Sunday, April 28, 2013

Recycling Batteries

Published in the Sun 4-27-2013

Buckets Full of Batteries at Batteries Plus

Batteries create electricity through chemical reactions.  Some of those chemicals would be toxic if released into the environment in an unsafe manner, so what should we do with batteries when they are out of juice?  All batteries can be recycled, but recycling is more important for some kinds of batteries than for others.


A car battery, for instance, contains about 21 pounds of lead.  As long as that lead stays inside the battery, it’s perfectly safe.  But taking the battery apart without precautions can be extremely dangerous.  In 2008 the World Health Organization reported an epidemic of lead poisoning in Dakar, Senegal, in a community that made its living by dismantling car batteries to salvage lead.  Older children would help with the process, and younger ones would play in the dirt where the recycling was taking place, and like babies everywhere, they would eat dirt; dirt that was highly contaminated with lead.  Eighteen children died and dozens more had potentially lethal blood levels of lead, a situation that can cause permanent brain damage.  Unfortunately, this is only one of many examples of people in less developed countries being poisoned by improperly recycled lead-acid batteries.


Luckily in the United States, ninety-eight percent of automotive lead acid batteries are recycled, keeping toxic lead out of the environment.  In fact it’s illegal in Texas to throw your car battery into the landfill.


Remember in 2010 when a lot of children’s jewelry imported from China was found to be heavily contaminated with cadmium?  Cadmium is an essential element in a nickel-cadmium (Ni-Cad) rechargeable battery, where it is sealed up and safe to handle.  But don’t let that cadmium get away because exposure to too much cadmium can cause kidney damage or even cancer.


Button cell batteries, the kind used for hearing aids, cameras, and watches, frequently contain up to 10 milligrams of mercury.  No law prohibits throwing these batteries in the trash, but they should really be recycled to keep mercury out of our landfills.


You can’t put batteries into your single-stream recycling container, so I checked around and found a few good places where you can responsibly dispose of them when they finally burn out.


Matt Gann is the store manager at Batteries Plus, which is located beside the Round Rock Home Depot, just across IH 35 from La Frontera.  Mr. Gann told me that he will accept (for free) car batteries, Ni-Cad batteries, and just about any other kind of batteries anybody wants to bring in, but not lithium ion batteries, which have a tendency to explode.


For $45, Batteries Plus can rebuild a worn out Ni-Cad battery for a cordless power tool so that it is as good as new.  That’s about half the price you would pay for a new DeWalt battery.  Mr. Gann will also take small quantities of alkaline cells, the familiar AA, AAA, and D cells that are so common in our toys and flashlights.  Alkaline cells can be recycled to recover steel and zinc, but there is not much of a market for them, so if you bring in more than a sandwich bag, Batteries Plus will have to charge you a dollar a pound.  Alkaline cells do not contain any toxic materials, so they can actually be thrown in the trash, and you don’t have to feel guilty.


The Hutto Recycling Center, between Hutto and Georgetown on Hwy 1660, will take all kinds of batteries, including lithium ion and alkaline cells, for free.


The Williamson County Recycle Center on county road 156 near Weir will take lithium ion, rechargeable, coin, and car batteries for free as well, but they charge $2 a pound to recycle alkaline cells.


Retailers that sell power tools are required to take back rechargeable batteries that have reached the end of their lives, so at Home Depot there is a big box near the service desk where you can dump your power tool batteries, assuming you don’t want to have them rebuilt at Batteries Plus.  Don’t put alkaline cells in the Home Depot box because they will just get thrown away when the recycle truck comes.


For times of operation and questions about your specific batteries, contact Batteries Plus at 512 600-7800, the Hutto Recycling Center at 512 846-2756, or the Williamson County Recycle Center at 512 869-7287.


Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Debut of Question and Answer Column

Published in the Sun April 21, 2013

The Living Lightly column is venturing into new territory.  If readers will send in their burning questions related to sustainable lifestyle or environmental health, I will try to find the answer.  Then after I publish an answer, if you have a better or different answer that you would like to share with the public, send it my way at


Help.  My spare bedroom is full of obsolete computers and monitors.  I have boxes full of keyboards, cables, and mice.  Some of this stuff still works.  Surely somebody could give it a good home.  What can I do with it?


