Friday, February 27, 2009

Xeriscape - ugly in the name of green

My spell checker doesn't even recognize the word xeriscape. Apparently it originated in Denver. It’s the idea of planting a landscape using plants that require little if any additional water. (Bear in mind that people in Denver carve the trunks of their dead trees into totems...right in their front yard!)

First off, your xeriscape project starts with removal of your lawn. Hmmmm. Houston, we have a problem... But, your water bill will be much lower than fact you can EBay your sprinkler controller. But like all the green ideas, the truth is somewhere in the middle.

Your home is likely your largest single investment. To make the yard different than everyone else's yard in the neighborhood reduces the value of your home and the neighborhood. But isn’t that just a function of aesthetics and what's defined as normal you ask? Yes, but until the majority xeriscape, you aren't going to be rewarded for your "greeness" in home equity.

Let’s take a couple steps back. The city is making a big push on water use reduction. The reason is, to meet our growth needs we can either pay for more reservoirs to be built or for T Boone's Ogallala aquifer water (and the required pipeline from the panhandle). Instead they have decided to find that additional water through conservation. Good on them.

Right now our water is cheap...very cheap. (Mine is $.0037 per gallon). So there isn't going to be a majority of xeriscapes in your neighborhood until water is expensive...just like Austin, California, Phoenix etc.

The folks from the city are telling me the price is going up. You can also see many of the city buildings have xeriscapes, or will have soon. Our neighboring, fast growth communities like Frisco are even more adamant about water savings because they cant build infrastructure fast enough.

But back to xeriscaping. Basically the concept is the landscape is covered with drought resistant plants and mulch or gravel. This is where the dreaded yucca comes in. But that's where xeriscape really becomes an eyesore. Planting plants that are native to Phoenix doesn't work.

Local native plants are the best choice. I have seen the most beautiful native landscaping in Austin. But those plants are native to Austin. I am beginning to see some designers and nurseries work in North Texas natives and it shows promise but they still can’t design something that fits into our current home landscape aesthetic.

Bottom Line- Our water is cheap but we shouldn't waste it. However, a homogeneous landscape that adds value to our home and neighborhood is more important than the water. A little water on most of our current landscapes goes a long way.

There are a lot of good ways to stop wasting water but this isn't one of them. (More on the good ways later.)

Thursday, February 26, 2009

AGW update

In my second post, I was challenged by one reader to try and sort out the argument for and against global warming being man made. (See comments under Anthropogenic Global Warming).

As pointed out, there was time when we were very concerned about global cooling. This was in large a media driven concern with very little scientific support. Volcanoes spewed enough particulate to in theory block the sun. Nothing like impending Apocalypse to get the media stirred up...

This concern wasn't really supported by scientists like AGW. It pales in comparison to the peer reviewed research and publications supporting the position that man is indeed affecting our climate. If one edits out the media, in all forms, which must include Al Gore, the climate scientists are pretty much in agreement. Man does have an effect.

I don't normally post a link but this is the list of those that support the research and the conclusion, (don't read the darn thing because next you will have to read the IPCC report etc advice, steer clear.)

Once you remove the media naysayers and non-climate scientists from the mix on the non-man made global warming camp, it gets kinda thin...

But here is the current argument against man made global warming: They, the climate scientists, are all wrong. They are victims of their own research mistakes and economic/governmental pressures. They are drinking their own bath water. They can't show the effects definitively so therefore it's deemed supposition. Care for a swine flu shot? Worried about Y2K? Comet Kohoutek?

Largely the argument is, if it can't be proved definitively, it's hard to hang your hat (or economy) on fluctuating science.

Back to the media. One of the largest mistakes by everyone in the pro-AGW camp is trying to contribute yesterday's storm to global warming. Katrina? Remember how they said the next year would be even worse for hurricanes? If they find a dead polar bear it's because he ran out of ice to live on...scientists don't jump to those conclusions, at least most of them.

We are talking about parts per million of CO2. The change is very small. It's not going to sneak up on the polar bears overnight. The world won't go haywire in one news cycle.

Bottom Line - The only problem with the science is the projections into the future. As you can imagine, they aren't sure because of the huge number of variables. So they have hedged their bets by offering different AGW scenarios. When revisited, they adjust these scenarios (these days into more dire forecasts of acceleration). How do you get the world to act, based on these changing conclusions?

