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.