Sunday, April 10, 2016

Find the Hero in You: Simple Things you can do at home to save the world

 And here I am!

 I've come to share a story about the little things we can each do to make our world a little better.

Each of us wonders, What can I  do… what SHOULD I do… if I want to help save the world?
None of us have the powers of Batman or Superman or Wonderwoman...

But if we work as a team we do have the power to change things in fantastic ways.

That's me on the right side of the picture with the solar panel, caricatured by National Geographic. As you saw from the film National Geographic did on me that we started with, I'm the guy who uses sunlight to power  the house and food scraps to create biogas to cook and heat water with. 

 What you see is the E-team, a team of us explorers, film-makers, scientists, photographers, writers, artists, musicians, concerned citizens, each with a different expertise or interest, who are dedicated to creating Environmental Sustainability and Justice.  We are  folks like yourselves who have a passion for the possible and work together to solve problems: 

 As a Professor of Environmental Science and Urban Ecology at Mercy College and  the Patel College of Global Sustainability at the University of South Florida, and as a  National Geographic Explorer, part of my job is getting others, like you,  to join our E-team. Our E team is trying to empower us all to be  citizen scientists who dedicate  ourselves, each in our small way, to make the  way we live affect the planet in a positive way, knowing that when we combine all our efforts the result is larger than the sum of its parts.

We live in an age now where a small number of people have the ability, through technology and social networking and the media, to do disproportionate harm.  The terror attacks we see around the world are evidence of this.  But by the same reasoning, a small number of us can also do disproportionate good.

Our question then must be, How can I stop being part of the problem, and make myself part of the solution?

My particular research interest, which renewable energy and biodigesters help me with,  is exploring ways to  make cities, and in particular the lives of the poor in cities, better. Cleaner.  Healthier. Safer. And a lot more fun.

My focus:  Kitchens and bathrooms.  
That may not sound very heroic.  But my rationale is the following:
  Kitchens and bathrooms consume the most energy, use up the most water, and produce the most pollution, disease and danger.Kitchen's and Bathrooms are the villain in our story.

Yup. Kitchens and bathrooms.

It isn’t the bedroom.  It isn’t the living room. It isn’t the dining room.  It’s the kitchen. And the bathroom.  They use up and account for over 60% of our electricity and water bills, and are entirely responsible for our garbage collection fees, if our garbage is collected at all. They pollute our water and they pollute our air.

These domestic spaces cause the most misery around the world -- from indoor air pollution that kills 7 million women and children a year in developing countries due to the use of firewood and charcoal and kerosene coookstoves, to the disease burden of cholera, typhoid, and dysentary, rats and other vermin and plague, to say nothing of bad smells and a plastic bag problem that clogs landfills and kills marine life as it accumulates in the oceans...

What flows from these domestic spaces is a flashpoint for violent conflicts that affect the entire world like for instance the settlement contamination issues in Israel and Palestine, where we do a lot of our Palestine the effects of badly designed waste treatment systems from kitchens and bathrooms flow into the despair and anger that lead to armed conflict.
But it doesn't have to be this way.

Kitchens and bathrooms also hold the most promise to solve our problems and put us firmly on the path to sustainability. Kitchens and bathroom could be transformed from the villains in our story to the heroes.

That is what my research is about around the world. And that is also why I am proud to be sponsored once again, for my fourth speaking tour of Turkey, by Bosch, a company that really understands kitchens and bathrooms and how to make them environmentally friendly.  Bosch is a company that cares, and whose people, like me, know that the battle for a sustainable environment is being waged, and will be won… in kitchens and bathrooms.

So to return to our question:  What can you do, right now, as someone who uses kitchens and bathrooms on a daily basis, to make the world a better place? Well I'm going to try and convince you that the most effective technique is the transformation of organic wastes into home biogas and biofertilizer, turning food wastes into fuel to cook food and fertilizer to grow new food, as you can see us doing here with our rooftop aeroponic gardens. But that's the end of our story.

Let's talk first  about the simple things you can do at home right away with what you already have. Then we will look at what may still be missing and talk about what you can MAKE to make the world a better place, like home biogas..