Some may have noted the loss of our new CO2 measuring satellite this week. If we still can't launch a satellite successfully, how should we expect the climate scientist to hit the nail on the head?

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Landfills - imby

Imby = in my back yard.

When we lived in Carrollton there was a large Waste Management landfill within a couple miles of our home as the crow flies (or as stink drifts).

At the time I was heading up our improvement projects in the neighborhood for our association. It became apparent that there might be monies available from Waste Management for improvements to our neighborhood to offset the very occasional (if ever) stink.

To negotiate that, we all took a tour of the landfill facility which included a new one being built. It was fascinating for me...I loved seeing under the covers of this much maligned industry.

What was apparent to me was these guys are under a significant amount of regulation on air quality, adjacent water quality, seepage etc. The new landfill being built allowed us to see what they go through just to keep the pile from leeching. They basically build a giant slope sided swimming pool and line it with these thick geotextile fabrics and rubber. Then they cover that with dirt and start dumping. As they go they also have methane capture systems to in theory, capture the gas produced (stink).

They burned the methane to run a large generator to supply the facility with all of its electricity. (Pretty cool for 1995 or so...) The rest however either went into the air or was burnt off with flares. (Not so cool). Methane is 20 times worse than CO2 as a global warming gas.

As the pile grows higher they are usually limited on the height by local regulation. Either for aesthetic reasons or they don't want planes running into it. It's interesting to note they know exactly how much they add a day and the life of the landfill before its topped out. We do know our collective capacity for garbage before more land must be acquired for another swimming pool.

I have been to Dallas's landfill a number of times. (No wonder Paula married me...I'm so...wordly). You just get in line with all these huge trucks and make your way up the mountain. Giant compactors and bulldozers work the pile right next to where you are dumping your remodeling stuff. And it stinks. Not unbearably, but close.

It's then that it hits you...we waste a HUGE amount of stuff. The scale is massive! The amount of trucks burning fuel, emitting CO2, the methane, the landscape changing mound, the seagulls, (don't ask me - they are like air rats), it's all a bit overwhelming.

Bottom Line - Everything we put into the landfill is not reclaimable. It's too late to do anything useful with it. And, our Earth is a closed system, everything we are ever going to have on this earth is already here. If we use it and then discard it, it's gone. Sure you can get caught up in the environmental issues with landfills, but the bigger picture is more important. We will run out of stuff, your daughter's daughter maybe, but we will run out unless we change how we do this.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Recycling - the easy way out

I guess we have been recycling in some form for 15 years or so. We used to have to separate everything by type and put it in that little blue bin. Inevitably the guys would come around and "separate" all the stuff that isn't supposed to be recycled, no matter how well you hid it, and leave it in the bin. The now lighter bin would blow over and scatter it all out so the neighbors could see your treachery.

Thankfully, we have moved on. Today our recycling program is one of the best in the country. It's called "single stream" meaning you don't have to sort the stuff. You still have some limits, (did you know pizza boxes were verboten?) so you still have to cull (hide) some stuff.

Because we now have a big roll around bin, the same size as our trash bin, it's really easy to compare the percentage of recycled stuff to garbage. Mine runs about 1/4 garbage and 3/4 recycling per week. I always feel good about that...or at least I used to...

It turns out that recycling is passe'. Most green folks call it downcycling. It's where you take something valuable and turn it into something less valuable. Much of our recycling does exactly that. Take your shiny Nieman Marcus catalog and grind it up into cellulose insulation.

It's also not near as eco-friendly as just not acquiring the stuff that needs recycling. Like paying attention to packaging, how many boxes, bags etc come into your home. That's why neither paper nor plastic is green anymore. Water bottles? Just say no, (once you go through withdrawals it's not that bad. Just buy a single bottle and fill it up with filtered water.) Come down to White Rock lake right after a flooding rain, you will be stunned by the number of plastic water bottles all over the banks.

So what was rewarding, filling up my recycling bin, is now a concern...why so much stuff to recycle? Well, I'll tell you why, it's the mailman! His job is to allow other people to send you stuff that goes right from the mailbox to the recycling bin. (I wonder if I could just put the bin next to the mailbox and cut out the!)

I seems patently unfair that other people can be so careless with who they send a Restoration Hardware catalog to for the fourth time this month, but they're left with the guilt of recycling it! Given this scenario, I decided to take control!

