Sustainability in the City



photography by Brian Fitzsimmons

Our city is growing. Understatement of the decade? Perhaps. Hard hitting reality? Most definitely. 

According to the Austin Chamber of Commerce’s website, the population of Austin grew 37 percent between the years 2000 and 2010. And a demographic study published by the Austin Business Journal in 2014 showed that a net 110 new residents arrive in the city each day. 

Skyrises continue to one-up each other in their attempts to garner more clout and touch the clouds. Suburbs—once mere blips on a map—are now part of the expanding Austin metropolis. With all this vertical and horizontal growth, it can be easy to distance ourselves from the idea that we are still one community; we are still one city. 

For those of us born and raised in Austin, this town is like a best friend we decided to marry years ago—before the media ever fell in love with them and they became famous. We still love this city, stepping aside to watch our best friend stand in the spotlight day after day. ‘Isn’t Austin wonderful?’ we ask ourselves rhetorically. If you’re like most Austinites, this city will always have a part of your heart—even though you now have to deal with, as every couple in a marriage is bound to face, the occasional conflict. 

It infuriates us as we sit bumper-to-bumper in traffic, but we quickly forgive our city after a run around the cypress-tree lined Lady Bird Lake trail. 

Beauty has a price, and the price of downtown living is no exception. But, for some, being in the heart of the city that has won over their hearts is worth the cost. 

As much as Austin gives and takes from us, we often forget that we also have the power to give and take a major toll on it. 

So, what is sustainability? It’s about staying connected to the environment we live in and the community around us. It’s about maintaining our relationship with our surroundings in a conscious, yet outwardly effortless way. Sustainability is something the people and businesses in the following pages strive for on a daily basis. While they each approach the issue from different angles, they are all connected in a similar quest: to lead by example and make this city a better place—a better version of itself—for the future.

 

Professor Dumpster 

Not many people can say they’ve lived in a dumpster for a year. Unless you’re related to the Muppet character Oscar the Grouch. But Dr. Jeff Wilson—also known as “Professor Dumpster”—just celebrated one year of living in a dumpster this February. 

For 365 days, he managed to call the hunter-green hued, 33-square-foot dumpster on the Huston-Tillotson University campus home—equipping his abode with a CO2 air quality control tester (for safety purposes) and rainwater harvesting system (so he could water his raised garden beds out front). 

Wilson, a college dean and environmental science professor at the central East Austin university, kept the dumpster on campus to cut down on the cost and environmental impact of commuting by car, sure. But more importantly, he kept it stationed on campus to serve as a learning tool for students and members of the Austin community to observe, admire, and hopefully take home a few low-impact living and sustainable ideas of their own. 

The idea for the project came to Wilson at a time of heightened boredom with the “minutia of the publications and things I was writing about,” he said. He knew if he wasn’t excited about what he was talking about and teaching, his students wouldn’t be either.

His intention with the project: to turn the dumpster into a sustainable house and teaching lab. “This was an experiment to test to the absolute limit if you can be healthy and happy in a very small space. This dumpster, at it’s core, is a conversation box,” he said in a statement on his website, dumpsterproject.org. 

He repurposed one of the inside walls with chalkboard—he is a professor after all and needed somewhere to write—and retrofitted one of the fork pockets on the side of the dumpster (the slots garbage trucks slide their metal prongs into when collecting trash) into a mailbox from which he would soon receive fan mail. 

The dumpster project and Professor Dumpster sparked many conversations—both locally and nationally—on how we can all, as a community, live on less. Perhaps all we needed to see was someone like Dr. Jeff Wilson stand up and do it. In the past year, over 100 different media outlets have set foot in his front yard. And he’s welcomed each one of them in to his dumpster—his home—at all hours of the day and night, to take a look around. It’s not an extensive tour to take, but therein lies the beauty of the project.  

This past December, Wilson said, parents approached him saying their kids wouldn’t stop asking them for a dumpster for Christmas. After getting a glimpse at the way the professor lived, the kids apparently saw the dumpster as a cool, new, land-based fantasy version of a tree house. They might be on to something there. 

