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Home | Tag Archives: Wondor Eco:Nomics

Tag Archives: Wondor Eco:Nomics

Green in the Desert: Local Business Turns to Animal Manure to Fight Climate Change

It’s half past 8 a.m. on a cloudy morning when Carlos Huerta fires up his 15-ton loader and swings it into the yard. Three mounds of manure and organic material stand before him, heaped like giant, stinky haystacks.

His tractor’s blade sinks into the first. A rich, sweet odor lifts into the air, and the mound begins to let off steam.

“That means it’s cooking,” Huerta shouts from the cab.

To the untrained eye, these mounds might amount to little more than refuse. But Huerta, owner of New Green Organics, thinks of them as productive. Not only has he built his business around them, but, in his eyes, they also represent an opportunity for the community to tackle serious problems related to excessive waste, methane-gas emissions and land degradation.

Steam rises from a mound of compost as Carlos Huerta turns it with his loader at the New Green Organics yard in Vinton, Texas.

The answer, he says, is evident in the steam.  “That right there is really powerful in terms of waste reduction,” Huerta says of the steam. “It’s a sign that the pile is active. That means it’s breaking down, creating compost, and that compost is a world of difference from landfilling.”

Method behind the methane

Currently, the vast majority of organic waste in the El Paso area is dumped into local landfills. This material—such as food waste—decomposes over time, releasing methane gas into the atmosphere, said John Garza, City of El Paso Environmental Services deputy director.

“Methane is a greenhouse gas that contributes to the trapping of more heat in the earth’s atmosphere and affects climate change,” Garza wrote in an email.

“This climate change brings adverse weather conditions (droughts and floods) that ultimately impact agricultural production.”

Nationally, methane accounts for about 11 percent of the total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. By reducing organic waste in local landfills, communities can play a role in taking a bite out of such emissions—an important step for combating climate change.

Composting, according to Huerta, offers a beneficial alternative to landfilling, a way to divert organic material and to put it to good use

Mounds of compost await turning at the New Green Organics yard in Vinton, Texas.

elsewhere. “When you compost, the material goes back into the earth,” he said, “which is the most interesting thing to me. In a certain way, this material has been taken from the earth. But if you do this [composting] in a respectful way, it can return to the land at a great benefit.”

From zoo animals to soil amendments

So far this year, Huerta has diverted more than 3,000 cubic yards of organic waste from landfills.

At the New Green Organics site in Vinton, Texas, that material is piled, watered and turned in a complex process that eventually converts it into compost. Huerta then sells the finished product to local gardeners, ranchers, farmers and other clients in the area.

In 2014, he struck a deal with the El Paso Zoo to launch a pilot project that would divert large amounts of animal waste from landfills. Each month, Huerta receives manure shipments from the zoo, including output from zebras, elephants, giraffes, tapirs and antelopes.

Since its start, the project has diverted roughly 150 tons of animal manure each year from the landfill, turning what would be methane-producing waste into Zoo Doo, a locally available compost that builds healthy soils.

“I always say with compost, ‘the finished product is only as good as what you put into it,’” Huerta said. “The manure from the zoo’s animals offers biodiversity. It’s like an injection of nitrogen, which is crucial for good compost.”

Creating carbon sinks

Not only does the process reduce the material in terms of sheer volume, but it also adds to soil fertility, Huerta said, and ensures that food thrown away is not completely wasted.

Additionally, composting is a key ingredient to regenerative agriculture and carbon farming, methods which tap the power of photosynthesizing plants to sink carbon into organic soils. Applying compost to the land creates healthier topsoil, Huerta said, which in turn reduces erosion, sequesters greenhouse gases, and helps local farmers grow food.

The El Paso area faces considerable challenges with respect to encouraging waste diversion, Garza said.

The cost to bury waste here—where land is relatively abundant—is cheaper than on the east coast, where cities often have more robust composting programs. Cheap land tends to deflate the political will it might take to put such programs in place.

Nevertheless, from an economic perspective, there is still good reason to consider diverting as much material from local landfills as possible.

“This helps reduce costs because it delays the need to construct landfill cells,” Garza wrote. For Huerta, the benefits of composting go beyond economics.“I love everything about nature—the trees and soil and plants—and I’ve always liked physical work,” he said. “The notion that this is something positive and constructive—that’s what drives me. It’s a win-win for everybody: for the community and for the environment.”

***

Editor’s Note: Green in the Desert is a new column exploring sustainability and conservation efforts in the El Paso/Juarez area.  Previous Columns can be read HERE.

Writer Chilton Tippin is project manager and communications coordinator for Wondor Eco:Nomics. He likes to write, bike, ski, climb and explore. In 2015, he walked across America.

Green in the Desert: El Paso Startup Wondor Eco:Nomics Invests in Green Economy

Most days, J.W. Rogers plants earbuds in his ears, fires up a podcast and makes the 30-minute walk to his offices in downtown El Paso. He avoids driving as much as possible, partly because he loathes traffic and enjoys a stroll, but also because he’s trying to “walk the walk.”

Car culture, he’s often told me, borders on insanity: “Why do we get into these 4,000-pound machines, waste our time in traffic and pump all these carbons into the atmosphere? I mean, walking is fun. It’s good for you. It gives you time to think.”

Walking is also a useful anecdote to explain the work Rogers has undertaken since coming back to El Paso. On the one hand, it would be nice for Americans to commit to cleaner, healthier transportation. On the other, he’s realistic enough to understand such a widespread change is unlikely to happen overnight.

Instead, he takes action where he can, one step at a time—all the while looking for ways to subtly influence the world and people around him.