First I found a web site that lets you stop all those phone books. I pick mine up off the porch walk straight to the bin... I signed up and felt great, right up to part when they came again last month.

I found another site that lets you stop magazines, credit card offers, coupon circulars etc. Now that one works! My recycling has gone way down!

Bottom Line #1 - Recycling is important but it's still wasteful of earth's resources, and it's up to you to control the waste stream that enters your home. Nothing wrong with using stuff, just cut out the things you don't need or didn't ask for and don't let recycling be a panacea for waste.

Around the country, municipalities are rethinking their recycling program because there is now more recycling materials than there is demand for it. (Recession). Some are even storing the material waiting for prices to go back up. It does illustrate how much stuff we are downcycling when we overrun demand in a downturn.

There are a number of forward thinking manufacturers and retailers looking for ways to reduce packaging or make them out of products that are easier to recycle back to the same use, instead of downcycling.

In Texas we have a very progressive group that got legislation passed to force computer makers to give you free recycling! They are working on TV's right now and other forms of E-waste. They are making the manufacturer's take responsibility for the entire life cycle of their product. That way you don't have to be the one feeling guilty because you let it in your house.

Bottom Line #2 - Recycling is a step in the right direction but making the producers of the waste, rather than the consumer responsible, has a lot of merit. It's the only way they will rethink their products to be cradle to cradle, rather than cradle to grave. That way we can still buy the 14th generation I-phone with a clear conscious.

So besides all that, why else do we care? Plastics are a petroleum product. Care to send another American into battle to protect our supply? Paper used to be a tree. Not a dead tree but a live magnificent tree with a loving family of spotted owls living...(ok a little overboard there). Also, paper mills send a lot of stuff into our water. If I peer into my recycling bin right now there will be mostly plastic and paper.

Aluminum cans would be really easy to recycle except they are two different alloys and the paint messes the whole batch up so they aren't even recycled into cans again!

Besides all that, I care because we will run out of stuff...especially clean stuff like air and water unless we can reign in our wastefulness. I have a brand new niece (#7) that I have to look in the eye. We all know somebody young that needs us to do the right thing.

Friday, February 20, 2009

My yard waste - no verde!

I am talking about grass clippings and leaves, along with weeds, dead annuals, etc etc.

When I embarked on my composting project, I didn't really realize that the largest amount of organic waste was from my yard. But because my office looks out into our street, I see everyone's huge piles of bags for the bulk pickup, including my own.

Having your yard waste hauled away to the dump is a bad idea. It takes up a huge amount of landfill space and quickly begins to ferment into methane, a very potent greenhouse gas.

So what can we do to make this a little easier on the environment? Move into an apartment of course. Yards are a bourgeois relic left over from ancient times. I have a huge one!

Joking aside, it is a pretty serious problem. Yard waste is a huge part of our waste stream. My half acre lot produces more than average so I felt compelled to do something.

My first thought was to just add all this to my new compost pile. I can gather it up, shred it (mulch it?) and throw it on the pile. But why? Why am I once again interrupting natures cycle? Let's talk leaves...

Mother Nature (Mom) fashioned an environment that takes care of itself. Leaves are Mom's fertilizer, mulch, bug food etc etc. When they drop from our deciduous trees we gather them up and put them in non-biodegradable bags...we are interrupting the cycle and adding some nasty plastic to the mix. (But those OPEC nations who sell us the petroleum to make those bags appreciate your business).

So if leaves are supposed to be on the ground why not just leave them? Well, our society doesn't appreciate the mess. Your neighbors will actually end up with your wind blown leaves. I have seen some yards, usually the xeriscape offenders, who just let the leaves lay. A pox on their home.

I have 14 deciduous trees. So here is what I do...

Bottom Line #1 - Have the lawn service...or you do it your-selfers, blow all the leaves from the beds into the grass and/or driveway. Then run over them a couple times with a non-bagging mower. Viola' mulched leaves! In my yard these small bits just filter into the grass. If I have too many I have them bag them and deposit them on my beds that usually take mulch! I have even taken my neighbors bags and dumped them in my driveway, had them mulch them up, and put them on my azalea beds...nothing is sweeter than stolen mulch!

