by Jason Rabin
photos by Kelly MacDonald
Last year Somerville sent 24,226 pounds to the incinerator, while our recycling rate — the percentage of total waste collected that is recyclable — was just 15 percent (as a nation our recycling rate is about twice that). There are toxins in our air that can cause asthma and lung cancer. There are dangerous pathogens and metals in our waterways that can harm local wildlife and spread a host of diseases. According to Scorecard.org, our greater community of Middlesex County ranks among the dirtiest 10 percent in the nation in terms of air and water pollution.
The good news is we’re working on it with creativity and vigor — both as a community and as individuals. Here are some highlights of Somerville businesses and residents who have found innovative ways to keep things clean and efficient while getting healthier and (sometimes) wealthier in the process.
Diaper Lab (201a Highland Ave)
Making a stink over plastic
According to CEO Salina Gonzalez Frazier, “The best guesses are that the average disposable diaper will take 500 years to biodegrade, and that’s to say nothing of all of the chemicals that go into making disposable diapers.” Gonzalez Frazier claims disposable diapers annually generate 3.7 million tons of solid waste in the US. Her customers often come to her because their babies have rashes. They wonder if this is related to the chemicals used to create the “super absorbent polymers” in the plastic product.
Then there’s the other incentive for the switch: pocketbooks. “Even people who buy the most expensive diapers in our store here are going to be spending less money than they would on disposables and they’ll be reusing them for their next kid.” Her Web site asserts: “Most babies use between 5,000 and 6,500 diapers from birth to potty training, at a typical cost of between .20 and .40 cents per diaper.” Total expense: upwards of $2,500. Switch to cloth and your cost could be as low as $400.
Gonzalez Frazier, 33, started the business in her Powderhouse Square apartment in 2008. Women found her online and visited her for consultations. Before long her business grew through word of mouth and she decided to set up a counter within a baby store in Ball Square called Twinkle Star (now in Cambridge). She developed relationships with her customers, answering their questions in person, through email and on the phone, educating as well as selling, and within a matter of months, she had a big enough customer base to open her own location.
Diesel Café (257 Elm St)
A “zero waste” model
Day manager Jess Brasil can rattle off the tenets of a zero-waste model: “We have no trash receptacles in the café (except in the bathroom). We just have customers put any trash, dishes and recycling in the dish pans, and then we sort through it and compost food waste. Paper waste we recycle. We have compost buckets placed throughout the service area for coffee grounds and filters and paper towels. Our to-go containers are compostable. The paper coffee cups and our cold cups and lids and straws are all made of corn so they’re all compostable.”
Beverages served in these corn-based containers are mixed with wooden stirrers, and the food served in them is eaten with good old-fashioned silverware. The used containers that wind up in the compost bins with other biodegradable matter are hauled off by trucks from a Charlestown-based company called Save That Stuff who returns them to the earth.
According to Go Green Somerville’s case study of Diesel, this system led to a 64 percent reduction of solid waste in one year, saving $120/month in trash disposal fees. And this is just one element of the coffee shop’s green scheme.
They also called in local energy provider NSTAR for an audit and retrofit. Per NSTAR policy, Diesel was only charged 30 percent of the costs. For a total of $194, all of the café’s incandescent bulbs, fixtures and LED signs were replaced with more energy-efficient technology. Go Green estimated the financial savings at around $545/year; the energy savings at 4,196 kwh/year; and the CO2 savings at 5,371 lbs/year.
Diesel saved another $278 by replacing light-switches in two storage rooms with motion-sensors. Lights which had been using 224 watts, 18 hours/day are now used for an average of only 1 hour/day. Diesel uses Energy Star-certified refrigerators and appliances which offer an energy savings of 15 percent over non-certified brands. For fewer than $50, they switched all of the nozzles, fixtures and sprayers on their sinks to models that waste less water. In addition, they use low-flow toilets that save 1.6 gallons/flush.