These days we all want the latest techno-gadget.  To check my assumption that there is very little demand for old computers, I headed over to Click Computers on University in Georgetown.  Sometimes it is just too weird how things work out.   Standing next to me at the counter was a very nice man, George Lourigan, who overheard my question.  He immediately spoke up and offered that he takes donated computers and fixes them up for formerly homeless people.  George and a friend, Bob Pearson, run Bridge Ministries, which helps the homeless find permanent living arrangements and get reconnected to society, which of course involves internet access.  George will take computers that are several years old and overwrite the hard drives to remove all personal information.  Now what are the chances that someone who actually wants old computers would be standing at Click’s counter the very moment I walk in to ask my question?  George isn’t sure how many computers he can handle at present, but if you have a good one to donate, contact him at 512 635-3329 or


If George doesn’t want it, or if your stuff is in bad shape, you can still reclaim the spare room by taking your old electronics to Goodwill.  They will wipe the hard drive, salvage the good components, rebuild a few functional computers for resale, and recycle the rest.  Goodwill has a deal with Dell Computers called Dell Reconnect.  They will take any brand of computer equipment and recycle it responsibly.  They promise not to export the waste to developing countries for disposal and not to use child or prison labor in the recycling process.



What is the most effective thing I can do to “save the earth?”


On a global scale, the most effective thing we could do as a species is have fewer children.  But for those of us who are already here, the three biggest contributors to our carbon footprints are:  Your diet, your car, and your house.  Meat production, especially cattle, uses huge amounts of both energy and water, so switching to a plant based diet is one of the most important changes you can make, and healthier as well.  Even giving up meat one day a week (Meatless Mondays) is helpful.  Drive a fuel efficient car, or better yet, drive less altogether.  And third, use your air conditioner sparingly.  Wear shorts to sit on the porch and drink iced tea.  (Of course, this idea has more appeal in April than it does in August.)  The impact of changes in the way you eat and live can be huge or small, depending on how enthusiastically you throw yourself into the project.  Notice that recycling is not on the big three list.  Recycling is wonderful, and we should all do it, but the impact on your carbon footprint is not as great as that of diet, transportation, and home energy usage.  It’s just so much easier to focus on recycling because it doesn’t involve those pesky lifestyle changes which are so inconvenient.


Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Rethinking Our Dependency on Cars

Published in the Sun April 10, 2013
Lacey Unger and Cole Cassens

“Couple dies in Easter car crash.”  The headline was stark and the picture heartbreaking.  Cole Cassens sports a broad grin, posing cheek to cheek with his fiancĂ©e.  Lacey Unger looks more like a teenager than a talented 28 year old teacher.  She has always been wispy and delicate.  I have known her since she was 10 years old; her mother Penny Leone is a dear friend.  I saw Penny on Easter morning and she told me how happy she was about the upcoming wedding and what a good man Lacey had found in Cole.


Young people aren’t supposed to die, especially not young people that you know personally.  An extra layer of sorrow is added when a young man and woman looking forward to beginning their married life together are instead united for eternity at a double funeral.  It’s like Romeo and Juliet, except there is no plot to this tragedy, just profound sorrow and helplessness.


Every year in the United States 37,000 people die in traffic accidents and countless others are permanently injured.  As a society we tolerate this carnage because we passionately love our automobiles.  We love the freedom to go wherever and whenever we want, and we want to get there fast.  We all know that driving can be dangerous, but we convince ourselves that we can handle it, that we are better-than-average drivers.  Wear your seat belt, obey the speed limit, don’t drink and drive, don’t talk on the phone (too much), and everything will be fine.  Anonymous people may be killed in accidents but it won’t happen to me.


In truth you take your chances in a diabolic lottery every time you get behind the wheel.  You may be following the rules, but the driver coming towards you could be on the phone, or ill, or drunk, and could suddenly and without warning turn his vehicle into a cruise missile aimed directly at you and there is nothing you can do about it.  Lacey and Cole weren’t drunk.  They were wearing seat belts.  They were driving below the speed limit on a straight road going through a green light when another car unexpectedly turned left, hitting their car and spinning them into a pole.  One minute you are driving home from a happy family gathering and the next minute you are dead.