So what’s next for the professor who will probably never lose his unique nickname? Rumor has it he’s already got his students working on another low-impact living project

 

 

Dr. Michael Webber

Each time Dr. Michael Webber walks past the Chemistry building on the UT campus, he looks up to the window where his dad’s office used to be. “I went to grad school knowing I wanted to be a professor like my father,” Webber said, glancing up again as he passes by the building. It’s a simple, comforting reminder that he’s continuing a legacy. 

In the nine years Webber has been teaching at UT, he never tires of walking across campus—past all the students brimming with fresh ideas; past the placid, palm frond-fringed turtle pond.

Webber went to UT as an undergrad, graduating with a B.A. in Plan II liberal arts and a B.S. in aerospace engineering. He received his master’s and Ph.D. in mechanical engineering at Stanford before returning to UT to teach mechanical engineering in 2006. 

Strike up a conversation with him, and you’ll quickly realize Webber is a skilled speaker—both in front of a classroom and in front of the Senate. He’s received multiple teaching awards from the university, has consulted with local and national policy makers, and has testified three times on energy and water at the U.S. Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources. “They want expertise and they want to hear what academics think,” Webber said of his consulting trips to D.C. “The advantage I offer them is I don’t make money depending on how they vote. I just tell them the truth.”

But Webber doesn’t just know how to talk the talk. 

He drives a hybrid car to campus each day and is currently in the process of renovating his childhood home he recently bought from his parents. “Most homes in the 70s and 80s weren’t that environmentally sensitive, so it was a crappy house with single pane windows that leaked a lot,” Webber said, noting that he’s remodeling it to have efficient water heaters and solar panels, installing rainwater harvesting to water a fruit and vegetable garden, and is building the garage so it’s pre-wired to charge electric cars. 

The thing he’s most proud of as a professor has been seeing where his students end up. “I’ve taught over 1,000 people and the way I measure my success is through them—it’s one of the few jobs in the world where your success is driven by other people’s success. Seeing them become professors, go to national labs, and go to industry is really exciting,” Webber said. 

Sitting comfortably in his office, he’s surrounded on three sides of the room by stacks of books, some more neatly shelved than others. The majority of the spines read off predictable keywords like ‘green,’ ‘environment,’ ‘energy,’ ‘earth,’ and ‘oil,’ but his favorite book in the room—Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson—has nothing to do with any of those subjects. 

The surface of his desk is rimmed with stacks of student papers and a textbook-size bag of jellybeans.

The only apparent sign he’s a somewhat-tough teacher is the box of tissues tucked slyly beneath a bookshelf behind his desk. “You always have to have a box of Kleenex in your office for when you assign those first ‘F’s’,” Webber reasons. “Students come in crying because they’ve never had an ‘F’ in their entire life. I’m like, ‘Welcome to the club.’ I got that out of my way in my first semester of college.” 

A few of his favorite teaching tips? Give good feedback, talk up to students, and let them in on the special, knowledge secrets. 

Webber is the author of Energy 101, a new course app downloadable on the Apple store. In Fall 2013—when the app first launched—he had 44,000 students sign up for the course. “For my first virtual office hours, a couple hundred people from six continents stopped by,” he said. 

Webber said he still finds it funny when complete strangers recognize him. “I sat down for lunch one day in D.C. and somebody came up to me and was like, ‘I took your course! I know you,’” he said. 

He is also the founder of the Webber Energy Group, a student-run research and environmental consulting group on campus that just installed $1 million in solar panels for electricity and water heating at UT. 

Smiling comes naturally to Webber, especially when he starts to talk about his undergrad alma matter. 

Two sets of horns hang in his office—one set is his and one set is his wife’s. The couple first met in the Longhorn band—he played the trumpet and she played the trombone. 

“If you’re in the band for five years, they give you a pair of horns,” Webber said. Each set spans about 6 to 7 feet wide from point to point. “I’m pretty sure I’m the only professor on campus with two sets of horns,” he said, laughing. They now have three kids and just celebrated their 20th anniversary together. 

While his class lessons are already crossing international borders, Webber’s world at UT still feels small and close knit. 

He’s seen how much the city has grown and developed through the years though—taller buildings, more traffic, less parking. 

“I grew up here [in Austin] when the population was 250,000 and there were mostly hippies. Now, there’s 1 million people.”

