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From Used To Useful: The Ultimate Form of Recycling

Posted on November 14, 2017 by | Comments (0)

Most people think what ends up at a wastewater treatment plant is exactly that – waste. Something that is worthless. Now, I admit it is smelly and gross. I’ve stood at the headworks of one of our larger plants, the place where sewage first enters to be treated and where big bar screens trap and filter out all of the large pieces of trash that somehow got down into the sewers. It’s not pretty. I may or may not have gagged. So when I say it’s smelly and gross, I speak from personal experience. How could anything useful come out of that? There is nothing left to be reused or recycled, right? Wrong.

When I talk about wastewater, AKA sewage, I’m not just talking about your toilet flushes. Sinks, showers, washing machines, dishwashers, restaurants, and other businesses all drain to the sanitary sewer system, which is a collection of pipes and pumps that send all that dirty water to our wastewater treatment plants to be cleaned.  And all that dirty water adds up to about 150 million gallons a day. Still sounds like “waste,” I know, but it’s actually full of resources and resources can be reused as long as they can be recovered. That’s why wastewater treatment plants across the country are being renamed for what they actually are – resource recovery facilities.  It’s not just about treating dirty water; it’s about REUSING and RECYCLING. Here are a few ways HRSD is recovering resources:

crystal-green-aglink

Environmentally-friendly fertilizer made with phosphorous that used to be inside a sewage pipe.

1.  Nutrients – HRSD partners with Ostara Nutrient Recovery Technologies to recover phosphorous from sewage and turn it into an environmentally-friendly commercial fertilizer right here in Suffolk. It’s called Crystal Green® and its slow-release formula reduces fertilizer runoff as an added bonus. But it gets even better. Crystal Green® is made from struvite, a concrete-like material that builds up on the inside of sewage pipes and causes clogs. Not only are we reducing nutrients going into our waterways by removing them from the wastewater, but we’re creating something useful from something that is normally a big and costly pain-in–the-you-know-what.

MAR_7997

HRSD’s Combined Heat & Power System uses 100% of the gas produced; previously, more than half the gas was wasted.

2.  Energy – In Virginia Beach, HRSD’s Atlantic Treatment Plant Combined Heat and Power System generates renewable power and heat from gas produced during the plant’s treatment process. This system meets about half of the plant’s electricity demand and produces enough electricity to power 1,200 homes for a year. And P.S., cleaned water at this plant is sent into the Atlantic Ocean about 1.5 miles offshore, but a portion of it is routed through heat exchangers at the Dam Neck Naval Facility to provide energy-efficient building heating and cooling.

BAC-GAC-Filtration-300x200

HRSD’s highly treated water passes through the Carbon-Based Advanced Water Treatment step at the SWIFT Pilot facility.

3.  Water– The wastewater that flows to our plants every day is treated and then the cleaned water is sent into local waterways to be reused in the environment. But we decided we could do better than that. HRSD’s Sustainable Water Initiative for Tomorrow (SWIFT) will take highly treated water that would otherwise be discharged into local rivers and put it through additional rounds of advanced water treatment to meet drinking water quality standards. The SWIFT Water will then be added to the Potomac Aquifer, the primary source of groundwater throughout eastern Virginia. This will not only replenish our dwindling groundwater supply, but help the Bay by reducing the nutrients we currently discharge into local rivers, and help fight the impacts of sea level rise. Our SWIFT Research Center is currently under construction and you can check swiftva.com for updates and to learn more.

This might sound like resource recovery to the extreme, but ideas and technologies like these are being implemented all over the world as more communities seek forward-looking solutions. You can also turn your home into a resource recovery facility (and it’s way easier than what HRSD is doing!). Take the #BeRecycled pledge for America Recycles Day on November 15th and pledge to:

  1. Learn – Find out what materials are collected in your community.
  2. Act – Reduce the amount of waste you produce, recycle more, and buy materials made with recycled content.
  3. Share – Encourage others to take the #BeRecycled pledge.

Compost Grown

I have plants growing out of my compost bin – I guess that means it’s working!