Bonney Automotive (640 Boston Ave)
A greener, cleaner, cheaper ride
“By green services,” says General Manager Joe Teeves, a lifelong Somerville resident, “I’m talking about carbon cleaning for the interior of your engine to help it run better and a little more efficiently. It helps clean out all the carbon deposits from oil and fuel consumption. It also cleans out the fuel injectors, and once that stuff is clean and running in top-notch condition it will actually help you get better fuel mileage and less harmful emissions coming out of the tail pipes.”
Explains owner Ron Bonney, “The Carbon Clean system works best on
vehicles with over 50K mileage on Ameri-can cars. Toyotas, Lexus and Hondas need it after 100K.” The process costs $125 and Bonney’s figures show that it will improve most cars’ efficiency by four-to-six miles per gallon.
For $10/wheel, Bonney Automotive also offers nitrogen tire services. Unlike regular air which expands and contracts in response to temperature fluctuations, nitrogen retains a steady pressure within a tire. Tire pressure warning lights are reduced and there is less wear and rust on rims. Filling your tires with nitrogen both further increases fuel mileage and extends the longevity of each tire itself.
Metro Pedal Power (11 Olive Sq)
Keep On Trikin’
“It’s just a big beefy tricycle with a huge trunk on the back,” says Metro Pedal Power employee Daniel Kumatz. “The unit itself weighs about 250 pounds and on it there’s a small motor powered by a car battery connected to a hand throttle. That motor enables you to get the vehicle moving, because we routinely put 500 pounds on the back of these things. It’s a lot of mass to get up a hill.”
He is describing “the trike,” the primary vehicle MetroPed uses to deliver crops from farms to urbanites who have bought seasonal farm shares. MetroPed also delivers crops to restaurants and specialty shops throughout the city. On their fleet of varied “pedal trucks,” they make other deliveries as well, including many for Somerville’s Taza Chocolate (561 Windsor St).
Residents who buy into C.S.A. (Community Supported Agriculture) farm shares account for the lion’s share of their clientele. MetroPed’s team of seven makes an average of 150 deliveries to farm-share owners each week. “If you buy into a CSA,” CEO Wenzday Jane, 36, explains, “you have to either go to the farm to pick it up or meet the farmer at a farm stand during particular hours. People who have hectic work schedules or kids don’t always have time to do that.”
“In terms of an ecological model,” adds Kumantz, “it’s a lot better than say, the farm having to come in and drive a van all over the city. Instead, they bring it to us and we’re a hub.”
Apex Green Roofs (170 School St)
Controlling your overhead
“When you have a combined sewer system, like we do in a lot of communities here, meaning that the water that comes out of your toilet combines with the same water that is coming off the streets and rooftops, that all has to be treated, and that costs a lot of money. Green roofs here in Boston will reduce the amount of storm water coming off of rooftops by about 65 percent over the course of the year,” says Dustin Brackney, 32, who along with his partner, Charles Sinckler, runs Apex Green Roofs. Apex states that it has already retained 2,983,098 gallons of storm water and sequestered 13,612 lbs of carbon.
Local Apex clients include WGBH, the Rowland Institute at Harvard, Simmons College School of Management, The Four Seasons Hotel, Harvard Business School, and most recently, The Sloan School of Management at M.I.T.
Brackney and Sinckler will continue to bid principally on these kinds of clients — “Institutions. Schools. Because they have the financial ability to have a long-term vision” — until local government incentivizes smaller building owners to make the investment. Says Brackney, “Portland does this. Chicago does this. Philadelphia does this. New York does this. Right now, Boston does not. Somerville does not. But it’s a matter of time.”
As far as Somerville goes, he may well be right. Says Ward 6 Alderman Rebekah Gewirtz: “We’re initiating a green community task force which will meet two or three times to look at some best practices in terms of inciting green roof technology in the city, and possibly even adding to our zoning permits to make it more palatable to use green roof technology to reduce our storm water runoff.”
And yes: Brackney and Gewirtz have been talking.
