Saturday, May 26, 2012

Steve Hochstetler was fed up with buying gasoline.  It wasn’t so much the price of gasoline that was bothering him, but the realization that the vast amounts of money and effort going into the petroleum business benefitted the few at the expense of many.  “Nigeria is a perfect example.  The money doesn’t flow down to the people of Nigeria.”  In his work for IBM, Steve had travelled to 32 countries, seeing firsthand how people could be desperately poor in countries rich in resources.  While living in North Carolina, Steve had been heavily involved in the fair trade organization Ten Thousand Villages, which provides artisans in developing countries an international market for their products.  So when he and his wife Pat moved to Austin in 2000, they spearheaded the drive to open a successful Ten Thousand Villages outlet on South Congress.  They no longer manage the store, but making a difference in the world remained very important to both the Hochstetlers, so they turned their attention to a new project.

When Steve realized that buying gasoline was not helping anybody, at least not helping anybody who needed help, he decided to stop using it.  He traded his Toyota Prius for a 1983 diesel Mercedes 300TD wagon with 186,000 miles on it.  He enrolled in a workshop to learn how to convert waste vegetable oil into biodiesel.  He bought a biodiesel processor from a guy on craigslist who had built one out of an old electric water heater.  But as he learned to make biodiesel, Steve discovered that the conversion process required both methanol and lye, toxic chemicals that he just didn’t want in his garage.  So he ditched the idea of making his own biodiesel and decided to run his car on straight, unconverted, waste vegetable oil.

Now you can’t just pour canola oil into your Mercedes and expect to motor on down the road.  First, you need the right kind of waste oil:  liquid, fairly clean, and with almost no chicken fat in it.

During the sacrificial season of Lent, Catholic churches have a lot of fried fish suppers.  To me a fish fry doesn’t really seem like much of a sacrifice, but anyway, after the parishioners go back to eating meat, the churches end up with a lot of excess vegetable oil.  Steve takes it off their hands, collecting 700 or 800 gallons of lightly used oil at the end of every Lent season, enough to fuel his Mercedes for the rest of the year.

The oil has to be filtered really well or food particles will clog up the engine.  Steve is compulsive about this step because he wants to keep driving.  He pours the oil through a series of filters from 600 to 200 microns.  The openings in the mesh are barely wider than a human hair.  Then he lets the oil sit undisturbed in a barrel for several weeks, so any remaining tiny particles settle to the bottom.  For the final step he pours the oil through a one micron filter, fine enough to remove bacteria.

The filtered oil is very, very clean, but it still can’t be put directly into the diesel engine.  Vegetable oil is a big, complex molecule, and more viscous than biodiesel.  Chemically, vegetable oil is composed of three hydrocarbon chains (fatty acids) connected to a glycerol molecule.    Biodiesel is made from vegetable oil too, but biodiesel has the glycerol stripped off during processing, leaving hydrocarbon chains which are almost identical to diesel made from petroleum.

In order to use the thicker vegetable oil in an automobile, it has to be made less viscous so it won’t gunk up the engine.  Just like butter turns liquid in the frying pan, vegetable oil gets less viscous when it is heated.  Cars that have been converted to run on vegetable oil have two tanks.  They start on biodiesel, and then after a few minutes when the engine and the fuel are good and hot, they switch over to the oil.  Before turning the car off, it is switched back to biodiesel to flush the system, so that the vegetable oil won’t cool off and turn to Crisco in the fuel injectors.  Some people say that the exhaust smells like French fries when it’s running on oil, but Steve claims he doesn’t notice it.

Steve and Pat have put about 50,000 vegetable oil miles on the Mercedes wagon without any problems with the engine, and they have also acquired and converted two more Mercedes sedans to run on waste oil.  When they need more biodiesel for start-up and cool-down, Steve gets it at DieselGreen Fuels, Austin’s only source of biodiesel.  They will give him 30 gallons of biodiesel in exchange for 120 gallons of his fish fry oil.

Though he is keeping his day job at IBM, Steve plans to start a side business called “GreaseMyMercedes” to help other people convert their own diesel cars to waste oil.  He admits that a few cars running on vegetable oil won’t replace the gasoline industry, but it’s a small step that he can make toward alternative fuels.  “At least I’m doing something,” he says hopefully.  “If everybody just did a little something, the world would be a lot better place.”

Monday, May 14, 2012

Dalton Rebecek is only eleven years old, but he has no qualms about speaking to the press.  May 3 is a newsworthy day at Jo Ann Ford Elementary School; the lunchroom is beginning a composting program for food waste.  As student council president, Dalton has been preparing his classmates for the inauguration of this new program, so he confidently explains it to me.  The Ford lunchroom used to send 16 bags of trash to the landfill every day.  With the new food composting program and single stream recycling, Dalton says trash will be reduced to only one bag a day, which will be “healthier for the Earth.”