Sometimes Austin still thinks its got 250,000 people,” he said, “so we don’t make some big boy decisions [like we should]. We’re a little slow to admit we’re a big city with big city problems.” 

But our city is always thinking about what’s next, Webber added, and that mindset will only serve to help us tackle our energy-dependency issues. “Unlike some cities, Austin views itself as an important part of the future and not as an important part of the past,” he said. “Austin’s got a very forward looking vibe.” 

Just one more reason for him to break out that smile.

 

 

Compost Pedallers 

The number one competitor at Compost Pedallers, a compost collection company in East Austin, is the trashcan. Their second is fossil fuel-burning garbage trucks. 

“We have this throw away culture where we think we can throw things in the trash and it just goes away. What we try to do [at Compost Pedallers] is close the loop and show people that you can use organic material as a resource. A resource to invest back into your community—back into your local farms,” said Owner Dustin Fedako. 

By using the cargo bike, they created a solution that negated the need for a heavy, fossil fuel-based service. One bike can carry up to 800 pounds of compost. 

For $16 a month, people who sign up for the service are given green, odor-proof bins to collect their compost in and are instructed to leave them on their front porch for weekly collection. 

So far, the company has just over 500 customers. They pick up from people’s homes, offices, schools, as well as at area cafes. 

For each pound of compost you contribute, you can earn and redeem points through Compost Pedaller’s rewards program, The Loop. It’s their way of turning compost into currency. “When we started the program, we wanted to make it accessible and appealing to a larger demographic—not just to people who are intrinsically motivated to compost,” Fedako said. 

Rewards range from a cup of coffee and free yoga classes to dinner for two and movie tickets. If you save up 500 points, Compost Pedallers will reward you with a $550 bike.

“We [Compost Pedallers] wanted to design a service that was as accessible and simple to do as possible. You can encourage people to do the right thing by making the right thing the easiest thing to do. So we try to make composting easy,” he said.

Fedako says he grew up living a very standard American life, eating a very standard American diet, and admits he had no idea what composting was until he went to college. 

Throughout and after college, he composted on a personal level, but it wasn’t until he started to learn more about the problem of organic waste that the seed for Compost Pedallers was planted. 

Questions only he could answer started to take over his train of thought. 

Why send waste to a landfill when you could be using that organic waste as a resource? Why make waste when you could be growing food? Why make waste when you could be making fertilizer? Why are we throwing money into the trash? 

“Compost is a concept that’s very easy to understand,” Fedako said. “How would you respond if I were to ask you, ‘Would you rather use this banana peel to create poisonous gas or would you like to use it to create food that could feed someone in your community?” 

“By composting, you’re completing a cycle that’s been happening for billions of years,” he said. “It‘s a cycle many of us in modern culture have really gotten away from.” 

Since Compost Pedallers started, they have collected over 300,000 pounds of compost—diverting that organic waste from the landfill and burning zero fossil fuels in the process. Company employees have burned over 1.5 million calories just from transporting compost. 

Fedako hopes to expand the compost collection service beyond the reach of East Austin soon, but noted that proximity to community gardens and access to bike friendly roads will determine their next move. 

By 2018, all food enterprises in Austin must abide under an organics diversion program for their food scraps. That means future growth for Compost Pedallers. 

Fedako estimates that 50 percent of most restaurant waste is compostable. “We’re really excited to take those materials out of the waste stream,” Fedako said. 

There’s over 5,700 businesses with food permits in Austin. According to Fedako, about one percent of those businesses are currently composting. “We’re going to see a very big landscape shift when people [start composting] those materials.”

His future plans for the Compost Pedallers brand is first and foremost to increase their company reach and scale so they can meet the mandate the city has created.

“We’re fortunate that Austin has a progressive mindset—with goals of getting to zero waste and becoming a more sustainable city,” Fedako said.

When I started on this path, I was honestly very overwhelmed by the scope of the problem. But I’ve come to see it now as less of a problem and more of an opportunity.”

 

 

Ride Scout

Over 78 percent of cars on the road in Austin are single occupancy vehicles. RideScout’s goal: to reduce that percentage by introducing people to alternative methods of eco-friendly transportation. 