A Green Incubator

“Everything’s always tougher in the desert. If you can do it here, you can do it anywhere.” J.W. Rogers, Wondor Eco:Nomics founder

Rogers and I are best friends and business partners. In 2016, we started Wondor Eco:Nomics, an El Paso-based green business incubator.

“We provide a variety of services to local green businesses,” Rogers said, “to help them get networked into the community, refine their business practices, and expand their clientele.”

Rogers moved back to El Paso from New York City in 2015 and brought with him a goal of creating a more resilient local community.

For one, that meant strengthening social bonds in a borderlands area often characterized by polarization.

Beyond that, he hoped to cultivate in El Pasoans a respect for the physical place we call home—an understanding that the land itself sustains us, and that we should, in turn, help sustain it.

“Modern science is giving us a deeper awareness of our intimate connection to this planet,” he said. “In the recent past, we felt ourselves as separate from nature. Now, we’re looping back into realizing we are a part of the ecology—even our bodies themselves are micro-ecosystems—and we have the power to act symbiotically with the rest of the world, and, in that way, we’re an important factor of the diversity on the planet.”

Out of this ethos, Wondor Eco:Nomics was born. For the first half of 2016, Rogers and I hit the pavement. We visited farmers markets, school gardening projects and volunteered at La Semilla Food Center, clipping spinach and turning compost.

Monica Riehl, VP of business development at Wondor Eco:Nomics, picks lemon cucumbers during her Wednesday visit at Taylor Hood Farms.

Sundays found us planting trees at Tierra es Vida, a neighborhood farm run by La Mujer Obrera, a social organization dedicated to building communities defined by women.

At home, we began composting, gardening and building a rainwater-harvesting system (a technique for which we’re bringing a certification course to El Paso this February.)

Along the way, we met scientists and hippies, cowboys and farm workers, environmentalists and Native Americans alike—all of whom share a common concern for the land itself, for the places and the landscapes we call home.

In those six months, I spent more time digging holes and rolling around in dirt than in all the previous months of my life combined. Rogers described this period as “chaotic.”

“There was no real good blueprint,” he said. “It was pretty whimsical. We just kind of jumped into the mud with these guys and gave it a shot.”

But by keeping open minds, and by taking the time to survey the landscape, we discovered people and practices we never would have known.

“We learned there was an eclectic, intelligent community of people who were already pushing forward with all of these green concepts and techniques,” Rogers said. “I wouldn’t have to be at the forefront of these ideas; I was jumping into a system that was already in place.”

The ‘three pillars’ of Ecology

Often, when we were hoeing rows for corn, or washing and weighing bags of lettuce, Rogers would talk to me about what he called “the three pillars” of society and ecology. He was trying to work out a concept that took into account the relationship between people and the biota—in other words, the land and its associated organisms.

The three pillars refer to food, water, and waste, he explained. In each area, our community faces considerable challenges. Very little of our food, for example, is grown locally, and many residents lack healthy food options.

Wondor Eco:Nomics team members Carolina Franco (foreground) and Hillary Dudley (background) participate in a meeting Tuesday at the Wondor Eco:Nomics offices in downtown El Paso.

Likewise, El Paso is behind other communities of similar size with respect to how we handle organic waste. Rather than reusing such products as food scraps to rebuild healthy soils, we dispose of them in landfills, where they emit harmful methane into the atmosphere.

As for water, our growing population and water-intensive agricultural industries are over-tapping the desert’s natural sources. For this reason, the El Paso Water utility expects to spend roughly $600 million on land purchases and pipeline infrastructure to import water from ranches around Dell City—nearly 100 miles away.

But in each of these challenges, Rogers sees opportunity. “With food, water and rethinking what waste is, I think we can dramatically affect the place where we live, and the society we involve ourselves in,” he said.

Introducing the ‘Green in the Desert’ Series

To that end, Wondor Eco:Nomics initially partnered with three local businesses. In each instance, these entrepreneurs devised novel solutions to pressing environmental problems at hand. And that’s what this Green in the Desert series is all about.

In the next articles, we’ll meet Shahid Mustafa, a local organic farmer whose mission is to sink carbon back into the ground while feeding residents local food and educating them as to its value.

We’ll meet Carlos Huerta, a composting professional who turns organic waste into a resource for the benefit of the valley’s soils and croplands. And we’ll visit Mike “Cactusman” Gaglio, who salvages native plants from destruction while converting the desert’s scant rain into an abundant resource, a practice with the power to reduce the city’s water consumption and alleviate damage from flooding.

Rogers has realistic hopes for these projects. He knows that one man walking each day is not going to overturn immense problems like climate change and global warming. But it does have a practical effect, however infinitesimal, and the wider impact inheres in such an action’s symbolic power, in the fact that one man walking might inspire another to do the same.

In that vein, Rogers believes local people, acting individually and together, are the key to unlocking the desert’s regeneration.

“El Paso is in a very unique position,” he said, “being a border community, being right on the Rio Grande, being the biggest city [along with Juarez] on the Rio Bravo Watershed. There’s a lot of potential here to show the world at large that a desert community with 9-inches of rain a year can redirect the course of where it thinks it belongs as a city—as a place.”

“Everything’s always tougher in the desert. If you can do it here, you can do it anywhere.”

***

Editor’s Note: Green in the Desert is a new column exploring sustainability and conservation efforts in the El Paso/Juarez area.

Writer Chilton Tippin is project manager and communications coordinator for Wondor Eco:Nomics. He likes to write, bike, ski, climb and explore. In 2015, he walked across America.

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