the fish and the plants are in balance, the water can be recycled through the process indefinitely.  Contrary to what you might think, aquaponics uses only 10% of the water that a dirt garden would consume.  Bob has used only washing machine water to keep his cistern filled all summer.  In fact, not only does the cistern provide water for the aquaponics system, but also for six baby fruit trees, three dogs, five goats, four sheep, three horses, and a flock of chickens.

Actually, the system just described was only Bob’s starter project.  Now he has built a large greenhouse holding five larger planting beds flourishing with peppers, lettuce, and broccoli.  There is also a hydroponic “raft” in which plants are suspended in the water without the stones.  Bob lifts up a lettuce to demonstrate the bare roots extending 12 inches into the water.  We follow the PVC pipe to a separate room at the end of the greenhouse housing a 550 gallon tank of tilapia.  The tilapia are more sensitive than goldfish, but can be harvested and eaten when they get big enough.  The tilapia reproduce in the tank.  The mother carries the eggs in her mouth until they hatch, and even after hatching she will protect hundreds of babies in her mouth until they can manage on their own.  A good aquaponics farmer can end up with a continuous supply of delicious and mercury-free fish for supper.

At one point the Halls had the tilapia outside in the goldfish pond, but unfortunately there were tragic consequences.  One night Janine noticed some movement around the pond.  Going closer with a light, she noticed a 5 foot water moccasin slithering out of the pond after a tasty snack.  Shining her light down into the cistern she saw more huge moccasins.  I wish I could have seen with my own eyes what happened next.  Bob fetched his shotgun and started blasting away into the cistern.  After the massacre they fished eight dead snakes out of the water.  But it was too late; most of their tilapia were gone.

Eventually Bob and Janine plan to sell produce from their aquaponic greenhouses, as well as provide themselves with all the fresh vegetables they can eat.  Bob says he can get 8-10 times the produce in half the time out of his aquaponic beds that he could get from his old dirt garden.  He can farm year round, and with aquaponics he doesn’t need pesticides or chemical fertilizers.  Plus there are no weeds to pull.

The Hall’s former dirt garden lies drought parched and abandoned beside the barn.  A chicken, searching for a bug she might have missed, scratches in the dust.

Sunday, October 16, 2011


Published in the Sun October 16, 2011

It breaks my heart to see the trees dying.  Trees define a temperate climate; there are no majestic trees in the desert.  Golden brown grass has a certain stoic beauty because we know that when at last it rains the grass will turn green again.  But when hundred year old trees die, they will not be restored by a little shower.

The heat may have let up, and we have even had a bit of rain, but it is unlikely that the extraordinary drought is over.  Did you know that nationwide, 50 to 70% of municipal water is used to irrigate home landscapes?  In Georgetown and Round Rock, that means that water is imported from Stillhouse Hollow, treated to be safe enough to drink, pumped to our houses using electricity, and then thrown on the grass.  What if this is a multi-year dry spell?  Are there ways that an individual could use water more effectively?  Could we still have trees?

People are starting to talk about graywater.  Graywater is water that has already been used in a home’s washing machine, showers and tubs, and bathroom sinks.  It is called graywater because it is not as contaminated as blackwater, which has been flushed down the toilet.  Water from the kitchen sink and dishwasher is also considered blackwater because of the large amount of food waste that may be present.  In some areas where drought is a way of life, graywater is used to flush toilets, but that requires some very sophisticated plumbing.  The most common use of graywater is to irrigate plants.

Paolo Pinto directed on-site sewage facility inspections for the Williamson County Health Department for 18 years, so he knows quite a bit about dirty water.  He has been using graywater on his trees and vegetable garden since his house was built in 1986.  Paolo has a large lot in the Chisholm Trail Utility District, which has been under severe watering restrictions all summer.  Although most of his neighborhood is wooded with native trees, the elms are wilting, and the live oaks don’t look so good either.  All is not lost though, because there is one factor working in favor of the trees:  Paolo’s graywater system.

