Sunday, December 16, 2012

Nissan Leaf - A Perfect Urban Ride
Published in the Sun December 15, 2012

Lisa Davis loves her Leaf

Fellow eco-nerds with similar buying habits, Lisa Davis and I met at HEB stocking up on Seventh Generation recycled paper towels.  Lisa had seen my column about driving my Nissan Leaf to the Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center (a trip former editor Ben Trollinger referred to as “Toad’s Wild Ride”) and introduced herself as a fellow Leaf driver.  I asked if she has had adventures with electric driving, but she denied any drama.  “It’s a regular car.  People need to know that.”  Her Leaf was a Christmas present last year, and the thrill has yet to wear off.  An electric car is the ideal vehicle for driving around town.  There are no tailpipe emissions of carbon monoxide, particulate matter, or ozone to smog up our urban air.  In addition to being good for the environment, Lisa loves her Leaf because it is loaded with amenities and big enough to hold her husband and two sons, all over 6 feet tall.  The Leaf is quiet and smooth, but when she steps on the pedal it takes off like a rocket.  Curious people ask her how fast it will go, but she doesn’t know.  She’s had it up to 80 mph.  She wonders if maybe I’ve gone faster, but alas, I am a boring driver.


Lisa admits that when she first got the Leaf she suffered from a bit of charge anxiety; the fear of running out of electricity before getting home.  The first time she took the car to Austin, she stopped at the Nissan dealer in Round Rock and topped up her charge.  She needn’t have worried; she had plenty of juice for the return trip.  I have taken my Leaf to the Austin airport and back on one charge, but that is about the limit of range at highway speeds.  Driving around town at 30 to 40 mph it will go 100 miles, but since people rarely drive 100 miles around town, it’s not really an issue.  When you get home you just plug it in and charge up again.


The electricity to run the car costs about 2 ½ cents a mile.  (Gasoline costs 8 to 20 cents a mile, depending on whether you drive a gas sipper or a gas hog.)  No gasoline engine also means no oil changes.  About the only maintenance required is rotating the tires.  And cleaning the windshield.  Lisa and I both noticed that when you never go to a filling station, your windshield gets really, really dirty.


A curious person, Lisa once tried to deliberately run down her battery, just to see what would happen.  With about 8 miles of range left the dashboard started flashing warnings and the nice GPS lady offered directions to a charging station.  If a careless driver ignores the warnings and keeps driving, the Leaf will eventually enter what is called “turtle mode,” in which speed and acceleration are limited for one last mile, allowing a safe exit off the road.  Lisa tried to reach turtle mode in her neighborhood, driving round and round the block, but she got bored before the car ran out of charge.  Finally she just drove into her garage and plugged it in.  Sometimes she charges up at the Georgetown Recreation Center charging station, where the electricity is complimentary.


Lisa is sold on electric driving, but what about the general population?  Jerry Crider, the electric vehicle specialist at Round Rock Nissan, told me that hesitation about the new technology is being overcome by an attractive new lease deal from Nissan.  You can now lease a Leaf for 36 months with $2000 down and $249 a month.  That is a pretty good deal considering it costs about $200 a month just to keep an SUV fueled up.  A lease avoids the hefty purchase price of the Leaf, and after 3 years the customer can trade up to what will surely be new and improved electric technology.  Jerry has leased four Leafs in the last month alone.  So far nobody has come back to say they really prefer gasoline.


My next column will be about a delightful lady, Mary Griffith, who wanted to drive electrically but needed a car that could take her back and forth to Colorado.

Monday, December 3, 2012

What's Up with the Yellow Bags?
Published in the Sun December 1, 2012

“Bag the Bag” it’s called; a bright yellow stuffer bag designed to hold plastic bags, six pack rings, cellophane, and other film plastics for Georgetown’s new single stream recycling.  When the bag first showed up with my 96 gallon recycling bin I was incredulous.  Surely we didn’t have to buy special bags just to recycle other bags?  Couldn’t we just stuff all our bags into an old grocery bag?  The idea of a special bag just seemed so wrong to me that I made an appointment to speak with Verna Browning, a representative of Texas Disposal Systems, and Rachel Osgood and Gary Hertel from the city of Georgetown to learn the reason for this apparent travesty of sustainability.


It turns out there is method to their madness.  Plastic bags cannot be thrown loose into the recycling cart for two good reasons:  they fly everywhere on the slightest breeze creating litter, and they jam up the mechanism of the sorting machines.  So bags must be bundled together into a package big enough to stay put.  Unfortunately, a regular grocery bag filled up with other bags will tear open when it is compacted in the truck, and then you are right back where you started, with loose plastic bags.


The stuffer bags are tough enough to stand up to the collection process.  When properly tied shut, tiny perforations in the bottom of the bag allow air to escape so they don’t explode when compacted.  Upon arrival at the recycling center, workers can easily recognize the bright yellow bags and pull them off the conveyor before they go into the sorting machine and cause mechanical problems.  The yellow stuffer also identifies the bag as recycling.  A tied off grocery bag could just as easily be filled with diapers or doggie poo.


My original “Bag the Bag” has been hanging in my kitchen for over a month and it is still not even half full.  It now contains 22 bread and newspaper bags, the plastic wrapper from a bundle of paper towels, and some Saran wrap.  There are no grocery bags because I have reusable bags for the grocery store, and the few bags I do get line my small trash cans.  When it is finally full, new stuffers are available (for free) at the municipal utility office at the corner of Industrial Drive and Leander Road, at the Garden-Ville outlet near the soccer fields on Walden Drive, and at the Sun City Social Center Monitor’s desk.  Yes, they are free.  The original plan was to charge 25 cents a bag, but apparently citizens were on the verge of mutiny, and in a spirit of cooperation the city decided to absorb the cost.


If you remain skeptical about the yellow bags, you do have alternatives.  You can still take grocery bags, bread bags, and newspaper bags back to the grocery store.  I went to HEB incognito (which is easy for me) and asked two separate employees who were taking out trash if the grocery bags that get collected actually go to recycling.  Both assured me that they really do.  Unfortunately the grocery store will not take other kinds of plastic wrappers or cellophane, nor will they take those turtle-strangling six pack rings.  Another alternative is just to trash your plastic bags.  Recycling is, after all, voluntary.  Just remember that whatever goes into your trash bin ends up in the landfill.  It does not get diverted to recycling at the dump just because it is recyclable.


Several choices exist for yard waste as well.  If you continue to put yard waste in black plastic bags it will go into the landfill, no exceptions, where it uses up space and squanders a valuable resource.  If, however, you would prefer your yard waste to be composted and turned into mulch, bundle it into four foot lengths or place it in compostable bags and set it on the curb on your yard waste day.  I went to Home Depot to check out the bag situation.  Jim Glennan, a Home Depot employee and a recent transplant from the Chicago area, showed me a huge box in the Garden Center where you can get 5 compostable bags for $1.88.  He says this time of year they sell like hotcakes.  He also pointed out that in Illinois recycling was free but he had to put a sticker costing $2.80 on each and every yard bag or garbage bag that he discarded.  He liked that method because he could save money by not throwing anything away.  True, but it seems like an awfully pricey sticker to put on a bag of garbage.


For people who really don’t want to buy yard bags, Ms. Osgood suggested using a large generic trash can that looks different from the TDS bins and labeling it “YARD WASTE” in giant letters.  Your leaves will be composted au naturel.


For answers to almost any question that you could possibly have about Georgetown’s single stream recycling, go to