Jason Sanders, coordinator of recycling and composting for Texas Disposal Systems, is patiently herding 500 very noisy grade-schoolers through their first trash sorting line.  Food, paper napkins, and milk cartons go into the bin for composting.  Water bottles and aluminum cans go to recycling.  Styrofoam, plastic cutlery, and sandwich bags go into the trash.  While volunteers continue to teach proper trash line etiquette, Jason invites me outside (where it is blissfully quiet) to see the special dumpster where the food waste goes.  The dumpster is equipped with a radio frequency ID tag.  When the truck comes to collect the food waste it will immediately record the source and the weight of the food, so TDS will know exactly how much waste is being diverted from the landfill by each school.  Ford is the last Georgetown elementary school to go live with the composting program, so Jason has data from all the other elementary schools in town, as well as from the Austin and Hayes elementary schools.  He confirms Dalton’s claim that landfill waste will decrease from 16 bags per lunchroom per day to one or two.  Mitchell Elementary, which was the first Georgetown school to begin composting and recycling, is now the champion of all the TDS Green schools.  Mitchell kids recycled and composted over 8000 pounds of waste in April alone.

Food waste composting is not just for little kids.  At Southwestern University the cafeteria in the Red McCombs center is now diverting over 90% of its waste stream away from the landfill and will save $10,000 a year by doing so.  Gary Hertel, Georgetown Facilities Manager for TDS, shows me a special door at the back of the kitchen where food can be thrown directly into a collection bin, and another chute where recyclables such as cardboard boxes slide into a huge compactor.  I don’t see any place for regular trash so I ask Gary where it is.  Before he can answer a janitor comes out with a single black plastic bag and sets it primly on the curb.  This kitchen feeds 1000 people a day but there is so little trash generated that after lunch a golf cart comes by and hauls the few bags to a dumpster at another location.

After the food waste is collected at the schools, it is hauled down to the Texas Disposal Systems facility at Creedmoor, just southeast of Austin.  I am greeted there by Adam and Paul Gregory, sons of founder and CEO Bob Gregory.  Rarely will you meet two young men so enthusiastic about recycling.  Adam is only 27 years old, but led the design and construction of the 107,000 square foot Materials Recovery Facility (MRF), pronounced “murph” in dump-speak.  Adam proudly shows me huge bales of plastic milk jugs, bimetal cans, and aluminum stacked in endless rows.  He explains that in order to make a profit, sometimes TDS has to hold onto the bales temporarily and wait for the right market price.  Recycling not only makes money by saving valuable resources, but also keeps 300 tons of material out of the landfill every day.  Adam thinks that with diligent materials recovery he can make this landfill last 100 years.  Paul, the older brother, is no less committed to the long view.  As long as every man, woman, and child in America continues to discard over 1.25 tons of trash every year, their family business will have plenty of opportunity for innovation.  Both brothers have business degrees but confess that they have little interest in mundane matters such as quarterly profits.  They prefer to focus on long term projects such as harvesting methane gas from the landfill to run the materials recovery facility, a process that should be operational within two years.  They are also looking forward to opening a safari park in the buffer zone surrounding the landfill and have already collected over 2500 exotic animals, many of them endangered species.  As we drive off-road in the grass among antelope and bison, I forget that we’re in Texas, much less in a landfill.

Paul Gregory is in charge of composting the food collected from the schools.  We drive his truck back to the big piles where the children’s lunch leftovers have been ground up in a five-to-one ratio with chopped brush.  The piles are called “static” piles because they are allowed to sit for the 6 months required for the milk cartons to disappear.  Twice during that period they are stirred up and blasted with water cannons to keep the decomposing bacteria active.  The temperature inside the piles rises to 140 degrees Fahrenheit from the metabolism of the bacteria, killing seeds and pathogens.  In fact, the piles get so hot that they can catch fire if they are allowed to get too big.  After 6 months the compost will be ready to be sold through the Garden-Ville outlets as a valuable source of organic humus and nitrogen for lawns and gardens.  It can also be used at TDS’s tree farm on the premises.

Lunchroom leftovers are only a small part of the composting operation.  Other piles contain such sundry items as animal manure or waste liquids from the Borden dairy and the Coca-Cola bottling plant.

The brothers admit that these massive, hot compost piles are also an expedient way to dispose of rare fatalities among the wildlife.  Last year George, a 20 year old American bison, died peacefully of old age.  He was suitably mourned and then, rather than digging a really big hole, George was interred in a compost pile.  After 10 days there was nothing left but hooves and teeth.