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?