Paolo’s shower and washing machine do not drain into his septic system.  Instead, they drain into a 50 gallon tank buried in his backyard, and from there by gravity into a hose that he can move from tree to tree as needed.  An eight minute shower uses about 20 gallons of water.  An average top-loading washing machine uses 41 gallons of water per load.  A bathroom faucet produces about 2 gallons per minute.  Excluding the blackwater going down the toilet and kitchen sink, an average American produces about 40 to 50 gallons of graywater every day.  An established tree needs approximately ten gallons of water per inch of trunk diameter every week, so if Paolo generates 50 gallons of graywater a day, he could water a different 5 inch diameter tree each day of the week.

Paolo is quick to point out that his graywater system would not comply with current state laws if it were being built today.  One new requirement is that a system must allow 100% of the graywater to be diverted into the sewer or septic system if necessary.  This is a very logical requirement.  If the ground is soggy from heavy rains, you would want to be able to turn off graywater irrigation.  Or what if there is a baby in the house and dirty diapers are regularly being washed?  Nobody wants diaper water going onto the lawn.

Another state regulation is that the graywater must not be sprayed and must not be allowed to pool or run into a neighbor’s yard, the street, or a natural body of water.  Care must be taken to avoid creating breeding habitat for mosquitoes.  The plumbing that carries graywater must be clearly distinguished as non-potable water, usually by making the pipes purple and posting signs.

Graywater does not adapt well to soaker hoses or drip irrigation because it has a lot of particles and lint that rapidly clog the openings.  Graywater should not be stored in a tank for more than 24 hours, because it contains soap, bits of food, and bacteria, so if it sits around it will stagnate into blackwater and it will stink.

The most effective (and lowest maintenance) graywater systems disperse the water underground as soon as it is generated into a mini drain field where trees are planted.  An anonymous city inspector told me that he has had an underground graywater system irrigating a row of peach trees for years and they look fantastic, even with no additional water this summer.  He does have to be careful about what kind of laundry soap he uses.  Most powdered laundry detergents are high in sodium, which can be harmful to plants.  Borax can also kill plants in even small quantities.  Once his wife got enthusiastic with bleach in the white loads and wiped out a big area of grass.  He also told me that currently there are no City of Georgetown regulations about graywater systems.  As long as the neighbors aren’t disturbed, the code enforcers won’t concern themselves with your laundry water.  Residential codes for graywater may be adopted in the future, but we don’t have them yet.

A graywater system can be a useful way to conserve water, but it is more complicated to install than it sounds, and there is a lot that can go wrong.  Before installing a system, figure out how much graywater your household would produce and how you would use it.  Consult with a plumber.  And don’t feel guilty if it just sounds like too much trouble.  Even if you don’t take advantage of your graywater, the city is already recycling it.  Treated effluent (cleaned up sewage) is used to irrigate the local golf courses.

A useful internet resource for graywater systems is Oasis Design, a California company that has been designing sustainable water and wastewater systems for many years.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Solar Water Heating

Published in the Sun October 1, 2011

In my yard is a large black garden hose.  On a sunny day, the water that comes out of that hose is as hot as coffee.  My plants don’t really appreciate the hot water, but it does make you think about the excessive solar energy that has lately been falling on us like a plague, and how it might be put to a useful purpose.

Back in 1891, when people still heated their weekly bath water on a wood stove, Clarence Kemp patented the first commercially available solar water heater.  The Climax Solar Water Heater consisted of a pine box, lined with black felt and covered with a pane of glass.  Inside the box were four iron tanks, painted black, which held a total of 32 gallons of water.  The Climax would be installed on a south facing roof and plumbed into the bathroom.  Mr. Kemp’s advertisement warns that under very sunny conditions the water almost boils.  With this contraption the lucky owner could “go home at night and find hot water for bath ready for you, on tap same as cold water… There is no delay and no expense for fuel.”

Over the next 30 years, many thousands of solar water heaters were installed in California and Florida, but by the 1930s the widespread availability of natural gas (and its subsidized low cost) killed the market for solar hot water.  The idea didn’t go away though.  In 1979, in a show of support for alternative energy, Jimmy Carter installed 32 solar collectors on the roof of the White House to provide hot water for the staff cafeteria.

Only five years later, Jeremy and Linda Gambell began building a home in Georgetown.  The cheapest option for water heating would have been natural gas, but the Gambell’s subdivision did not provide natural gas, so they were faced with a choice between the hassles of propane or the expense of electricity.  As newcomers from the snowy regions of New York, the Gambell’s were impressed by the reliability of Texas sunshine.  Or maybe they were just hippies, but they decided to buck the system and try solar water heating.

