AUSTIN DAZE: What do you have for us this issue?
COLIN CLARK: This time I want to bring to the Austin Daze audience a relatively simple concept: saving the environment saves money. Here are five categories that we can think about: the electricity we use, how we get around (transportation), the food we eat, the water we use, and our overall consumption.
AD: OK. Let’s start with electricity. What can Austinites do help our electricity problem and save money?
CC: Reducing electricity consumption is important because the bulk of our electricity in Austin comes from fossil fuel (air polluting) or nuclear energy (radio-active waste). So the less electricity we use, the less we are relying on dirty energy. Something that people can do that is cheap and easy is to change your light bulbs to the new compact fluorescents. They use so much less electricity than regular light bulbs that you start saving money quickly. You can also get a free “energy audit” to find out what you can do in your home to improve energy efficiency and reduce waste.
AD: Transportation is the next big one. What do you recommend?
CC: Transportation is important when thinking about our environmental footprint because the biggest use of oil is for transportation, and burning oil creates pollution. So anything we can do to reduce our car driving is going to be beneficial to the environment.
AD: Using less gas?
CC: Absolutely. Again, you save money. The less gas you burn, the more money you save. Ask yourself if you’ve ever been on the bus in Austin. If not, commit to riding the bus at least once a week. Find a route that goes near where you live and where you work, find a connecting route if necessary, and you’ll save money. Also, most Capital Metro buses have bike racks, so if you don’t live within walking distance of the bus stop you can ride your bike, put your bike on the bus, and take the bus to your destination. If you can add in a bike ride, you can get some exercise, too.
AD: But it’s so fucking hot here. It’s hard.
CC: But consider the satisfaction of zipping past cars stuck in traffic. If you don’t want to ride a bike in the summer, carpooling is something people can do with co-workers and neighbors to save gas. Working from home, if you can convince your boss to let you do that, can save you commute expenses, as well as time in traffic.
AD: How do you feel about the bus system here? Do you think that is something that the city could do more with?
CC: A lot can be done to improve the bus system and Cap metro is looking at some of those things but I think the biggest mistake we are making is investing billions of dollars in expanding highways primarily for individual car driving. And the plan is to use risky debt to pay for the highway expansions – based on the assumption that people will drive more and more. It’s an enormous waste of money. We need to build bike lanes and improve sidewalks before adding more highway lanes to the suburbs.
AD: Light Rail?
CC: It’s not currently funded. There might be a public vote in the next year or so, but there is no money allocated to light rail right now. There is a commuter rail that is opening soon from Leander to Downtown, but it is only one track that will carry a maximum of a few thousand people a day. But it’s a start.
AD: Water use and money?
CC: Water use is really important because water is our most precious resource. It takes a lot of electricity to pump water around the city, so reducing water use reduces electricity use, while saving money. The single biggest way people can reduce water use is to not over-water lawns. We waste enormous amounts of water in the summer months by over-watering lawns. This summer was the first time the city went to a watering schedule that is really simple, and it has reduced our “peak day” water use dramatically, far more than the city projected. If you are an even number address, you can water on Thursday and Sunday. If you are an odd number, you can water on Wednesday and Saturday, and if you are a commercial business, you can water on Tuesday and Friday. So just paying attention to those watering rules can reduce your water use. And you don’t have to water your lawn twice a week. Another city rule is to only water in the morning and the evening and not to water from 10am to 7pm, to minimize evaporation.
AD: It seems pretty stupid to me to be worrying about watering your lawn unless you are growing vegetables. We live in Austin: it’s all going to die anyway.
CC: That leads to my next point. An even better thing to do is to convert your lawn to a garden. There is a great book called “Food Not Lawns” whose subtitle is “How to Convert Your Lawn to a Garden and Your Neighborhood into a Community.” You can rip up your grass and plant vegetables gardens, cut down on water use and have food growing in your front yard, which is the best we can eat.
AD: What about the watering when it comes to the vegetables?
CC: I’ve been using the new watering schedule and have kept my vegetables alive without using a lot of water. Check your bill every month to see how much you are using.
AD: We are focusing on the saving money part of this: what about tax breaks or compensation from the city for doing these kinds of things?
CC: Austin Energy has a pretty expansive rebate program and a zero-interest loan program for home energy improvements and upgrades. If you are getting a new, energy-efficient refrigerator, they will give you $50 and take your old refrigerator away because old refrigerators are horribly inefficient and waste lots of energy. If you go to Austinenergy.com, it’s all pretty easy to find. The energy utility here is much more advanced when it comes to conservation than the water utility, but hopefully that is changing some. You can get free low-flow toilets. However, my experience has been that the toilets sometimes actually run, so you end up wasting water with this one type of low-flow toilet. And they have rain-barrels for collecting water discounted, but the barrels are sub-par. There is a Citizens Water Conservation Implementation Task Force that is supposed to keep the water utility on track with new water conservation measures.
AD: And Food?
CC: Three things people can do on the food front: 1) Grow your own food. If you don’t have a lawn, you can still grown food in pots and containers. 2) Farm Subscriptions—a great way to get fresh local food that’s not expensive. Also known as “Community Supported Agriculture” or CSA. We just signed up for one that’s $25 a week for fresh vegetables—that’s something like $3.50 a day for more vegetables than we will likely be able to eat (our chickens will eat well). 3) Buy food at a Farmers Market, such as the one Saturday mornings downtown at Republic Park.
AD: And then composting…
CC: Yes. Once you have eaten the food, the leftovers can be composted, which is basically making soil: mix your kitchen scraps with leaves and grass clippings, at a ratio of about 1 unit of kitchen scraps to 30 units of dry matter. In a few months you’ll have rich compost that you can then use to grow your own food. Instead of sending food scraps, yard trimmings, etc. to the landfill, we can recycle it into nutritious soil to sustain our gardens. Remember to water your compost pile or it will take a long time to decompose.
AD: Overall consumption?
CC: Our country is addicted to new products, often disposable, that require a lot of resources and energy to make and transport. So something we can do is look for things that have already been made rather than buying new ones. You can get a lot of stuff for free on the “Free Section” at Craigslist.org. There is unbelievable stuff there – and it’s free! For clothing and other items, there is a thrift store at 1720 East 12th Street called Treasure City Thrift that is great community resource. It is all volunteer run and the profits go to local nonprofit community groups. And as far as bicycles, if you aren’t sure how to fix one or you don’t want to buy a new one, visit the Yellow Bike Project. They are currently located next to Treasure City Thrift before they get their new location set up. They are a resource for people who want to get on a bike—helping people get parts that they need and teaching people how to fix bikes.
AD: Overall, it seems the economy is a pretty big motivator.
CC: That’s what is happening with gas prices. For the first time in our nation’s history, vehicle miles traveled went down this year, simply because of high prices. As energy, water, food, and most consumer products get more expensive, we’ll be prepared to deal with it if we are accustomed to using less. And by using less, we’ll be doing less damage to our only planet.