RideScout was first introduced to Austin commuters two years ago at SXSW and now operates in more than 70 cities nationwide. The app (free to download on the Apple store) shows people the multiple and most efficient ways they can get from Point A to Point B in the city. When app users plug in a destination, the screen displays transportation options from walking and using B-cycle stations to incorporating bus routes, MetroRail, Car2Go, and taxis into their commute. The app will even match you with someone you can carpool with.  

“We’re about getting people familiar with what’s available and changing the way they think,” said Erica Brennes, RideScout’s director of interactive content. “Even if you could take the bus or carpool once a week, you’re having an impact on reducing traffic.”

The app, acquired by Car2Go in September, shows you how much time each route would take, how much it would cost, and how many calories you would burn.  

“Because traffic is such an issue here in Austin, this city is our hub. It’s such an important place for us to be,” Brennes said. 

 

 

Spinlister

Austin’s newest bike share program puts you in charge of the bike you ride: what style you want, what color you prefer, and how much you pay to rent it. Spinlister, a California-based company, equips bike owners with the capability to rent out their bikes to people around town. 

Launched in 2012, Spinlister provides a peer-to-peer interaction between the lister and renter. Their mission: to connect people and help them find their perfect bike. Rentals range from mountain bikes to cruiser bikes, with the idea that there will always be one kind of bike perfect for everyone. 

The majority of people renting bikes through the Spinlister app so far are from out of town. They’re either bike enthusiasts or people who just love biking as a way to see a new city. “Austin is an event house. There’s so many people traveling there who would rather get around on bikes,” said Andrew Batey, Spinlister’s chief marketing officer. 

For renters, bikes are listed on the app geographically and allow them to search for bikes around their vicinity. 

It takes less than 2 minutes to list a bike of the app, and listers make money from every rental. Although Spinlister does not regulate price, they try to make sure the prices are fair. The minimum criteria the app requires: real pictures of the bike, a brief description, and a fair price. 

While B-cycle was the first implemented bike share program in Austin, Batey said he doesn’t see the company as competition to Spinlister. “It’s the opposite,” Batey said. “B-cycle is a complimentary product to us. One offers a day of activity and the other is a lifestyle.” B-cycle offers 30-minute rentals and Spinlister offers custom-fit rentals for longer amounts of time.

Spinlister plans to be fully implemented in the Austin area once SXSW starts in mid-March. The app company plans to have more than 1,500 bikes listed by the time SXSW starts. As a company promotion, ticket holders at SXSW will receive free rental days to use at their disposal. 

The company has their sights set on the horizon, with future plans to implement a Stand-Up Paddle Board (SUP) rental service after the bike channel is fully functioning. 

 

 

Dai Due

This small and cozy, brick-walled and royal blue-booth lined space in East Austin is quickly making a name for itself in the Austin farm-to-table movement. Dai Due, a 50-seat restaurant anchored by custom, wood burning grills open to the curious glances of hungry diners, opened in August 2014. 

Owners Jesse Griffiths and Tamara Mayfield started hosting pop-up supper clubs in 2006, building their craft and relationships with over 100 Texas farmers, before opening the restaurant in their neighborhood. 

“[The owners] really wanted to do something where they could serve a neighborhood community. To have a place where people could walk down the street in the morning and come in for a coffee and breakfast, yet also be able to come in and celebrate an anniversary dinner. To serve all those purposes for the community,” said Caroline Forbes, manager of Dai Due. 

The community, Forbes said, is what makes Dai Due sustainable. 

“We’ve been so lucky to have so much support, not only from all the farmers, but from the City of Austin supporting this kind of eating. To be willing to not have a tomato all winter. To be willing to embrace that this is local, sustainable, seasonal dining, and that—even if it has some limitations—it helps people realize that there are far less complications [to cooking and eating this way] than some people might think.”

It’s not just for wealthy people. Eating locally can be for everybody,” she said.  

Dai due translates to “from two.” It’s derived from an Italian quote that says, “From the two kingdoms of nature, choose food with care.”

A few of their most well received dishes so far have been their beef rib (a foot-long, cooked whole rib), venison ceviche (citrus-cured raw venison mixed with herbs and chilies), and their bone broth from their in-house butcher shop.  