So for starters:
You need to save energy.   And you need to save water. That way your ecological footprint -- the amount of resources you consume and the amount of pollution you personally cause -- is much smaller.

 And in fact we are mortgaging our future, drawing on the "bank account" of the earth's resources faster than they can be replenished. 

Yet there are things  you can do at home right now to save energy and water, simple things like merely moving your refrigerator 10 cm or hand width from the wall to save more than 10% in energy costs because of the increased airflow.  Or you can use a pressure cooker to save over 30% in energy costs.  And simply by using the right amount of detergent in your dishwasher save an extra rinse cycle which means you cut your water consumption by half.

Even something as easy as ironing your clothes while they are still damp can make a big difference.  All of these techniques are simple and they may seem small, but they really add up. So that's the first line of defense in turning your home into a part of the global solution for sustainability.

And if you have old appliances you might consider changing them.  It is worth noting that things have changed a lot in the last 8 years alone.  For example, new refrigerators and other household goods now save three times the energy as the older models and today's dish washing machines save 20 times the amount of water we used to use washing things by hand. 
New appliances have easy settings for getting the most efficiency out of your daily routine, making it easy to be conservation minded. 

And things improve every year now that we as  consumers are becoming more aware and engineers and designers are finding better and better ways to improve the efficiency of their products. 

People around the world are dealing with rising energy prices and energy shortages and the threat of climate change, and reducing our ecological impact without sacrificing comfort and convenience.  We are learning to  “commodify our dissent” we used to say in my Ph.D. program. The idea is to  make a huge impact by purchasing appliances that are engineered green and use much less energy and water to begin with. That way you don't have to lower your standard of living because you are "doing more with less" and in fact making not just you life, but all our lives better!

When we as consumer's choose “Green Technology" we become part of a social responsibility campaign that also helps businesses go green, so that collectively we achieve savings across the board.  As you can see here, our sponsor, Bosch, by focusing on conservation, has now reached 59% water reduction, dramatic reductions in packaging and is  recycling 92% of the companies waste product. So we make a difference when we become conscious consumers and  support companies that are doing good, raising the bar for everyone.

But beyond energy and water saving tips, and buying more efficient appliances and encouraging companies that are environmentally friendly  there are some technologies for heating water and for heating and cooling homes that are true game changers. These are technologies that can drastically reduce our energy bills AND create a cleaner healthier environment.  Many  of us in the sustainability movement have been championing these technologies for decades and trying to get the word out about their advantages.

The first is the idea of "on-demand" water heating.   How many of you in this room already use on demand heaters?
The idea is simple -- heat where you need it  and WHEN you need it, rather than spending time heating a fixed quantity of water and letting it sit there, slowly cooling off, spending energy to keep it at the right temperature.

In most households we still waste enormous amounts of energy heating  a huge tank of water and then try to keep it warm with insulation and then always run into the problem of running out of hot water. With tank heaters we have to wait up to a half an hour each day just to get the shower ready and inevitably run out just when we are all soapy.

I used to go to my grandmother’s house every summer with 16 other cousins and 1 bathroom.  She tried to limit us to 5 minute showers, but somebody, usually me because we showered by age, little kids first, and I was older.. Somebody would end up taking a cold shower.You can't imagine the fights that would break out. With an on demand heater that never happens, so goodbye conflict!

On demand heaters save 27% to 50% of the energy you would normally use to heat water for washing dishes or bathing or cooking and because they instantly heat water and there is no draw off, you save on water too.

So that takes care of water. But what about air conditioning? Air conditioners use so much power that every summer they cause blackouts in major cities. But now there is a much more energy efficient alternative.  One of the most exciting innovations  the world has come up with  has for heating and cooling the house, as well as preheating water, is what is called a  geothermal heat pumps or ground source heat pump system.. 

These systems use the constant temperature of the earth to providing heating in the winter and cooling in the summer, using a device that works sort of like a refrigerator. They save 25% to 50% of your energy bill compared to conventional air conditioning and heating systems and do it all in one, so you only have to buy one unit for both functions.  The payback period is as little as 5 years, and you are helping make a greener planet at the same time.