The water heater that Jeremy chose had advanced a long way beyond the Climax Solar Water Heater.  There are two 4x8 foot collector panels on his roof.  From the driveway they look almost like skylights.  Circulating through the collectors is a 50% propylene glycol solution, a foodsafe antifreeze.  The glycol is heated by the sun and is then pumped through a heat exchanger where it transfers the heat to the household water, which is stored in a regular 120 gallon hot water tank.  The water can stay hot in the insulated tank for several days.  A thermostat on the tank allows for back-up heating by electricity should the collectors fail to provide enough heat, such as might happen when we have several days in a row of cloudy weather.  It is not necessary for the weather to be hot for the panels to work.  A cold sunny day can heat water, just like the inside of your car can become quite warm even in the winter.

I asked the Gambells if they really have enough hot water.  Linda looked askance at Jeremy and said, “Well, there was that time you forgot to turn the breaker back on in the fall.”  It turns out that every spring, Jeremy turns the back-up electric water heater completely off, and doesn’t turn it on again until about November.  In other words, for most of the year, they don’t even use the back-up electricity at all; the solar collectors supply 100% of their hot water.  I was a bit incredulous.  Surely they must take their showers at night and just didn’t notice that the water was cool in the mornings?  Nope, they both take showers AND they do the laundry in the morning, and all through the hot season they have plenty of hot water.  Linda says she never worries about running out of hot water, but with the drought she does sometimes worry about running out of cold water.

The Gambells paid $3955 for their hot water system in 1985.  Every two years the “Solar Man” comes and changes the glycol solution for $42.50.  I recently bought a similar system and mine cost $4830, including the tank and installation.  There is a 30% federal tax credit, bringing the net cost down to $3381.  Mine won’t need the glycol exchanges, because it uses distilled water in the collectors.  If you would like to estimate your own return on investment in a solar water heater, there is an excellent lifetime cost calculator at that lets you plug in the rate you pay for electricity and the number of people in your family.  To make a long story short, by reducing electricity costs, a solar water heater will pay for itself in 4-10 years, depending on how much hot water you use and how fast electricity rates go up.

On average in the US, water heating accounts for 14% of total household energy consumption.  In a large family, the annual carbon dioxide emissions of the water heater can equal those of the family automobile.  The sun is going to shine on us anyway; we should put it to work.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Natural Burial

Published in the Sun 9-18-2011

Ashes to ashes, Dust to dust

The following is a true story.

John remembers watching “Six Feet Under” with his lovely wife Kristi when one of the characters was buried in the woods in a wicker casket.  Kristi commented that she wanted to be buried that way; without embalming, just put in the ground in a beautiful place where her body could return to the cycle of nature.  John filed her request in the back corner of his mind, thinking that he would have at least four or five decades before he would have to act on it.  Unfortunately Kristi died tragically just a few years later.  Even in the emotional state of shock following Kristi’s death, her comments about such a natural and old fashioned type of burial came back to him.   John and both families agreed they wanted to honor her wishes.

John found a funeral director who was supportive of natural burials.  The funeral director informed John and the rest of Kristi’s family that there were very few cemeteries that would allow the kind of burial they wanted.  He mentioned Our Lady of the Rosary (OLOTR) in Georgetown, one of only two cemeteries in the state certified by the Green Burial Council.  It turned out that John and Kristi had visited there with a friend who had lost a baby, and Kristi had remarked how natural and serene it was.  So John and Kristi’s mom, Donna, and about ten other family members went to OLOTR to pick out a plot.  Donna wanted Kristi to be in a shady area on the edge of the cemetery.  While they were looking at plots near the walking trail, a dragonfly landed on a low branch.  Because Kristi had always loved dragonflies, Donna saw this as a sign that she had found the right location.

Kristi had requested that her body not be embalmed, and John agreed.  Embalming does not prevent decomposition; it temporarily inhibits the process by injecting the blood vessels and body cavities with formaldehyde, methanol, and other chemicals.  The curious reader can find detailed descriptions of embalming on the internet, but suffice it to say that if more people knew what kind of bodily violations are involved there would be far, far fewer of us embalmed.  One alternative to embalming is refrigeration until burial.  Another is to place the body in a leak-proof, odor-proof plastic bag, but the bag also interferes with the natural process of decay.  Because Kristi’s body would not be embalmed, the funeral director suggested that the burial not be delayed for more than three days.