This year I’m recovering resources by composting my kitchen scraps and yard waste. All of those leaves littering my backyard right now will be put to use fertilizing my garden beds in the spring. Check out the photo I took this week of my compost bin – it can’t wait to get started! 

 

 

Posted in: Going Green, Household tips, Reduce reuse and recycle, Research, Waterways

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Consider Adding Insulation this Fall

Posted on August 16, 2017 by | Comments Off

insulationAdding attic insulation is one of the most cost-effective home improvements you can make. But it is not part of many homeowners’ to-do lists because many homes already have some insulation in place. Unfortunately, the amount they have is not enough to take full advantage of the energy-saving capabilities of attic insulation.

How Do I Shop for Insulation?

Recommended insulation levels are based on climate. You can find the recommended R-values for your area by checking here. Insulation amounts are listed in R-values rather than inches. R-value indicates the material’s resistance to heat flow. The higher the number, the more resistance. Insulation products have their R-values listed on the product packaging so that you can compare one product with another.

You will see that the table lists R-values for both uninsulated attics and those that have a few inches of insulation already in place. Most homes will fall into the second category. In general, if you can see the tops of the ceiling joists, you need to add more insulation.

Do-It-Yourself or Do-It-for-Me?

Insulating an attic is one of those jobs that is trickier than it looks. Most homeowners fail to see the connection between insulating and air sealing, which is the plugging of openings that allow heated or air-conditioned air from the living area to escape to the attic. And there are a lot of openings, including those created by flues and chimneys, ducts, electrical and plumbing lines and recessed light fixtures. Many are hard to find, especially if there is some insulation in place. Insulation and air sealing work together to make an attic energy efficient, because each technique stops a different type of heat flow.

Attics that are uncluttered can be insulated with fiberglass or rock wool batts or blankets. But if there are obstructions or unusual angles, you may need a loose-fill material, such as blown-in fiberglass or cellulose. These require special equipment and should be left to a professional contractor to ensure even coverage and a consistent R-value throughout the space.

Another area that may require a pro’s expertise are recessed lights that have their housings in the attic.  Old style “can” lights should not be covered with insulation. A contractor can set up safe ways to block the insulation as well as other alternatives.

Installers also need to consider ventilation. The attic space above the insulation should be ventilated so that any moisture laden air that makes its way from the living space to the attic is exhausted to the outside. There are a few ways to obtain adequate ventilation, including using a combination of ridge and soffit vents. But if the airflow is blocked because the insulation is installed incorrectly, condensation could occur, leading to wet insulation, which is worthless, or structural damage. Discuss your ventilation options with a qualified insulation contractor.

Installing attic insulation saves energy and money, but only if it is installed correctly.

Guest blog submitted by Fran Donegan, a DIY-for-the-home authority who writes on energy-saving tips for The Home Depot.

Posted in: Energy Saving & Cooling, Household tips

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Meat Water: Not A Thing

Posted on June 28, 2017 by | Comments Off

There comes a time in every educator’s life when you question if you are really making a difference. Am I reaching people? Am I molding the next generation of world changers? Will they remember any of this? 

I’ve been a Community Educator with HRSD for about 5 years and I love what I do. I get to teach people how HRSD cleans dirty water and why clean water is important, create interactive activities to bring to schools, and blog about my experiences right here on “Let’s Talk Green.” At this point, most of my friends and family know what not to flush because it’s one of my favorite soap boxes to stand on. Encouraging civic engagement is my jam. I even convinced my brother to stop hurling his used turkey fryer oil over the fence. Community Educator win.

But then, it happened. One ordinary night my husband and I were going through the post-dinner motions of cleaning up and getting the kids clean and in bed with enough efficiency to allow for a TV show and an adult beverage before turning into pumpkins. Out of the corner of my eye I saw him leaning over the kitchen sink with the pan he had cooked the beef in that night. No, I thought. He can’t be. He wouldn’t…

Fats Oils Grease Disposal

This is not “meat water.” It is FOG.

Me:  What are you doing?

Husband:  Huh?  Just…

Me:  Are you pouring that grease into our sink?! 

Husband:  What? No, it’s not grease, it’s meat water.