So what I get is a natural fertilizer, moisture retention product and some shredded material for my compost pile just for fun. I buy, and have trucked, mulch and soil amendment to my property every year. Its expensive and the truck isn't very environmentally sound. This year I am hoping to do without most of that expense.

Bottom Line #2 - The leaves make a great looking and functional mulch that stays where it should. I no longer send any bags to the landfill. Once the grass starts growing we will (and always have) just mulch the cuttings into the yard. Any extra will be added to the compost pile.

Didn't cost me a dime by the way. Just had to educate the landscape crew a little bit. "No mas plastico baggarinos por favor." (I apologize to all my Spanish speaking readers).

Monday, February 16, 2009


Composting is an odd concept. The idea that we scorn our trash pickup and dump stuff in a corner of our yard seems, well, survivalist. Soon I will be reloading my own machine gun ammo.

The idea behind composting is sound. But let me describe the highlights for you city folk.

You compost greens and browns in some ratio that I have forgotten. Basically it's your food waste plus garden or yard waste but does not include animal products (except egg shells for some reason). If you put out animal waste, global warming will force dislocated polar bears etc to come to feed on your pile.

So why compost? The answer is it depends on your religion. Are you worried about global warming? Land fills? Artificial fertilizers? or just being wasteful?

Given all that, I decided (at the urging of a neighbor who doesn't really compost???) that I should at least try it...I have a good spot, I do care about the landfill etc...but it took more than that to get me going.

First, I have been enjoying our Dallas recycling program. It's been fun to fill up the recycling can and see how little is in the garbage can. And what's in that can, much of it can be composted. Sweet. I did note however that I was putting out huge amounts of yard waste in the garbage can, or for bulk pickup. More on that later.

When you send your scraps and trimmings to the landfill it is dumped and covered. This means it rots without sufficient oxygen (anaerobic). This produces methane, a greenhouse gas 20 time more potent than CO2. It also interrupts nature's cycle. These "waste" things are tomorrow's fertilizer and nutrients. But we immediately remove them from the cycle so we can buy some soil amendment and chemical fertilizer at Home Depot in the spring???

Bottom Line #1- There are some compelling reasons to compost.

As I started my composting project the first stumbling block I had was how to handle the indoor compostable waste? Did I need a new can? How much is there really? Well for us, a family of two, it's really very small. We keep a gallon sized container on the counter and just throw stuff in. We take it to the pile every couple days (it doesn't smell).

That container gets filled with unused food more than anything. Tomatoes gone soft etc etc. Its just a part of busy lifestyles and having only two people, stuff goes bad. Your mileage may vary.

I read all the literature about how composting works, microbes, a correct mix of greens and browns, moisture, turning etc etc. Whatever. I wouldn't compost if I had to do all that. Sure that makes perfect and faster compost but...I don't need another hobby.

Bottom Line #2- Basically you throw the stuff you have as waste on a pile and mix it every once and a while if you're bored. It rots aerobically, doesn't smell, and is kinda fun.

There are composting bins sold. The idea is you enclose the compost, add the microbes via a "starter kit" and usually they are easy to "turn". This will make compost faster. (Great, another outlet for my type A personality and life!) These "bins" are expensive, they usually are made from unrecycled plastic and potentially end up in the landfill themselves. None of which seems very "natural" and I want nature to work for me, not vice-versa.

Bottom Line #3 - Don't buy a bin unless you have zero space for a "pile". What is it with us, how commercial have we become that we must market some gear to compost? Stuff rots on its own, count on it.

It's important to discuss the size of pile needed. I had a giant space allocated behind my garage. But it's a funny thing about's hard to make the pile grow very fast. We throw stuff in but the pile seems about the same size. After five months its about the size of your trunk, if you have a small car.

That said, I doubt I am extending the life of our landfill much. I am removing my Methane producing material from the mix, and the carbon and pollutants from the trucks to haul it. It isn't spring yet but I do have plans for the finished compost...we are planning a garden! (My wife has an Okra Jones.)

Bottom Line #4 - Composting my way is fun, easy and rewarding. It adds almost zero complexity to my life and does a lot for the planet when measured in individual family terms. It doesn't smell, attract critters or require much of anything. Mother Nature has it handled, she works for me...

There is a part of this story that involves my voluminous yard and tree waste that is a whole "nother" post.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Anthropogenic Global Warming

The insiders just call it AGW. I still can't believe I am using anthropogenic in any sentence. It essentially means man made.