The family picked out a beautiful pine casket, handmade with dovetailed joints and carved details.  The casket had no metal or plastic parts, and no paint or varnish.  The entire casket would gradually decay along with its occupant.  Most cemeteries require a fully enclosed concrete vault or grave liner to prevent the ground from settling as the casket decomposes.  Settling graves create a landscaping problem, and are more difficult to mow, but OLOTR is OK with this expected process.  They just add a little more dirt or mulch to keep the ground even.  Some families don’t even use caskets; they just wrap their loved one in a shroud.

Over 300 mourners attended Kristi’s burial service.  Each person laid a single flower on the pine casket.  Donna embraced her daughter’s casket one last time and then it was lowered into the ground.  Donna was surprised when the casket was lowered, because she had not seen this done at more traditional funerals, but she actually felt a sense of peace and closure from seeing Kristi in her final resting place, under a blanket of flowers.  A mountain laurel was planted at the head of Kristi’s grave, behind an iron cross.  OLOTR encourages live plants and wildflowers as adornments of their gravesites.  Artificial flowers are not permitted.

Kristi’s stepfather, Paul, told me that planning a funeral is like planning a wedding, but it has to be done in three days.  Before Kristi’s passing, their family was like most; nobody really wanted to talk about their own deaths.  But now he recommends that every family have a meeting, possibly around the dinner table, to discuss each person’s preferences about organ donation and burial, BEFORE emergency funeral arrangements must be made.  Since Kristi’s death, everyone in her family has made his or her wishes known.  Donna has decided that when her time comes, hopefully far in the future, she wants to be buried naturally, right beside her beloved daughter, Kristi.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Composting Toilet

Published in the Sun 9-4-2011

Clarence Skrovan apologizes that his coffee maker uses an eco-unfriendly plastic packet for each cup of coffee, increasing his carbon footprint.  We laugh and decide he deserves this small extravagance because he is, after all, using Green Mountain electricity and purified rainwater to brew his morning caffeine.  (Yes, he still has rainwater.)  Clarence is a preventive medicine physician and served as the medical director of the Williamson County Health Department from 1977 until 1992.  He then became the regional director for the state health department until his retirement in 1997, so he knows a thing or two about public health.  His wife, Susan, a pediatrician, left an academic position in Houston to open a practice in Granger.  Clarence grew up in Granger, where he and his friends were certain that “it was best to be Czech.”  He didn’t speak English until he started first grade, and you can still hear a soft Czech brogue in his voice.

When Clarence and Susan bought their small house in 1974, it had no indoor plumbing.  The previous residents had been “doing their business” in the fields surrounding the house.  To wash dishes, Susan had to run a hose from a standpipe in the yard into the kitchen.  Clearly, their first remodeling project was to put in some sort of toilet.  Rather than waste precious well water flushing human waste into a septic system, they decided to install a waterless Clivus Multrum composting toilet, a decision which caused some consternation among Clarence’s public health buddies.

The toilet is the focus of my visit here this morning, so all three of us head into the bathroom.  On the wall over the toilet is a large red and white sign, provided by the Clivus Multrum company, stating that “This toilet uses no water or chemicals” and thanking us for helping preserve the environment.  I open the lid and peer down into the bowels of the toilet, seeing pretty much what you would expect to see.  (For the faint of heart there are updated models that hide the view entirely.)  I have a very sensitive nose but there is not a trace of odor, thanks to a tiny ventilation fan that pulls air from the bathroom into the toilet and expels all objectionable gases out through a vent in the roof.

“Clivus Multrum” means inclined composting chamber.  The floor of the chamber is sloped, allowing liquids to drain to the bottom and evaporate, leaving the solid waste dry enough to decompose into an inoffensive material.  The chamber is located under the house and is accessible through a hatch in the mudroom floor, directly behind the bathroom.  Also in the mudroom is another chute which the Skrovans use to throw food waste into the composter.  Some people also add sawdust, straw, or lawn clippings to composting toilets, which promotes faster and less smelly aerobic decomposition When all the children lived at home, Clarence had to clean out the chamber every two years.  Although he admits that the end product was never quite as much like soil as he might have hoped, he used the compost on his fruit trees as a valuable fertilizer.  Now that only two people use the toilet he hasn’t had to do anything at all for five years.