Me:  MEAT WATER?! Meat water is not a thing. There is no such thing as meat water. 

Husband:  Yes, this is meat water. It’s not grease. Bacon makes grease. This is more like water.

Me:  HAVE YOU LOST YOUR MIND?! You can’t pour that down the drain. Do you ever listen to anything I say? I spend a lot of time telling people to keep FOG out of their drains, and now you, my own husband, my sink. That clogs pipes, causes sewage spills…Ahhhhhhhh!  *Throws hands in air*

Husband:  It’s MEAT WATER! Meat water doesn’t clog pipes.

Me:  THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS MEAT WATER! 

I could continue but we just started to talk in circles at this point. 

Community Educator FAIL. Apparently, my messages are sometimes lost on the ones closest to me. And this is the same sink I have blogged about in the past, a sink that my husband installed WITHOUT a garbage disposal because garbage disposals send too much gunk into the pipes and contribute to clogs and sewage spills. He knows that part. He scrapes his leftovers into the trashcan and compost bin like a champ.   

I guess I need one of these above my sink.

I guess I need one of these above my sink.

So here goes.  For my husband and everyone else I have failed to reach. Fats, Oils, and Grease (FOG) DO NOT GO DOWN THE DRAIN. That includes any leftover residue from cooking meat. Even if it looks “watery.” It’s not meat water. Meat water does not exist. Google it. 

It turns out, I’m not alone. My coworker, Molly, is also a Community Educator, guest blogger, and environmental steward with a green thumb (check out her composting tips). She realized recently that her husband was not using the strainer in their kitchen sink. He didn’t think he needed to since he scrapes all of the large pieces of food in the trash. But what about the teeny tiny pieces? If our husbands lived together, they would have some hefty bills from the plumber. The FOG sent down the drain would cling to the pipe walls and catch all of those teeny tiny pieces and eventually make a big ol’ clog. And there’s more. She also caught her husband (why is it always the husbands?) leaving grass clippings on the sidewalk because “the rain will wash it away into the storm drain.” And not just any storm drain. A storm drain that resides on the worst hit street in the state of Virginia by Hurricane Matthew. Their house flooded, their floors floated, they evacuated in the middle of the night. Everyone on their street is all too familiar with the stormwater system and how important it is to keep things flowing. PLUS, grass clippings pollute our waterways with excess nutrients. Our husbands are both smart people, but it seems we’ve overlooked them in our quest to save the world. 

We all need reminders now and then, so please, take this home with you today:

Meat water is not real. Fatbergs are real. 

Google it. Then educate your spouses.

Posted in: Fats, oils and grease disposal, For educators, Gardening, Going Green, Household tips, Keeping storm drains free, Lawn and landscape, Lawncare, Outdoor tips, Uncategorized, Waterways

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Composting: A Lazy Gardener’s Guide

Posted on June 13, 2017 by | Comments Off

If you’re an avid gardener, you’re probably familiar with home composting. The premise is simple; mix kitchen scraps with a bunch of leaves or straw in a bin to make a rich, organic fertilizer for your plants. It’s green! It’s economical! It’s easy! Or so they say.

I love home-grown vegetables. Specifically tomatoes, because I’ve found the ones available in grocery stores to be nothing short of inedible. I’m also known to grow epic corn, eggplants, artichokes, lettuces, kale, cucumbers, potatoes, watermelons, zucchini, blackberries, herbs and green beans. The point is this: I’m good at growing things. The secret to my success? Good soil and a laid-back (bordering on lazy) attitude. Unfortunately, home composting using a bin requires a certain level of attention to detail that just doesn’t jive with my “lazy gardening” philosophy.

Here’s how bin composting works:

1. Choose a bin. You can purchase a simple pre-made bin from a garden center or spring for a more expensive tumbler. You can even make your own from a large lidded trash can. I made my own by drilling a bunch of small holes in a hefty green trash can to let oxygen in.

2. Layer nitrogen-rich green waste (grass clippings, fruit and vegetable waste, flowers) and carbon-rich brown waste (dead leaves, sawdust, shredded paper).  Each later should be about 2-4 inches thick. Make sure green waste from your kitchen is always covered by green or brown waste from your yard to keep it from attracting critters.