But beyond saving energy and money, there has been a revolution going on for a few decades now as more and more people realize they can not only save energy energy, but MAKE ENERGY.

Electricity and hot water are the easiest to make at home.  

There are basically  two different kinds of  solar panels:  Photovoltaic to turn Turkey’s abundant sunlight into electricity, and solar thermal hot water panels, that turn the sun’s light into heat.

Let’s turn our attention to Photovoltaics for a moment.  Few people realize just how simple a solar electric set up is.  Any 12 year old can set up a solar electric power system.  It is basically plug and play, simpler than hooking up a computer.  
There are four main components to a stand alone solar electric system.
  1. The PV panels, like these shown here, which can easily be mounted on the roof or in the back yard or porch and can even be set outside when the sun is shining and pulled back inside at night.
  2. The charge controller or regulator that ensures batteries don’t overcharge
  3. The battery storage system
  4. The inverter that turns the DC electrons from the panels and battery into AC power for use with home appliances.

If you are grid intertied, running your electric meter backward when you produce more than you use, things get even simpler because you don’t need batteries.

A home inverter connects you to the grid effortlessly, so all you need are the panels and this and you are ready to go, helping your whole community offset dirty electricity.

But should the grid go down, you can easily integrate a battery back up, like this  lithium ion battery back up just like what you use to backup your mobile phone, only larger.

There are  two types of solar hot water collectors.  One is the traditional flat-plate solar absorber.

The other is a vacuum tube system.  In both cases the hot water storage, can be on the roof or on in the house.  In my case in Germany we have 50 heat pipe vacuum tubes on the roof which go to a 500 liter basement tank in the basement that is also connected to the on-demand gas heater. When you combine all these technologies into one integrated system your daily living and your home becomes a node in  network of responsible living.

For that the best option is to heat your water directly using the sun and then use your  on-demand gas or electric heater as a backup for cloudy days.   This is what we do in my house in Germany.

One way hotels ask you to save energy and water  is to reuse your towels.I do that at home, but having invested in a solar hot water and on demand heating system I decided to go a step further. When I learned about the Ofuro water recycling system on a trip to Japan I came home and created a system that recycled all my shower water, using the same hot water over and over.

This kind of total systems integration is something I have been pursuing for decades.  Here  is how I did it when I ran my apartment in Los Angeles completely off of solar electricity back in 1999 through 2003. 

At that time I was running my apartment completely off grid. Even the shower water was pumped up to the roof to go through this series of water filters  that then went into a hand made solar hot water system and then returned to the shower; the ultimate in water recycling.

In fact my apartment in Los Angeles in the inner city was part of a personal experiment in total offgrid living called "California Unplugged" at the turn of the century that was quite successful. 
My entire apartment -- refrigerator, air conditioner, microwave, lights, computers, stereo system, television, keyboards and electric guitars -- were run on a 1.2 Kilowatt solar electric system that I set up myself, connected to 6 deep cycle marine batteries .It was as easy as hooking up a home stereo system. 

  For rare weeks of clouds and rain I had two bicycle generators to help charge the batteries. I had an on demand electric water heater under the sink, but because it used so much power I relied mainly on my hand made solar hot water heater.  I had two electric bicycles I charged to get to campus an hour away, and once we realized how easy it is to make an electric vehicle, which is basically just an electric motor, a charge controller, a regulator and batteries, my students and I started converting my car to be an electric car.

Back then, living in the urban eco-village, we didn't have easy to obtain energy-star rated appliances with "green technology inside" so guys like me had to do it ourselves, innovating and inventing and experimenting. 

One of my proudest achievements was that over the 3 years I lived in this urban apartment I only took out the garbage once -- I separate the metal, glass and plastic and sold them for money at the local recycling center.

 All the paper and cardboard and all my food waste stayed in the apartment. So did all my toilet waste. Yes that's right, I developed an urban composting toilet that I built myself. I not only cut my connection to the grid but to the sewer system too, and kept 100% of my organic waste in the apartment, turning it all into healthy soil that I used to create an urban garden.  