As public health physicians, the Skrovans never felt comfortable putting the “humanure” directly onto a vegetable garden where it might come into contact with raw vegetables. That practice has certainly been accepted in other parts of the world, but Americans are understandably squeamish about it.  In Australia, where they are serious about water saving technologies, a 1993 study found that no viable intestinal parasites were found in 118 samples of human waste from sixteen unheated composting toilets, even though parasites were known to be present in the people using the toilets.  However this result may require having two composting toilets and letting one of them sit for several months without adding any new material.

Clarence seems genuinely disappointed that composting toilets haven’t really caught on among his friends, but actually they are increasingly popular at parks and in remote areas.  Composting toilets preserve valuable nutrients to be used as fertilizer, save water, and save the energy required to pump and purify contaminated water.  It makes a lot of sense to keep the poop separate from the water supply.

Postscript:  I went to visit the Skrovans because of their toilet, but came away with a more important message.  Two doctors could have chosen a more luxurious lifestyle.  Instead, they chose to try new technologies, and to fill their modest home with things they built themselves, with memories, and with love.  Susan is ill, but she manages her illness with dignity, and Clarence assists her with tenderness.  This is the crux of the sustainable lifestyle:  that we place our values on the things that matter.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Nissan Leaf

Published 8-21-2011

Even though there is only one electric vehicle on the Round Rock Nissan lot, there is a charging station prominently situated in front of the showroom.  At the end of the cable emerging from the charging station is a plug that looks like one of those little pistol shaped hair dryers.  The “hair dryer” is plugged into a port on the front of the Leaf, Nissan’s new all-electric car.  Jerry Crider, one of only two salesmen at this dealership certified to sell the Leaf, unplugs the charger and opens the hood.  There is the electric motor, clean as a whistle.  The car doesn’t use any oil, so there is nothing to get it greasy.  The lithium ion batteries that make the car go are underneath the body, protected from the road by a steel plate.

We get in and I punch a button to start the car.  A gauge on the dash indicates that I have 99 miles to go on the current charge.  The GPS screen helpfully informs me that the nearest public charging station is at the Nissan dealership.  As we back silently out of the parking space the GPS screen changes to a back-up camera, and then we’re off to IH 35.  The interior is roomy and can seat five people.  The steering wheel, pedals, and turn signal are just like any other automobile so it is easy to drive.  On the highway we accelerate easily to 74 miles per hour, and could go a lot faster if it were legal.  “Charge anxiety” keeps me glancing at the charge indicator, which tells me how many miles of range remain.  After an uneventful twenty mile test drive to Georgetown and back the gauge says I have used 42 miles of charge, because at highway speeds and with the air conditioner churning full blast the Leaf won’t get its full 99 miles of range.  However there are still 57 miles of charge left.  Since more than half of all vehicle trips in the US are less than 10 miles, and almost 80% are 50 miles or less, the Leaf can handle most drivers’ requirements most of the time, even with the AC on.

So how much electricity does it take to drive a car?  The EPA fuel economy sticker says it takes about 34 kilowatt-hours of electricity for a full charge.  Thirty four kilowatt-hours is approximately the same amount required to run the central air conditioning at my house for one day in the summer.  At current rates that is about 4.7 cents per mile.  Even my Prius, which gets 40 miles per gallon, requires almost 9 cents of gasoline per mile traveled.  If you drove a Leaf instead of a 20 mile-per-gallon gasoline car for 120,000 miles, you would save $15,600 in fuel costs.  That’s assuming that gasoline prices don’t go up over the next few years.