3. Turn it at least once a week. The decomposing microorganisms responsible for turning your waste into fertilizing compost need oxygen to survive, and turning the pile allows air to circulate and speeds things along. A tumbler makes this step easy (you just rotate the side handle a few times) but you can also use a pitchfork or shovel.

4. Be patient. Compost is ready to use when it no longer looks like raw materials and instead like rich soil. This may take a few months!

Once I completed my homemade compost bin, I was ready to roll. I kept dead leaves and topsoil nearby to sprinkle on top of any food scraps, mixed it up every week, threw in a bunch of worms to help out the decomposing microorganisms, and got… grubs. Lots and lots of grubs. So I dumped Trial 1 onto the lawn (the neighborhood songbirds had a heyday) and tried again. I figured I didn’t have enough brown waste, so I added more leaves and shredded paper and less food scraps. The result? More grubs. It was gross. And most of my food scraps were still completely recognizable! Ever the optimist, I tried again. Unfortunately, the third time was NOT the charm and I was once again thwarted by those pesky fly larvae.

Maybe my homemade compost bin was ineffective. Maybe I didn’t add enough leaves or have the right brown-to-green-waste ratio. Maybe I didn’t mix it enough, or mixed it too much. Maybe I wasn’t patient enough (this is likely true). Who knows. The point is, after three tries and way more grubs than I ever want to see again, I gave up. I figured I’d just have to be one of those people who buys fertilizer from the store each year.

My compost bed in early spring is ready for action!

My compost bed in early spring is ready for action!

A few months after quitting composting, I was dealing with the remnants of an ill-fated attempt at growing acorn squash and thinking to myself “I wish I still lived in Troutville and could just rake all this stuff into the woods.” And then, a light bulb! Just because I live in the city now doesn’t mean I have to use a bin to make compost! Like my country brethren of yore, I could just rake it into a pile, dump some dirt on top, and let nature do its thing. So I dug a hole in one of my raised beds, added the vines and exploded acorn squash, topped it with dirt, and went on my merry way. A few weeks later I dug the spot back up and found rich, beautiful soil. It was a Lazy Gardening miracle!

 

3 weeks post food scrap addition and looking lovely.

3 weeks post food scrap addition and looking lovely.

Two years later and that raised bed is my own personal dirt factory. It’s active about ten months out of the year (my commitment to sustainability doesn’t go so far as to dig through ice in the winter) and produces enough compost to fertilize all my produce and fill the small sinkholes in my yard. I add fruit and vegetable scraps, thin cardboard, shredded paper, grass clippings, leaves, dead plants, tea bags, spaghetti… pretty much anything biodegradable that isn’t meat or cheese. I literally just dig a hole in the ground and bury stuff. I don’t worry about layering brown and green waste, adding earth worms or mixing it; I just let the bugs and microorganisms in the soil do their magic. As a family of four, our big black curbside trashcan is rarely half-full and I’m able to avoid the dreaded clear plastic yard waste bags most of the time. All in all, it’s been a great success.  But I have learned a few things:

  • It turns out this method actually has a name: Trench Composting.
  • Although you can get away with burying large food scraps in your compost pile (I bury our jack-o-lanterns whole after Halloween), it does take longer for them to break down. So cut your kitchen scraps into small pieces if you’re in a compost-creating hurry.
  • The key is to success is ADEQUATE BURIAL. This gives easy-access to worms and microorganisms while repelling flies, ‘coons and other varmints.

My retired compost bin serves a new purpose

My retired compost bin serves a new purpose

 

If bin composting works for you, that’s great! But if you’re like me, have failed at it repeatedly, and have the space for a food scrap burial ground (a.k.a. Trench Composting) then try out my Lazy Gardening method. Your tomatoes and trash can will thank you.

Guest post submitted by Molly Bertsch, HRSD Community Educator.

 

 

 

Posted in: Gardening, Going Green, Household tips, Lawn and landscape, Outdoor tips, Uncategorized

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Disposable diaper liners- to flush or not to flush?

