The Orange Energy Bag

My energy bag ready to go out in this weeks recycling bin

My energy bag ready to go out in this weeks recycling bin

When I started working at RDG Planning and Design I was excited to see their commitment to recycling, composting, and an overall conservation mind frame. The kitchen has several bins lined up for compost, recyclable plastics, non-recyclable plastics, and landfill (or trash as most people call it). We try to sort everything into either compost or recycling bins before we resort to the trash bin. It was fascinating and encouraging to hear an update at this months staff meeting of the enormous amount of waste that has been diverted from the landfill by just our one company. Other companies I have been at have had trash or paper recycling, some added plastics and tin, while Minneapolis went a step further with compost. But none of them tracked their waste to see what impact their efforts were making.

While Minneapolis was a city committed to the environment, I was surprised to see a new type of recycling at the office placed into a bin with an orange bag. The orange plastic bag, or EnergyBag, can be purchased pretty much anywhere in Omaha that you can buy regular trash bags. The point is to fill the bag with all the plastics, styrofoam, and other non-recyclable plastics to then be converted into energy instead of taking up space in the landfill. I have always felt so guilty coming home from the grocery store with dozens of little plastic bags filled with my fresh produce, not to mention the plastic grocery bags I had to resort to when I forgot my reusable bags.

On the Hefty EnergyBag website, they state the program launched in Omaha with just 6,000 households in September 2016, but is now citywide and in Bellevue, Louisville, Ralston, Papillion, and LaVista (all nearby suburbs). As of 2018 they program has collected more than 82,174 bags in the area and diverted 47 tons of plastic, or according to the website, 225 barrels of diesel fuel, from landfills. When you consider just how light plastic is, 47 tons is quite impressive. The great part about this program is the bags are picked up with your regular recycling. No extra truck trips and all users have to do is leave it at the curb with the rest of their garbage and recycling.

The first of these programs started by Dow Chemical Company (parent organization to Hefty) was in Citrus Heights, California back in 2014. The company converted the waste materials into a high-value synthetic crude oil. The goal of the Omaha program was to convert it to a cement product. There was some debate about whether converting the plastic to cement was really recycling and if it was more harmful due to the toxins and pollution that are released with older cement factories. As the author of the article chronicling the debate states, its hard to argue with a program that keeps all this extra plastic out of landfills. Cement factories are going to operate regardless so why not use the energy bag program to fuel it and instead work on regulations and corrective orders to upgrade the cement plants to EPA standards?

Regardless, its nice to see Omaha looking for ways to protect the environment and reduce the amount of waste that ends up in our landfills. It always seems to be the mega cities that get attention for a job well done, but smaller cities throughout the country are doing their part to offset their environmental impact too.

The Process of Obtaining Oil

I worked in Lubbock, Texas for just over a year when I first started out in planning and recently have been working on a plan for Kermit, Texas, taking me back to the oil fields. Lubbock did not have many operating pump jacks, but nonetheless one of my tasks while there was to map the locations of existing and capped oil wells. Kermit on the other hand is surrounded by oil fields that have a major impact on their community. After watching dozens of different trucks pass by and various types of infrastructure out in the fields I decided to learn the process and components required for extracting oil to be better informed about the impacts it has on communities.

First a little history lesson of oil in Texas. It began in earnest in 1901 when a gusher was found near Beaumont, Texas. Oil exploded from a drilling site at Spindletop Hill on January 10th reaching a height of more than 150 feet. It was so impressive they named it the Lucas Geyser which produced nearly 100,000 barrels of oil a day and was more powerful than any seen in the world up to that time. The discovery is credited to the perseverance of Patillo Higgins who believed the salt domes, like what Spindletop sat on, contained oil. He formed the Gladys City Oil, Gas and Manufacturing Company in 1892 to investigate and as with all new and untested theories was met with skepticism from industry experts. Drilling began at Spindletop in October 1900 after his new partner Anthony Lucas convinced Pennsylvania oilmen John Galey and James Guffey to finance the operations. It only took 1,020 feet of drilling into the sandy ground before mud began bubbling up, followed by natural gas and then oil.

This first major geyser was one of many booms and busts in the oil industry. Any oilman who has been around for awhile knows that oil is not a steady field. In 1930 another gusher was found in east Texas which crashed oil prices. In 1970 it peaked again, only to fall off until the 1990’s when fracking was discovered. Oil hit an all time high in 2008 when the price per barrel was $145.31.

In order to process all this oil, infrastructure needs to be put into place. It takes roughly 3-5 months to complete a well which involves many different trucks hauling all sorts of materials from site to site all day long. One statistic stated one fracked well requires 1,200 truck deliveries. There are trucks to carry the oil from the wells if it isn’t piped away, sand trucks (sand cans) delivering the sand for fracking, trucks carrying fracking fluid, long and short semi’s carrying materials to construct the drilling rigs and other necessary infrastructure, portable cranes, cement trucks, water storage tankers (Wheelie’s) and fresh water trucks, pumping trucks, waste trucks, and a multitude of large pickup trucks checking on each well. For the technical truck names and pictures you can visit the FrackTracker Alliance.