There are people who postulate that an electric car is just as polluting as an internal combustion engine vehicle, because the electricity is generated by a coal plant.  Calculations show that even using electricity from a dirty source, greenhouse gases, carbon monoxide, hydrocarbons, nitrogen oxides, and ozone would all decrease as internal combustion engines are replaced by electric vehicles.  Particulate matter and sulfur dioxide in the atmosphere might actually increase, if we continue to rely on outdated coal plants to generate most of our electricity.  However, as we generate more electricity from cleaner sources like natural gas, wind, and solar, those pollutants will also decrease. Another thing to consider is that, no matter where the electricity comes from, electric cars have zero tailpipe emissions, so on a crowded downtown street, or waiting in line to pick up the kids at school, local air quality will immediately improve as the percentage of electric vehicles increases.

What kind of people drive electric cars?  Mr. Crider says that of the eight Leafs (Leaves?) that he has sold so far, all of his customers have short commutes to work, so they can charge up at home in the evening and go everywhere they need to go the next day.  They all have hybrids already which they can use for long trips.  And they are not scared off by the $35,000 sticker price.  Yes, that does seem a little high at first glance, but when you figure in the $7500 federal tax credit for buying an alternative fuel vehicle, the lifetime fuel savings, and no oil changes, it is actually cheaper than a hybrid.  The biggest plus is that with an electric vehicle you get to break up with the Saudi royal family.  Now that’s a luxury car.

Peak Energy

Published in the Sun on 8-14-2011

Two athletes are going to participate in sporting events.  Athlete A is entering a Walk-A-Thon and will travel one mile at a leisurely pace.  Athlete B is also racing one mile, but will have to run at a 6 minute per mile pace to have any hope of keeping up with the pack.  Which event is more difficult?  Even though the races are the same distance, clearly Athlete B will have to train intensely to increase her aerobic capacity for running.  She will have to generate lots of power in a short period of time to run so fast.  Athlete A could putter along in her comfy shoes and barely break a sweat.

Most of the time, an electric company is like a Walk-A-Thon, ambling along, generating some relaxed megawatts.  But then a hot summer afternoon comes along and the general public comes home, cranks down the AC, sticks dinner in the oven, flips on the TV, and throws a load of clothes in the washer.  All of a sudden the electric company is running a six minute mile and struggling to keep up.

This phenomenon is called peak energy usage.  It’s a problem for electric companies because electricity cannot easily be stored.  You can’t generate extra at night and save it up for the next day.  Electricity has to be generated when it is needed, so electric companies have to build more coal plants (or natural gas plants or wind turbines) to produce enough power for peak demand than they would need if consumption were leveled out through the day.  And when demand goes up, price goes up too.  Chris Foster, an economist with Georgetown Utility Systems (GUS), explains that the wholesale price that GUS pays for electricity during peak hours (typically 1 to 7 pm) is up to four times higher than the wholesale price during the middle of the night.  On really hot afternoons such as we are experiencing this summer, the price of electricity can skyrocket to the maximum allowed by law:  $3000 per megawatt hour, 250 times the price of off-peak electricity!

Kathy Ragsdale recently took charge of the new Conservation Department at GUS.  A Southwestern University grad, she joined the utility billing department over 25 years ago.  She is not comfortable with the name of her new department, because when people hear “Conservation,” they think “Deprivation”.  In reality, Kathy wants everybody to have all the electricity they want.  Electricity makes people happy, and besides, the city makes money by selling it to us.  Her goal is to create a win-win situation by decreasing peak demand so that GUS can get electricity at the lowest rates possible, saving consumers money on their electric bills.

How can peak usage be reduced?  During a Texas summer, 90% of excess demand comes from air conditioners.  Kathy, only half joking, suggests hanging a pair of reading glasses on the thermostat.  “Instead of just turning it colder, look and see what temperature you are actually setting.”  Just one degree of difference, setting it at 78 degrees instead of 77 for example, can decrease energy consumption by 2 to 4%.

But human nature being what it is, it’s hard to stay away from that thermostat when the temperature hits 104 degrees.  There is no incentive to worry about peak energy usage.  Residential customers are charged the same 10.74 cents per kilowatt hour no matter what time of day they turn on the air conditioner.  So how can the Conservation Department encourage reduced demand?

You may have noticed on your electric bill a one dollar Energy Conservation Fee.  This new fee generates about $20,000 a month from residential and commercial customers.  Starting in the fall, these funds will be used to provide rebates to customers who upgrade to Energy Star appliances, improve home insulation, or replace electric water heaters with solar assisted water heaters.