Lacey’s mom Penny is a nurse and a grief counselor at her church, but nothing prepared her for the overwhelming grief of Lacey’s death.  I know it’s a pipe dream, but maybe we could all pause a moment and rethink our love affair with cars.  Do we have to drive so much, so fast, so aggressively?  Does Texas need to have the highest speed limits in the nation?  Can we provide economical and convenient taxi services for elderly people so they can live independently without driving?  Could trains or buses take some of us to Austin, so we don’t have to fly in tight formation on IH 35?  At the very least can we promise to never, ever text while driving?


We can certainly put a protected left turn arrow on the light at Sun City.


Lacey and Cole were victims of a terrible accident.  Nothing can change that.  But if we decide to stop accepting the sacrifice of so many thousands of lives on the altar of convenient transportation, maybe we could save some other young couple.  Today, while there is still time, hug somebody you love.  And drive carefully.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Reclaimed Space

Published in the Sun April 6, 2013

Where a casual observer might notice only an outdated, falling-down barn, Tracen Gardner sees with a more discerning vision.  He appreciates the big timbers that were cut from old-growth longleaf pine forests long since disappeared, transported on horse drawn wagons, shaped into thick planks with hand tools, and fitted together with square head nails.  “Somebody went to a lot of trouble to make that into a piece of wood…It’s kind of like treasure seeking in a way.”  Tracen is explaining the motivation behind his business, Reclaimed Space.  He finds discarded old structures, carefully takes them apart, and re-uses the materials to build modern, energy efficient, and quirkily artistic homes.


Size matters, too.   Most of the houses Tracen builds are less than 600 square feet.  Big houses waste material resources and burn up energy for heating and cooling.  Excessive space just mean more bathrooms to clean, and more closets stuffed with useless junk.  Do we need a Hummer House to be happy?  Could a leaner lifestyle equal a richer life?

Tracen Gardner and Lyla

Tracen was set to take over the family ranch, but when his grandfather died, financial difficulties forced his family to sell the land.  So instead of becoming a rancher, he dropped out of college for a journey of self-discovery.  He started in Massachusetts and headed west.  Without a dollar in his pocket, at times he had to dumpster dive for his dinner, leading him to the decision that a bit of prosperity would be more satisfying.  By the time he reached Hawaii he knew he wanted to build things for a living, but he wanted to be a contractor on his own terms.  He wanted the respect of his peers as a man of integrity, and he wanted to be proud of the projects he built.


Tracen returned to Austin to graduate with a degree in environmental resources management.  At the University of Texas he became troubled by environmental issues such as urban sprawl, acid rain, and emissions from coal fired power plants.  He worked his way through school by running his own painting company, so he was often at construction sites where he noticed great piles of discarded construction materials.  Tracen realized that, with a little imagination, this “waste” could be resurrected.  He had acquired some land near Shiner, Texas, and wanted to put a small home on his new ranch.  He considered a mobile home but they seemed flimsy and impersonal.  He knew he could do better.


A house should reflect the owner’s values.  Tracen’s would be very compact (400 square feet).  The structure would function in concert with its surroundings, providing shade in the summer and collecting warmth from the sun in the winter.  He would use salvaged materials, laying longleaf pine floors, and decorating the walls with recycled metal roofing and hundred year old shiplap.  Drawer pulls and hardware were fashioned out of odd pieces of metal.  Old lumber became shelves and trim.


He built his creation in Austin, planning to move it to the ranch when it was finished.  The result was so elegant, and people were so fascinated by the tiny-but-exquisitely-functional concept, that Tracen decided to haul the whole house to a design show in Los Angeles, where somebody bought it on the spot.  Oh well, build another one.


And so Reclaimed Space was born.  Tracen has continued to build, sticking with his principles of using reclaimed and non-toxic materials, proper orientation to the sun and surrounding environment, energy efficiency, and transportability.


Reclaimed Space is now up to 23 houses, and Tracen has yet to keep one for his ranch.


You can see more pictures at

Tracen (left) and Jon Roberts, project manager