Once the well has been set up, its just a matter of pumping out the material and shipping it off to create the gas that powers our cars and supplies our daily energy needs. But someone has to drive around to all these pump jacks to make sure they are working properly. So while booms and busts may occur, there is a significant number of employees that remain in these oil towns to ensure the safety and maintenance of the infrastructure. But until the time when wells no longer need to be build, thousands of heavy trucks are moving back and forth across the highways to deliver materials and dig the wells. States department of transportation like TXDOT cannot keep up with the wear and tear created by the oil booms. The roads are pocked with crater sized potholes that could do some damage to the average vehicle. Its no wonder all the oil field guys drive large dually trucks around.

Whether or not you agree with fracking and drilling, the process required to get a well up and running and the number of trucks required to do so is fascinating. If you have read previous posts you know that I’m all for reducing dependence on gas and increasing alternative modes of transportation. Just the thousands of trucks moving hundreds of miles a day on routes from one well location to the next to deliver materials and equipment is astonishing. I imagine mapping the routes of a few trucks on one day of work would create a crazy web of travel.

Return of the Buffalo?

As is the theme with anything related to reading or writing lately, I’m a little behind on my Planning Magazine subscriptions. Its the beginning of December and I’m just getting to the heart of the October issue. Nonetheless, when I came to the article titled “After the Dust Settles: Revisiting the Buffalo Commons 30 Year Later” it brought back memories of practice exams to prepare me for the AICP exam. I recalled reading a question asking what the Buffalo Commons was with a multiple choice response. With hundreds of other facts and theories to learn, I quickly moved on to memorizing the next statistic.

Read More

Rocky Mountain Adventure

Rocky Mountain Adventure

Its been almost three months since I camped in Rocky Mountain National Park, but I’m finally getting around to writing about the trip. I’ve been camping before, but never in a national forest like Rocky Mountain. It was amazing to see a moose, elk, deer, and other animals going about their business unaffected set against a backdrop of massive mountains and dense forest. I was really glad not to have come across any bears, given our tent situation, but that didn’t stop me from being nervous the entire time hiking.

Read More

What I Learned From Minneapolis

What I Learned From Minneapolis

I have lived in several cities in the past five years including Lubbock, Texas, Rochester and Columbia Heights, Minnesota, and most recently Minneapolis. Each city has imparted some lasting impressions and I taught me invaluable lessons about how cities function. But of all the cities, Minneapolis has taught me the most. Before I moved to the Twin Cities metro, I had never taken public transit as a commuter, biked to work regardless of the weather, composted, or installed a rain barrel.

Read More

Greening Our Cities

Greening Our Cities

There were numerous ways to learn about how planners can have a positive effect on water at NPC18. One session in particular highlighted how Prince George County used a public private partnership to retrofit their community with green infrastructure. Presenters covered the history of the program from inception through completion of Phase I and adjustments made prior to launching Phase II.

Read More

300 Years of NOLA

300 Years of NOLA

I do not travel nearly as much as I would like, so when the opportunity arose to visit New Orleans for the National Planning Conference I jumped on it. I was only in the city for about four days, but I covered quite a bit of ground, while still attending sessions during the day. The two things that helped me accomplish both was waking up at 6 am every day and running through the neighborhoods.

Read More

Maribou Water Gardens

Maribou Water Gardens

Over 10 years later, New Orleans is still recovering from Hurricane Katrina and the devastating effects of the Levee failures. That disaster proved to the world that building walls and pumping out water is not a long term or permanent solution. Water must be managed on site, with features such as permeable pavement, rain gardens, cisterns, and underground storage tanks. It takes projects installed throughout the city to protect it when a large storm hits. One of the projects New Orleans is working on to help low lying neighborhoods is the Maribou Water Garden.

Read More

What is a Well Building?

What is a Well Building?

Most people have worked in an office with poorly regulated temperature, where it seems that whatever the weather is outside, its the same inside. The office also probably had terrible fluorescent lighting, a severe lack of windows, and the ability to waft the terrible smelling tuna someone brought as their lunch throughout the building. These buildings were all designed to cram as many people into a building as possible without regard for how the office environment would turn out. For some design professionals, this does not make sense which is why they are turning towards WELL Building certification.

Read More

Bird Art for my Yard

Bird Art for my Yard

A few months back I was in the Commons (a new downtown Minneapolis park) having coffee with some friends when I noticed an interesting sculpture. I glanced at it briefly, long enough to find it unique, but then we continued walking. It wasn't until this weekend that I finally realized what that sculpture was and its intended message. Those same friends told me about an event at the University of Minnesota campus where they were giving out pieces of a dismantled sculpture. After stopping by and grabbing two (a bird house and feeder) it finally dawned on me that the pieces they were giving away were part of that sculpture I had seen in the Commons.

Read More

Three Eagles and Twenty Three Loons

Three Eagles and Twenty Three Loons

I am fortunate enough to have grown up going to a family cabin on a lake in Minnesota. At an early age I fell in love with the state bird, the loon. I remember purchasing my first loon call in hopes of luring them close for a good photograph. It took much effort and determination in order to get a good shot, but eventually I did. This past weekend, on the same lake where a loon was a rare sight, I saw twenty-three loons, three eagles, a number of sparrows and seagulls, and another unique bird. Clearly nature has made a come back on this lake, as it has on numerous throughout the United States.

Read More