Dan Delongchamp, 25 (Union Sq)
A garden in every kitchen
By day, Dan Delongchamp is a landscape planner for Bioengineering Group of Salem, a group working on (among other projects) restoring native plant species to the Alewife Brook. He’s also worked in plant nurseries; as a sous-chef (at the Red Lion Inn in Cohasset); and in a produce-packing warehouse.
It’s not easy to grow your own food in the city, and nobody knows this better than a landscape planner who has tested soil and worked on damaged land. As much as he likes the idea of urban gardens, he worries about what could be lurking beneath the city earth.
“Toxins, PCBs, different types of heavy metals, things like that. There’s lots of manufacturing around here, lots of railroads, especially around Somerville. There’s urban fill, a type of soil classification which means it could contain anything from brick to lead to asbestos, stuff from buildings that were torn down 30 years ago before the classification even existed. Without doing a thorough subterranean analysis you have no idea what could be down there.”
His solution: Agripods.
In his spare time, Delongchamp builds “modular kitchen gardens,” 24 x 36 x 14-inch plots built in recycled “fish totes” – hygienic polyethylene plastic containers formerly used to carry fish from the boat to the market (and approved as a food container by every major international standards body). Delongchamp fills these pods with the healthiest soil mixture he can devise.
Depending on your specifications, Delongchamp or his colleague, Sean Skapars, will plant a vegetable or an herb in your Agripod and deliver it to your door. You can buy pods for $45 each at the beginning of the crop’s season or subscribe for a year to receive three seasonal vegetable pods for a total of $140, with an added $10 fee for each of the six trips Agripod makes to drop off the planted pods and pick them up again once the crops have been harvested. In 2009, its inaugural year, Agripod had 140 customers.
Pearl Emmons, 30 (Magoun Sq)
Where your roots at?
Pearl Emmons is the daughter of an organic farmer, well versed in Community Supported Agriculture. “When I first moved to Somerville in ’01,” she remembers, “I started seeing posters up on telephone poles. At the time I was a student and couldn’t afford a farm share, but I always knew that it was something I would want to do when I could.”
Ironically, it was office life that brought Emmons back to the farm. It wasn’t just the paycheck. It was also learning that four of her coworkers subscribed to Parker Farm in Lunenburg, Mass. Once she convinced her roommate and her boyfriend to go in on the share, they started getting emails from the farmer reporting on how the crops were doing.
When they were notified that their first yield was ready (usually the first or second week of June) they were given the option of three pickup locations: Porter Square, Davis Square or Central Square. Pickup was from 5–7pm one night a week. “You get told how many bunches of each item are available, and bring your grocery bags to fill,” she says. “You choose between a small share and a large share. So the small share gets four-to-six different items a week and the large share gets eight-to-ten.”
Emmons’ group chose the large share. They split the $525 cost three ways. The weekly yield, plus a trip to the farm at the end of the season, during which shareholders were invited to pack coolers full of the crop’s leftovers, ended up accounting for the majority of their eating for eight months. Emmons calculates that they spent only about $6/week on food.
“I think it’s really important to eat food that comes from close to where you live,” she says. “Obviously carbon footprint is important — the cost of transporting food long distance. Also, when you buy things that are grown in California or South America, it’s not very supportive agriculture. Farmers there aren’t making enough money necessarily to support themselves.”
This is important to Emmons. So much so that she’s become involved with helping Parker Farm reach new buyers. “I actually help out with their mailing list,” she says with a smile. That’s what you get for feeding a communications specialist.
Vanessa Rule, 40 (Teele Sq)
A solar system
Vanessa Rule, head of Somerville Climate Action, is arguably the most ubiquitous and connected green activist in town. Her vision of the city’s environmental challenges is holistic and dire. So it’s not surprising that Rule, the mother of two, has been thorough and practical in making sure her Teele Square home is cooled and heated efficiently.