Posted on January 10, 2017 by | Comments Off

Ah, diapers.  A staple of nurseries everywhere.  But as a parent, how do you decide what kind of diaper is right for your kiddo?  Gone are the days of only a handful of disposable diaper options or cloth diapers that are secured to your precious baby with terrifyingly-stabby safety pins.  Now you’re faced with so many choices!  If you decide to go with fully disposable diapers, should you buy off-brand or name-brand?  Organic?  Moisture-wicking?  Chlorine free?  Should you enter the realm of cloth diapering and, if so, should you purchase All In Ones, All In Twos, pocket diapers, or hybrids?  Inserts?  Cotton liners?  Disposable liners?

The answer to these questions depends on your personal preferences and what works for you and your family.  But having successfully navigated the mysterious world of diapering twice now, I’ve figured out a few things. 

1)      Your baby will ultimately have the final say (i.e., you’ll choose the type that doesn’t make him or her break out in a bum rash) 

2)      Occasional leaks are an inevitability

3)      Disposable diaper liners are not flushable

“Hold the phone, Molly; did you just say disposable diaper liners aren’t flushable??  But a lot of them state that they’re flushable right on the packaging!  How can this be?”  Well, I’ll tell you.  Much like “flushable” wipes, they’re misnamed.  Technically you CAN flush both wipes and liners, just like my son has recently shown me that you CAN flush ninja turtle action figures.  But should you flush them?  Definitely not.

Diaper Liners Blog 1Disposable diaper liners are thin mesh-like cloths (usually made out of cotton or viscose rayon) that can be placed in diapers to conveniently catch solid waste.   The idea is that rather than removing the waste from and scrubbing the entire cloth diaper or insert, you can just remove and discard the liner and toss the rest into the washing machine.  But where should they be discarded?  Most are labeled “flushable,” although many specify that they are not “septic safe.”  Most I’ve found state this (or something similar) on the packaging:

Place liner inside diaper.  When diaper is soiled, simply remove and flush down toilet.  May cause blockage in old or damaged drains.  Not recommended for sensitive septic tanks.” 

Hm… suspicious!  So does that mean they’re safe to flush if your home has newer plumbing?  How do you determine whether or not your septic system is “sensitive?”  Talk about confusing packaging.

While there are plenty of first-hand accounts of the detriment of flushable wipes on our sewer systems, I couldn’t find enough out there in terms of disposable diaper liners to ease my uncertainty.  So, in order to decipher whether they’re truly safe to send down the drain, I put on my lab coat and did a bit of experimenting on my own.

Supplies:

1)      Three well-known brands of “flushable” diaper liners

2)      3 bowls of water

3)      1 washing machine

4)      1 mesh garment bag

Diaper Liners Blog 2

12 hours after being placed in water the diaper liners are going strong!

 

Diaper Liners Blog 3

A full 24 hours in water and the liners still haven’t changed.

First, I placed two sheets of each brand of diaper liner in a bowl of water, swished them around a bit, and let them sit overnight.  As you can see, all three survived completely unscathed.  I decided to give them the benefit of the doubt and leave them in for another twelve hours.  Nope, still holding on strong!

Next, I figured I’d simulate the sloshing of our sewer lines by putting them through a round in my washing machine.  I placed them in a mesh garment bag to prevent them from wrapping around the agitator and then waited patiently.  The result….they survived!  I couldn’t find ANY signs of deterioration.

Diaper Liners Blog 4

24 hours in water plus a trip through my washing machine. These certainly aren’t going to breakdown any time soon!

Conclusion: Disposable diaper liners are great.  They make cleaning cloth diapers quicker and easier and can help prevent rash creams and ointments from ruining the fabric’s absorbency.  But remember, flushing things down the drain that don’t break down easily contributes to clogged pipes, which can in turn cause environmentally- harmful sewer system overflows.  Or, much like my own ninja turtle action figure incident, they can cause messy overflows in your own home.  So be a Sewer Steward and dispose of those helpful diaper liners in a trash can, NOT a toilet.  

 

Blog contributed by Molly Bertsch, Community Educator at HRSD.

Posted in: Fats, oils and grease disposal, Household tips, What Not To Flush

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