Also coming this year are financial incentives for installation of solar photovoltaic (PV) panels.  PV panels are particularly well suited to reducing peak demand because they are producing the most electricity on sunny afternoons, almost exactly when demand is highest.  If enough roofs sport solar panels, it’s like having another power plant distributed through the community, but a power plant that doesn’t require burning coal.

Another idea being studied for the future is “time of use”, or TOU, price differentials.  TOU plans allow customers to elect to pay more for electricity consumed during peak hours, but less than standard rates for that consumed during off-peak hours.  For example, suppose that you work late almost every day.  You would benefit from a TOU plan that charged a higher rate, say 18 cents per kilowatt hour, for the peak hours in the afternoon because you are not even home and can leave everything turned off.  In exchange you get off-peak rates as low as 2 cents per kilowatt hour, allowing you, for just pennies, to indulge your love of sleeping in a cold room.  People with flexible schedules might choose to do their laundry and cooking in the morning to take advantage of low rates.  It’s like taking the red-eye:  it’s cheaper to fly at night.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Williamson County Recycle Center

Published August 7, 2011

Jerry Tidwell is passionate about the stuff most people throw away.  He likes cardboard, plastic, aluminum cans, old car batteries and motor oil, but he especially loves household hazardous waste.  As CEO of the Williamson County Recycle Center, Jerry would like to see landfill waste in our county approach zero.  But he is quick to point out, “I am not a treehugger.  I’m a hunter, and I raise game dogs.  But there is not enough landfill space, and I want the next generation to be able to go hunting and kayaking and not see trash everywhere.”

Jerry started out to be a civil engineer, but just one year short of his degree, his father suffered a serious head injury while operating heavy equipment, and Jerry and his brothers had to take over the family construction business.  That was OK for a first career, but Jerry got tired of “dealing with bureaucrats,” which makes his next move completely inscrutable.  He decided to go to Texas A & M to study environmental regulation, so that he could help companies deal with the requirements of DOT (Department of Transportation), OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Association), EPA (Environmental Protection Agency), and TCEQ (Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.)

Jerry and his wife Deann started PA-jer Environmental Management and were soon joined by son Hugh, who completed the A & M training program at age 15, still a course record.  One of their first big jobs was to help Texaco Chemical Company safely dispose of 3000 barrels of “unknown chemicals” that were sitting, and corroding, at the corner of Lamar and Airport Boulevard, right over the Edwards aquifer.  Because they developed a reputation of being knowledgeable and responsible about hazardous waste, Deann started getting frantic calls from homeowners.   “Help me, I’m moving next week and the garbage truck won’t take all these paint cans and chemicals in my garage!”  The Tidwells saw a desperate need:  unless they branched into household hazardous waste the clandestine disposal of toxic chemicals hidden in black plastic bags would continue unabated.

The Tidwells built their recycling center on 6 beautiful acres just east of Weir.  There is not so much as a gum wrapper to be seen on the grounds.  Safety is also a priority.  All flammable liquids are electrically grounded to a copper rod extending 8 feet into the ground.  Even the concrete slab of the warehouse is ringed by a two inch curb which could contain 1350 gallons of hazardous liquid in the unlikely event of a spill.  While the men took care of customers, Deann served me coffee and we watched a hummingbird visit the butterfly plants around the office.  A big Texas lizard skittered across the sidewalk.  At her house a few miles from the recycle center Deann has a vegetable garden; she never uses pesticides.  She also raises figs, which she sells to the Monument Café.

There is a steady stream of clients this morning.  Georgetown and Hutto residents can get vouchers from their cities which allow free disposal of hazardous waste.  A well-dressed man from Round Rock pulls up without a voucher and unloads a trunkful of latex paint and pesticides.   I ask him why he is willing to pay 37 cents a pound to get rid of his old paint.  He just wants to be a responsible citizen and besides, no one else will take it.  The funny part is that the Tidwells can find homes for a lot of that paint.  Any product that is usable and still in its original container, they will give away free of charge to anybody who can use it.  Jerry says in 2009 they gave away 30,000 pounds of perfectly good latex paint to people who are not particular about color.  When people discard cardboard moving boxes, the kind you buy at U-Haul, Hugh folds them down and gives them to the next person who needs to move.  “Saves them $10 a box.”   Sometimes there is an outbreak of piñata making, and people even come in for old newspapers.  Re-use is better than recycling, and in fact is part of their mandate from TCEQ.  Nothing taken in by the Williamson County Recycle Center goes into a municipal landfill.