For anybody spending time looking into green issues you can't help but be affected by the 800 lb gorilla in environmental news, literature, science warming. But the argument is still about, if man is causing the warming.

Al Gore took the subject and made it mainstream, but his famous hockey stick graph has since been proven false. I was at one time pretty sure that man made global warming was real, and the evidence and science had finally come to agreement. But of course, it's never that simple.

So lets look at the issue and see what we can conclude. First, the reason we focus on the Arctic and Antarctic is because the effects of global warming are magnified in those areas. But anyone watching can easily get mired down in debates about what ice is disappearing, what is growing larger and how will polar bears survive?

In addition there are ice core records going back 800,000 years. Scientists look at these for signs of past warming and increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. And frankly, 800 thousand years is a pretty good data slice for mankind, but it’s woefully inadequate for the history of the earth.

So we know that there are natural warming and cooling periods in history including recent time. There is a lot of good data that says we are warming. There's also some pretty good data that says we are cooling??? Earth orbit, sun spots, El Ninos etc all contribute as does water vapor, particulate matter (volcanoes) and yes carbon. Oh and there's much more, because we are talking about a hugely complex system we call global climate.

Bottom Line 1 - So first, you have to know that no-one knows. Second, you have to realize that many advocates on both sides of the issue all have an agenda. There are many holes in the data and much "projecting" (including Al's graph) that assumes we know enough to project our climate future. In my view, that's hubris on our part, we couldn't even figure out if Iraq had WMD's. And Al's graph was the victim of a "miscalculation".

So continuing the issue, once you wade through the cooling/warming arguments you get the man made or anthropogenic argument. Is it our fault? How much is our fault? Now we are really on thin ice (pun intended) when we look at the data. How are we supposed to take all of these factors that are natural into account along with our measly few hundred years of temperature data?

One then has to decide what the effect will be of more rapid warming caused by us if in fact its caused by both nature and man!? Can nature adjust to such a global double whammy? Will we be able to grow corn in Iowa or is that our next desert? Are your driving habits the principle cause of it all?

Bottom Line 2- The bad news is I really don't know if AGW is a real problem or not. But, and its a big but...can we afford to be wrong if it is? It will cost the globe trillions to fix the man made problem and it will cost trillions if we don't do anything and the man made warming continues unabated and accelerating.

There's also the idea that this planet has been warmer before and will be again and that isn't a bad thing. In fact, it has shown to be much better for the plants and animals on earth when its warm and steamy. Growing seasons are extended, plants thrive and the animals follow suit and you get Jurassic Park.

There is also a camp that says racing against our own emissions build up, to prevent the catastrophic effects projected, is fools play. We should in fact be preparing to mitigate or remediate the effects. Move people away from the coasts, prepare to modify or move crops etc etc. Some say it would be cheaper.

It’s also worth noting that our newly elected wordsmith President Obama, used the words "roll back the specter of a warming planet" in his inauguration speech. Specter is an interesting word choice dont you think?

Bottom Line 3- There is very little that we do day to day that adds carbon to the air that also doesn't have other deleterious effects on us and our environment. So the easy choice for us is to minimize these activities. When called to vote on or support a specific Carbon Tax or Carbon Cap and Trade we aren't going to be sure, but we can't afford to be wrong if in fact we are artificially heating our planet. Like buying fire insurance, you don't buy it because you will have a fire, you buy it in case you have a fire. Rapid global warming caused by us would be a terrible legacy to leave to future generations.

Great! Another green blog!

I sensed that some of you out there hadn't yet been overrun with "green, environmental, sustainable, global warming information."

All joking aside, that's why I started this blog. We want to go green -- and do the right thing environmentally - but , how are we supposed to sort out what works and what doesn't, and what's practical for our lives here in North Texas? What should I feel guilty about doing -- or not doing? What can I ignore? Answering those questions - the kinds that I had, that you hopefully have -- with research-based reality -- is my goal.

I won't just repeat the news, nor will I link you to lots of stuff to research yourself. I will always attempt to provide a clear direction on the topics covered. This will usually include opinions of mine developed from the research I have done. And, I have a long list of topics that I have already worked through to share with you the reader.

Please post at will and I will try to answer any questions or take suggestions for green topics that challenge you. Like, should I xeriscape? Why compost? Or, what is Anthropogenic Global Warming?