The key to this success was having a food grinder like they showed in the video. A food grinder is like the jaws and teeth of an artificial animal.   In my opinion, food grinding is actually the key to sustainable development in general. Once you grind up all your organic wastes its surface area to volume ratio allows nature to do its job very quickly.  You can get good compost soil in 3 to 6 days rather than 3 to 6 months without any maintenance at all -- no turning, no lifting...
How many of you compost here?  

Do you notice that there are things they tell you that  you aren't supposed to compost?  In cities they tell us we can't put meat, bones, oils and fats or dairy products in the compost because they are afraid of smells and vermin like rats.  But when you grind your food it doesn't attract animals and treated properly it doesn't smell.  And the benefits don't stop there.  Once food is ground up, not only  you do your composting in the house or apartment, using vermiculture or worm composting for example, and you can feed them anything, including citrus peels and acidic foods, which normally worms won't eat. In my apartment in Los Angeles I kept everything in a container in the closet where worms turned everything from the kitchen and the bathroom into great soil.
  In fact, you can even grind food waste and scatter it in the garden without composting at all. The worms and ants will transform into soil in no time, and if applied correctly it won't smell at all and won't attract flies or larger vermin.


 But it gets even better!  When you grind up organic wastes you don't have to settle for just compost.  And you don't have to rely on worms. Microbes will turn all your wastes into both biogas and liquid compost fertilizer. And it doesn't take months, or even days. It takes merely 24 hours. 

For this reason I've been calling food grinders, otherwise known as "garbage disposals" as "compost companions". But even if you just let it go down the drain, ground up food waste gives a welcome energy boost to septic tanks so they work more efficiently and to  waste water treatment plants so that they can produce enough biomethane to justify capturing and using it to generate municipal electricity. Food waste produces ten to 100 times more energy per kilogram than animal manures or sewage.  Throwing it away is like throwing away money. If you don't want to use it directly at home, then you can do your part as a citizen and give it to the city biodigester, which can either be a dedicated system like in Germany and Sweden, or a retrofitted waste water treatment plant. They can then use it to offset enormous amounts of fossil fuels.

The amounts we have to work with are huge.

  This is why you may see  advertising all over the world in airports now saying, you can "Grind virtually any kind of food waste into an unending electricity source for a city. It's never been done before. Consider it solved".

So with these insights and these technologies we now know that it is possible to make it so that the more people there are, the more solutions there are. As population continues to increase exponentially, and most of that population, now over 60%, lives in congested cities, we need to know that we can turn our wastes into the very energy and soil and plants and animals and  nutrients we thought we were running out of. And now we know we can.

 It wasn't always easy being an urban sustainability pioneer, and sometimes people would act like we were crazy. But we proved that you could start approximating a biosphere in the city, thinking of our apartments as modules on a space station or a moon or Mars colony.

And in fact that is the focus of my research today.  As a professor of environmental sustainability and justice, for the past 4 years at Mercy College New York and now the Patel Center for Global Sustainability at University of South Florida, I am involved with great teams of students and faculty who are researching ways to make kitchens and bathrooms become part of the solution rather than the problem.  At USF we are working with NASA on the "Next-Gen Kitchen" project, redesigning kitchens so that they can help us survive both here on earth and in outer space.

As you can see from this article on the NASA website,
 through our work students are now designing into the next generation of kitchens better ways to capture food wastes and turn them into biogas right in the kitchen.

 My non-profit organization has been at the forefront of this solution at the home and community scales, and just as we have been kindly sponsored by Bosch to spread this good news of sustainability here in Turkey for the past 4 years, Emerson's Insinkerator sponsored us to build biodigesters and integrate food grinders into schools and community restaurants in  the favelas of Brazil.

In many cities now, the energy of the residual organic material that you didn't or couldn't eat makes it's way to a municipal biodigester that turns it all into clean renewable energy and fertilizer.
In most areas 40 to 60% of garbage is organic waste, most of it generated by kitchens and bathrooms. You've heard the saying, "one man's trash is another's treasure"?  Do you really want to give it all away?