One crucial first step she identifies for any home is proper insulation. “There is an organization called Mass Save that any Somerville resident can call up and basically get a free audit. The rebates are really good and they’re getting better now. The audit is free and at present, NSTAR will pay 75 percent of the cost of hiring an approved insulator for up to $2000 of work.”
“This is all money that we are paying anyway,” she explains. “Every time you pay your oil, gas or electricity bill, there’s a little amount of it that goes to this fund, so you should really take advantage of it. It reduces your utility cost, and it makes your house a lot more comfortable and less noisy.”
That’s great news if you’re a homeowner. But what if, like many Somerville residents, you rent? “One of the things that would be great to see would be green ratings on landlords, so that if you’re renting an apartment you can see who’s likely to do this.” For her own part, Rule and her husband rent out a portion of their home, so they are particularly conscious about utility costs. Another measure they have taken is the installation of solar panels both for hot water and electricity.
“Solar panels for electrical power are a great deal. They pay for pretty much all the hot water. It’s summer right now, so the furnace is off, but in the winter the solar PV [photovoltaics] pays for probably slightly over three-quarters of our electrical use. And that’s plugged into the grid, so what happens is, when we’re not producing as much as we’re using, our meter runs forward, but then in the summer when we’re producing a lot of electricity our meter actually runs backwards. We get bills that are actually minus, and it gets credited back to the winter bills.”
Installing solar panels is expensive, but, as with the insulation, the Rules have been resourceful in seeking aid. “To install the solar panels we got a grant from the state. Again, every month when you pay your bills there’s a portion that is paid into this, so that is available to every resident of Massachusetts. They pay for 50 percent of the system and you get federal and state tax rebates. We also refinanced and got a green mortgage through Wainwright Bank with a lower interest rate.”
While installing solar panels both for water and electricity could cost around $20,000, the Rules have ended up paying about half of that. After refinancing, their monthly mortgage payments have only nominally increased. “Solar hot water will pay for itself within three-to-six years,” says Rule. For solar electricity it’s more like 10 years, but because of the grant and the rebate it’s become pretty manageable.”
Doug Moore, 27 (Spring Hill)
Junk in the trunk
It started at MassArt. Doug Moore was studying sculpture. At night, he would have to lug heavy duty materials — wood, heavy metal, pounds of tools — home for unfinished projects. He did not, and does not, own a car. His solution: a homemade bicycle trailer.
After some experimentation, Moore discovered a design by bicycle trailer guru, Aaron Forest Wieler. His trailers now use strong, light thin-walled steel tubing and can handle over 300 pounds. They cost him about $100 to make depending on how many materials he can find for free. Moore prides himself on building with reusable materials (wheels, plywood, tubing) as often as possible.
“The wheels are really the most expensive part. Ideally you could find most of
those for free. But then it becomes kind of a like a searching game. You could spend a lot of time looking for the right material like the steal conduit for the frame and the plywood and the wheels.”
Last year, Moore began another experiment: Leasing a homemade trailer to customers for $15/day. “A commercial trailer would cost $200,” says Moore. “And those are a lot less durable than mine.” He’s not quite ready to compete with MetroPed, whom he admires, but the trailers are a nice hobby with a little bit of monetary reward.
For his own part, Moore also uses a homemade bicycle trailer for errands like grocery shopping and for the hobby that helped give birth to his vehicles in the first place: “I like trash picking in Somerville because people throw away some amazing stuff. Things like furniture — things that I can break down into raw materials and reuse. Like last night on my way home running errands,” he relates, “I saw that someone had thrown away a cheaply made desk. I carried it a block to my house so I can strip it down and reuse the wood.”
What will he use the wood for? “I don’t even know, but once in a while I get projects.” Perhaps a bookshelf, he speculates. His momentum with the bicycle trailers has got him thinking in an ecological direction. “One of the things I want to do, but have been putting off for a while, is making a wind turbine. I’m pretty sure I can make a simple one, nothing too intensive. I’d build one for lighting just to save some energy, maybe try and save $10/month on my electric bill.”