“It’s a pretty good place to come if you’re on the paleo diet,” Forbes said. 

Most of their proteins—if not roasted or braised—are grilled over the open flames of the wood burning grills. 

“We’re able to make these amazing meals that people are really responding to. Just to see these primal cuts of meat on the bone, it’s fun to bring them to tables and see people’s eyes widen,” Forbes said. 

“We’re very seasonal and our menu changes every day because of that. Often farmers will say, ‘Hey we have a beautiful crop of this [vegetable]’ and we’ll say that sounds amazing, and we’ll make a dish based on it. Our general credo is we’re not going to buy anything that has more than one ingredient. We’re going to buy those ingredients and then make everything ourselves. So we’ll buy flour and make our own bread,” she said.

The farm-to-table restaurant also does a lot of their own preserving and pickling. “So we can still have some of those summer flavors year-round,” Forbes said. In mid-February, they were busy preserving citrus, filling beautiful jars with lemons, tangerines, and grapefruits.

In tribute to the earth that grew the food that diners eat, the restaurant composts and recycles all of their waste. “It costs us more, but we really wanted to have a regimen where we don’t produce a lot of waste. We bring in whole animals, break them down, use every part, and use all the fats for cooking.”

We’ll go through one can of trash a day. All the rest goes into compost or recycling.” 

In essence, the restaurant is serving the community while simultaneously setting an example for how the community should live. Taking from the earth with an understanding of and adherence to their need to give back. Dai Due is connecting people on a closer level with their food, the earth, and—maybe most sought after of all—with one another.

 

 

Hops & Grain 

For Josh Hare, making craft beer didn’t start out as a business venture, but a passion sprung from necessity. Born and raised in Abilene, Hare first started home brewing while attending college at Abilene Christian University. When he and the rest of the student body were forbidden from drinking alcohol, he decided to to start making beer at home. 

Hare got even more exposure to the craft of home brewing when he moved to Boulder, Colorado after college to race bikes and train for triathlons. 

He decided to move back to Texas—trading Abilene for Austin—ten years ago. 

After operating Rogue Equipment and selling running shoes for a few years, Hare said he wanted to try his hand at selling something a bit different. He started Hops & Grain brewery in a 3,000 square foot warehouse in October 2011. Three and a half years—and countless beers imbibed later—and the brewery now occupies over 12,500 square feet of space in East Austin and produces 5 main varieties of beer—Alteration, Zoe, Pale Dog, Porter Culture, and their Greenhouse IPA.  

While there are about 16 or 17 licensed craft breweries in the Austin area, Hare said he’s not worried about the competition. “The nice thing about Austin is we are nowhere near the point of saturation [in regard to breweries].”  

The popularity of the Hops & Grain brand doesn’t look to be losing traction anytime soon. Hare said the brewery has been increasing its capacity three-fold every 3–4 months. Their brand can be found at H-E-B, Whole Foods, and Central Market locations around town, but you’ll soon be able to find the brand in Houston too—the brewery’s first expansion move outside of Austin. 

Hops & Grain tries to set their brand apart by closely associating with the athletic and healthy living communities around the city—one of the reasons none of their beers have higher than a 7 percent ABV. 

The warehouse that houses their brewery is 100 percent wind powered, and solar panels stationed on the roof fulfill 85 percent of the brewery’s energy needs during peak production times. Employees also receive bonuses for riding their bikes to work. 

All beer at Hops & Grain is packaged in ultra-lightweight, recyclable cans—perfect for taking on a hike along the Greenbelt, Hare said. And after the craft brew is made, they turn the spent brewing grains—what’s leftover after the beer is made—into either compost or protein- and fiber-rich dog treats. Practically nothing goes to the landfill. 

The reason Hare continues to make all these eco-friendly business decisions? To make the consumer feel a little bit better about their purchase.

“Sustainability doesn’t just apply to the brewery. It also applies to the community,” Hare said. “We are very transparent and open [to the public].” 

Free, 45-minute tours of the brewery and craft beer tastings are offered Wednesday through Saturday.  

Directions to get to Hops & Grain are simple. Head east on Sixth Street and don’t stop until you hit the end.

 

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