Our work at Solar CITIES, which we've been conducting in Turkey as well for the past several years, is not about municipal scale biodigestion.  As I mentioned, we are about things YOU can do at HOME or at SCHOOL.  Our work involves helping people integrate biodigestion right by the house or on campus.

This is because we believe that biodigestion sits at the very center of the environmental sustainability debate.  


 With a biodigester providing constant energy and fertilizer we close the cycle.  The sun doesn't always shine, the wind doesn't always blow, the rain doesn't always fall and the rivers don't always flow.  But garbage sewage and organic wastes we will always have. They are a constant and something we ALL have in common.  So good urban ecology starts with transforming these nuisances into something valuable and grows out from there. This is a first principle of permaculture -- start with what you've got. And we've got plenty of garbage.

Creating biogas and fertilizer through digestion is  so simple and such an effective way to eliminate problems that we often wonder why not everybody is already doing it.  A biodigester is simply any watertight, airtight tank you can put manure and food waste in.  Anybody can build one anywhere out of almost anything that holds water and almost any scale. We use the "I love you" sign from sign language to teach it -- one pipe for the food input, one for the fertilizer output and one for the gas out. That's all it is. Anybody can make one anywhere out of almost anything that holds water.

We started in the Zabaleen or trash recycling area of Cairo Egypt where over 40,000 people recycle more than 2 million tons of waste every year:

We used to build them on the roofs of buildings in the old Islamic City of Cairo and the Garbage Pickers community, where there is plenty of food waste.

 But  lately we've been building biodigesters IN the house.

We developed the Urban IBC tank based biodigester system so we could do that, testing it in a lab closet at Mercy College, and then, after proving its safety and effectiveness for a year, taking it into peoples houses.

 You see at Solar CITIES we believe that the digester is like a baby dragon. A domestic dragon. It is like a house pet:

We feed it.

It breathes fire so we can cook...

And it makes great fertilizer so we can grow food again.

Whether we are building them in the US or in Palestine, as we have been doing for several years, the result is the same.  We no longer need to fight over arable land.  We no longer have to fight over gas bottles.  We can produce everything we need right where we live and grow food in a desert or on a rooftop.

Our latest home scale biodigester is what we call our "purple dragon", the solar CITIES Salchicha or "sausage" digester.  It is the simplest, least expensive and easily transportable system we know of.  I have one here that we are going to deploy in refugee camps.  I carried it on the airplane in the overhead rack.  All we have to do is roll it out on this reflective insulating mat, and we heat it using this self regulating heat tape.

All of these digesters that we create in Solar CITIES are open source, meaning that you can download the plans and instructional material and make them yourself.  We teach people to do this because we believe that your kitchen wastes and toilet wastes belong to you, and can benefit you.

We have a facebook group with over 7000 practitioner members called "Solar CITIES Biogas Innoventors" that you are all welcome to join where we share our experiments.

In this movement there are many of us from around the world, from all walks of life, who are applying these ideas to our daily lives and freely sharing with each other.

But you don't have to be an "innoventor" to be a practitioner.
Fortunately, for those who don't want to make their own solutions to environmental problems,  these days companies are getting on the band wagon, creating products that can complement your eco-friendly kitchen.  To go along with your energy efficient and water saving refrigerators, dishwashers, washing machines, on-demand water heaters, you solar panels and geothermal heat pumps and all the incredible appliances from Bosch that make your kitchen and bathroom and laundry room a solution rather than a problem, you can now purchase a homebiogas system from a company in the Middle East that I have been working with for many years.

  This year, home biogas, which comes in an Ikea like kit and can be assembled and installed in a couple of hours, is available in over 20 countries in the world. I brought my students from Mercy College to Israel and Palestine to assemble and install them in bedouin villages as well as in middle class backyards.

So, to wrap up, between the simple energy saving tips you can apply at home, and the new energy and water saving appliances and energy creation technologies, and the fundamental idea of turning all organic  wastes into clean fuel, nutritious fertilizer and healthy food, we are quite confident that working together we can meet all 17 of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.

 We have all the solutions and we should all be experts in integrating them into our lives. So please, Do try this at home!


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