The Tidwells make their living managing hazardous waste for businesses.  Recycling is really a sideline for them, but they see it as a service to the community.  I think they are right.

The Williamson County Recycle Center is open Thursday and Friday from 8 to 5, and Saturday from 8 to 12.  Please visit their website at for details about services.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Why I'm Blogging

Recently I began writing a column about sustainable living for the Williamson County Sun.  Some of my friends and relatives who don't take the Sun expressed interest in reading my column, so I decided to put them on a blog.  I will post one a day, in the order in which they appeared in the paper, until I get caught up.  I only do one column every two weeks, so after I catch up, the frequency of postings will decrease to a tolerable level.  What follows is the introductory column.  It was published on July 24, 2011.

A man who does not consider himself a “greenie” confided to me that he actually likes those reusable cloth grocery bags because they hold more, they stand up on the kitchen counter, and the handles don’t rip and drop your jars on the driveway.  He was a bit embarrassed by this confession, as if it were a sign of weakness; as if only weirdos with hemp clothing would bring their own bags to the grocery.   For some, the phrase “sustainable lifestyle” means living in cold homes and driving tiny cars.  I remain more optimistic.  There are many eco-friendly innovations that actually improve the quality of our lives, which makes sense if you think about it.  Shouldn’t living in equilibrium with our surroundings for multiple generations be more emotionally satisfying than depleting our way through one natural resource after another?

The words “green” and “environmentally friendly” are so overused that they no longer have any meaning at all.  Every product, from diapers to pickup trucks, comes with a green version, often at a significantly higher price.  I recently bought a cell phone that claimed to be manufactured in a sustainable fashion, but I suspect that the only thing different about it was the coarse brown box.   In any case the phone didn’t work, so what good is a supposedly sustainable phone that doesn’t make phone calls?  How does that help the planet?  There are so many choices to make every day.  Paper or plastic?  Pesticide or bugs?  Hybrid or Hummer?  Some of these choices may be quite expensive or require some sort of personal sacrifice.  Which individual choices make an actual difference to the environment and which are just greenwashing?

I moved to Georgetown in 1971 and attended Georgetown High School when it was still in the old, un-airconditioned building on University.  Some friends and I started the Ecology Club, the sole purpose of which was to recycle newspapers.  Back then the idea that a truck might actually drive by your house and pick up items for recycling was completely unimaginable.  Our recycling efforts were not particularly successful.  The boy members of the club were regularly sent home for haircuts whenever the principal determined that their hair was touching the collar of their shirts.  These days you could probably search all over Georgetown High School and not find a boy who even has a collar.  I too was sent home for wearing one of those long dresses with spaghetti straps, and was indignant at this bureaucratic infringement of my basic freedoms.  I met my husband, Bill, in physics class.  He was trying to use the Bunsen burner to stretch out a Coke bottle, which did not actually work, but seemed innovative at the time.

Eventually the city took up recycling, so I felt free to leave environmental activism and instead practiced obstetrics and gynecology for 25 years, as well as raising three children.  Five of those years were spent in Zaire and Pakistan.  In less developed countries people do not consider “the environment” as something that needs to be protected, but rather as a force that can quickly kill if you are not careful.  Lightning strikes and snake bites are dramatic, but a more common killer is water contaminated by human sewage, in other words:  pollution.

After retiring from medicine and completing a master’s degree in environmental science, I have joined Bill in building a zero energy house in historic Georgetown.   The house has passive solar design features, a 4.5 kilowatt solar array, a solar hot water heater, and a 10,000 gallon rainwater tank.  This is the second solar house that Bill has built himself.  We like building with these technologies and try to share our enthusiasm, so both houses are for rent.

In this regular column I plan to explore the sustainability scene in Williamson County.  I hope to feature people who are trying out new ideas and inventions, as well as people who are using methods from the past to deal with current problems.  As we progress ever more rapidly into an uncertain future, how do we “live lightly” in our vibrant county?